With the start of the Pac-12 football season just weeks away, there are some questions yet to be answered about the University of Arizona football team.
One question mark hanging over the program looms large: How difficult is it going to be for Kevin Sumlin to hold on to his job as head coach?
A single fact points out the depth of that challenge. Sumlin, who has posted losing records in the two years he has been leading the program, will be going into battle this season with a team ranked last in the preseason Pac-12 media poll.
How’s that for a challenge?
After a delayed start to the season, thanks to the coronavirus outbreak, Arizona opens a shortened six-game schedule on Nov. 7 against Utah, a team that has won the last four match-ups, including a 35-7 thumping of the Wildcats last season.
Just to add a degree of difficulty, the game will be played in Salt Lake City.
And Sumlin won’t have any non-conference patsies to pad his won-loss record since the abbreviated schedule will include only conference games.
The Wildcats were awarded 57 points in the media poll that came out a couple of weeks ago, the lowest point total of all 12 teams, as they begin in the basement of the South Division. USC, which was picked to win the division, collected 220 points.
More bad news: Arizona will host the Trojans in the second game on the schedule.
There are a number of reasons the Cats have such low expectations. Top of that list is the fact that they will be without starting quarterback Kahlil Tate, the only player in program history to throw for over 6,000 career yards and rush for another 2,000 yards. Tate set a new FBS single-season rushing record for a quarterback in his sophomore year, running for 327 yards against UCLA. He wasn’t picked up in the NFL draft, but has hitched a ride as a free agent with the Philadelphia Eagles, who will try him at wide receiver.
On the other side of the ball, the Arizona defense is expected to be an even bigger handicap this season. The Cats finished in 10th place in the conference in defending the pass, and last in total defense last season. Ranked 118th in the nation in total team defense in 2019, there were just 12 teams in the entire country with a worse defense.
A defense that was thin at several key positions was further watered down in the offseason when the Cats lost four of their best linebackers to transfers; a fifth just walked away from the program. This year’s squad will enter the season with just six healthy scholarship players at that key position.
It was apparent early last season that there were major problems with the defense, so Sumlin took the unusual measure of beginning to revamp his defensive coaching staff long before the season ended. He fired his defensive coordinator, Marcel Yates, with four games to play, and then followed up in the next couple of weeks by dismissing his linebackers coach and defensive line coach.
It wasn’t much help. The Cats lost their final seven games of the 2019 season — including a second straight loss to rival Arizona State.
Sumlin isn’t exuding much confidence going into his make-or-break season. In June, Athlon Sports put out its offseason rankings that had the third-year coach rated as the 11-best coach in the Pac-12. The other ranking services have also dropped him well down in position from a year ago.
His combined record for two seasons is 9-15, with just two conference wins last year.
Sumlin isn’t getting the love. His team isn’t getting the respect.
And the only way to change that is start stacking up some wins and woo back the fans who are leaving an increasing number of seats empty in Arizona Stadium.
If there’s one thing that will get a coach fired quickly, it’s loss of revenue at the gate.
Just one more thing Sumlin has working against him this season.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)