By Eric Wein
Arizona Daily Wildcat
As dawn breaks, sunlight first begins to shine down on the field at the world-famous stadium which sits barren. The team names and school colors are already painted into the end zone grass.
The jerseys are folded, with a rose patch sewn on the shoulder of each.
The bands, horses and floats are lined up awaiting their march east along Colorado Boulevard.
This is New Year's Day, Pasadena style. This is a party the University of Arizona has never been invited to.
Twenty-one teams are eligible for a Rose Bowl berth this season and 20 have already been there. Arizona is the lone exception.
For the 17th straight year since Arizona joined the Pac-10 in 1978, the Wildcats enter the season hoping for their first Rose Bowl berth.
Even Penn State, which just began playing in the Big Ten last year, and Atlantic Coast Conference opponent Georgia Tech were in the Rose Bowl way back when, before the current formula was intact.
Despite sharing the Pac-10 championship with UCLA and USC last year, the Wildcats were seeded third in the formula to decide who would advance to the prestigious bowl. By virtue of two losses Ä one of which came against UCLA, the Wildcats were eliminated before the last game of the season, allowing the two Los Angeles schools to decide who would make the short trip to Pasadena. Still, Arizona was arguably the Pac-10's best team when it left the field on Jan. 1.
"A lot of people thought we had a real successful year last year," right guard Warner Smith said. "We ended well but we didn't end the way we wanted to. We were just teased and it made us hungrier."
Having gotten more respect in this preseason, the Wildcats are hoping for glory after the season ends. They want to be in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 2 (when New Year's Day falls on a Sunday, it's moved back a day.)
The Wildcats have become media darlings before their season, getting praise from a wide variety of sources from all over the country.
"It doesn't matter because we still have to play. It probably makes you play better because it's going to make your opponents play better," Coach Dick Tomey said. "What I tell them is publicity is like poison, it doesn't hurt unless you swallow it."
For the Wildcats to go places this season, they will need good production from their offense. That offense is expected to resemble the one Arizona has used primarily in the past. Tomey said quarterback Dan White will throw fewer deep routes and more short, higher percentage passes. The run will still be emphasized.
"We're going to run the football," offensive coordinator Duane Akina said. "Some people like the finesse or the cute stuff. We like the physical part of the game. That's our identity and that's not something we want to lose."
The defense will hope to continue to build on what it has developed over the past two years. In close games, they hope to keep the score within the grasp of the offense. During two close games last season Ä against Stanford and Washington State Ä the Wildcats saw a last- second fumble fall into their hands and then an opponent's field goal sail wide. Arizona needs to be in games toward the end of the fourth quarter for realistic chances at winning.
"You have to play well enough so that when a break comes along, you have a chance to benefit from it," secondary coach Ted Williams said. "You have to keep the game within your grasp."
A national championship has made its rounds in discussions by people outside of the team. The seventh-ranked Wildcats begin the season several places back from pole position for a national championship in the two rankings that count Ä the Associated Press poll and the USA Today/CNN coaches poll.
For the Wildcats to garnish the national championship, they would probably have to go undefeated through the Pac-10. Tomey doesn't think any team can do that this year.
The other way for the UA to do it would be to knock off a highly-ranked traditional power and have one loss to a ranked opponent. Arizona's schedule, however, doesn't appear to have any potential top five teams.
Either way, the national championship is decided by voters when all 11 games and a bowl have been played. The UA can control its Rose Bowl fate with more ease by performing solidly in eight Pac-10 games. They don't have much influence on who votes for them.
The Wildcats are the clear-cut front-runners for the Rose Bowl this season. But Tomey is done grilling it into their heads. He shares the same philosophy as former Los Angeles Lakers coach and current Knicks coach Pat Riley.
"You have a stated goal that you're supposed to win the championship," Tomey said. "I remember talking with Pat Riley and asking him, 'When you won all those championships, did you talk about it all the time?' And he said, 'No, I talked about it once.' After he talked about it once, it's done. It's a stated objective and then you have to talk about how you're going to do it."
The Pac-10 is deep, talented and unpredictable. Stanford finished eighth last year after being touted as a possible front-runner before the season. And even the team that appears to be the best all season can falter in key games and thus lose its shot at one of the premier bowl bids.
"We're in a new era here," Tomey said. "There's a lot of teams that can beat each other. There are no bad teams. That's the unique thing about this league this year."
The Wildcats have never had the opportunity to run onto the Rose Bowl field in early January.
For the second straight season, this should be their chance.
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