Football season long way off, but picks are out

It's still two months from the beginning of the college football season, and the preseason magazines have already begun to hit the newsstands.

You know, those ubiquitous, glossy publications which seem to take up so much space on the magazine racks. I almost couldn't find the latest issue of the Enquirer yesterday, there were so many.

And if these previews are to be trusted, Arizona might be in for a long season in 1995-96.

Most publications have the Wildcats finishing in the Pac-10's second division, a sub-.500 team. Few have Arizona included in their preseason Top 20 polls and no one is predicting they'll win the national title, as Sports Illustrated did last year.

I've always been wary of these magazines. Sure, they're fun to read on a road trip or between classes, but you can't take them too seriously.

Those knowledgeable about football, about sports in general, realize that there are simply too many factors which go into a football season to accurately predict what's going to happen.

Injuries. Coaching. Drug tests. NCAA rules compliance. Team chemistry. Fan support. Preseason training. Tangible or intangible, the variables which can impact a team's season are almost impossible to foresee.

But of course, that still doesn't stop these magazines (or myself) from indulging in a little speculation.

So, even though Camp Cochise (Arizona's preseason camp) doesn't begin until August 15, here's a look at what some publications are saying about next year's Wildcats, followed by my own assessment.

¨Athlon. One of the granddaddies of the genre, Athlon this year has Arizona finishing sixth in the Pac-10, behind Southern Cal, UCLA, Washington, California, and Oregon. The Wildcats are also missing from the magazine's Top 20 poll.

Like just about every other publication, Athlon lauds Arizona's defense for its past accomplishments and fingers senior All-American defensive lineman Tedy Bruschi as the heart of the defense.

And the numbers for the past couple years do not lie. In 1992 and last year, Arizona was second nationally in rushing defense, and in 1993 it was tops, giving up a mere 331 yards on the ground.

Even last year, when the Wildcats finished 8-4, Arizona ranked 10th in total defense, 11th in scoring defense.

While Bruschi and the rest of the defense gets praised, the offense is criticized for its lackluster performance in 1994-95.

Inconsistency is blamed for the Wildcat's poor finish in important national categories (56th nationally in scoring and rushing, 57th in total offense).

Of concern also to Athlon is the graduation of not only Ontiwaun Carter (1,163 yards last year), Arizona's career rushing yards leader, but also of every single offensive line starter.

And Steve McLaughlin, the Groza Award winner for the nation's top placekicker last year, is also gone. His loss, according to the publication, will take away what was probably the most potent offensive weapon Arizona had in 1994: McLaughlin's right foot.

Senior quarterback Dan White and junior wideout Richard Dice (who had 969 receiving yards and a Pac-10 best eight TD receptions) are two of only three offensive starters returning, and Athlon is not optimistic about its improvement.

¨Sporting News. The weekly sports newspaper's College Football Notebook has the Wildcats finishing not sixth, but second, in the league. The Wildcats are also picked No. 15 in the country.

Southern Cal is again picked to win, followed by Arizona, UCLA, Washington, and defending champs Oregon.

So what does the Sporting News see differently than Athlon? For one thing, White is given more credit. His impressive 16-5 record as a starter is mentioned, as is his pass completion percentage (57.1). That mark, set last season, is the second-best ever at Arizona.

Special teams will be a Wildcat strength, according to the Sporting News. The loss of McLaughlin is downplayed, mainly because of an incoming freshman named Mark McDonald. McDonald, from Santa Monica, was an All-American last year.

Gary and Cary, the Taylor twins, are praised for their kickoff return average, over 20 yards per attempt.

And the Sporting News mentions a fact other Pac-10 teams know all too well: over the past three years, none of Arizona's conference foes have compiled more wins (24).

¨Preview Sports College Football. Like Athlon, this magazine is not very impressed with Arizona's chances next year. The Wildcats are picked to finish seventh, behind everybody except Stanford, Oregon State and Arizona State. Southern Cal is again tabbed to win the conference.

Again, offense is the concern, and the Wildcats' inability to score last year (less than 20 points in half their games) leaves Preview Sports less than excited about this season.

Replacing eight offensive starters spells doom for the Wildcats, the magazine says, and the losses of Carter and McLaughlin are stressed. Arizona is picked to finish 5-6 for the season.

So, what to make of all these conflicting assertions? For starters, the Athlon and Preview Sports predictions are too low. Sixth? Seventh? No, that won't happen. It would take a monumental collapse, against several dismal teams, for the Wildcats to finish that low.

Just remember the two huge upsets those WAC teams (Colorado State and Utah) pulled last year; to think the Wildcats, with their defense, could wilt like that against five or six teams is ludicrous.

Concerns about the offense are valid, particularly the offensive line. Arizona's skill positions (quarterback, receiver, running back) should be well-manned, but replacing your center, guards, and tackles is a serious matter. Junior center Mani Ott is the only lineman returning with any experience.

Carter and McLaughlin will be missed, but not to a great extent. Junior Cary Taylor has shown flashes of brilliance, and Mark McDonald was an All-American.

And no one should underestimate the Dan-White-to-Richard-Dice connection. With some other receivers to distract attention from Dice, the two could have a banner year.

The defense, of course, has a rock-solid foundation in Bruschi and All-conference safety Brandon Sanders. But questions at cornerback and linebacker have to be answered first.

Stopping the run should not be a problem, as it hasn't been the past three years, but as Rob Johnson and the USC Trojans showed last year, the Wildcat secondary could use some improvement.

For this writer's money, a second or third place conference finish sounds reasonable. Southern Cal has risen fully from its ashes to again be in the Pac-10's elite, as has UCLA.

A few well-timed victories over at least one of the L.A. schools, coupled with wins over the conference's middle and lower tier teams, and it is possible the Wildcats could win the first Rose Bowl berth in school history.

No, Arizona won't finish sixth or seventh in the conference; they might even have a chance to win it.

But I'm not picking them No. 1. I'll Let Sports Illustrated make that prediction.

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