College Football Countdown: No. 54 Arizona

The Orlando Sentinel has ranked all 120 Football Bowl Subdivision teams in the country. The Sentinel staff will take a closer look at a new team daily, counting backward from No. 120 to our projected No. 1 team. We will not be including the four teams the NCAA lists as still reclassifying to the Football Bowl Subdivision level.

Today at No. 54: Arizona

Coach: Rich Rodriguez (0-0, first season; 75-48 overall)

2011 record: 4-8 (2-7 in Pac-12 Conference, tied for fifth)

Look back: The programmed saw marked improvements under Mike Stoops. To go from a 3-8 season in 2004 to back-to-back 8-5 seasons in 2008 and 2009, things were looking up in Tucson. However those improvements where short-lived as the Wildcats stumbled to 7-5 in 2010 and opened last season with a 1-5 record before finishing 4-8. Looking to go a different direction, the school fired Stoops in mid-season and in the offseason, hired former West Virginia and Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez.

Offensive starters lost/returning: 5/6

Defensive starters lost/returning: 5/7

Key losses: QB Nick Foles, WR Juron Criner, WR David Douglas, WR Gino Crump, LB Derek Earls

Top returnees: HB Taimi Tutogi, CB Shaquille Richardson, LB Jake Fischer, DT Sione Tuihalamaka

Strengths: While the offense loses a multitude of skilled position players – including quarterback Nick Foles – the strength of the unit looks to be the offensive line which returns the entire squad. Tackles Mickey Baucus and Fabbians Ebbele along with center Kyle Quinn will provide stability on the line. Rodriguez spent most of the spring installing his spread option offense and working with quarterback Matt Scott to have him up to spread when the season kicks off. Scott, a senior, has only started five games and was limited by injury which forced him to be redshirted last season. His development will be key to the Wildcats offensive success. Joining Scott in the backfield will be running backs K’Deem Carey and Greg Nowko as well as Taimi Tutogi. Carey is expected to fill the void left by Keola Antolin.

Weaknesses: Thanks to graduation, Arizona losses close to 70 percent of its receiving production. Leading receiver Juron Criner is gone as well as David Douglas and Gino Crump. Dan Buckner will be called upon to step up and become Scott’s main target.  The defense, which was one of the worst, gave up 35.4 points per game last season. To help get the unit back on track, Rodriguez enlisted the help of West Virginia defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel. Casteel will rely on linebacker Jake Fischer to help lead his new scheme this season. Fischer spent part of last season out with a torn ACL but is expected to be back to full strength in the fall.

Outlook: Rodriguez has a lot to prove after the way things ended at Michigan. Known as an offensive guru, RichRod never fully embraced the Michigan way and in turn, Michigan never fully embraced him. That shouldn’t be the case in Tucson, where the spotlight won’t be as harsh as it was in Morgantown or Ann Arbor. Which will be good for the first couple of seasons as he begins the process of transforming the Wildcats programs into his vision. He will need time to get the right type of players into his system but just how much time will be the big question.

2012 Schedule

Sept. 1 Toledo

Sept. 8 Oklahoma State

Sept. 15 South Carolina State

Sept. 22 at Oregon

Sept. 29 Oregon State

Oct. 6 at Stanford

Oct. 20 Washington

Oct. 27 USC

Nov. 3 at UCLA

Nov. 10 Colorado

Nov. 17 at Utah

Nov. 23 Arizona State

Rest of the countdown:

No. 55 BYU

No. 56 Ohio

No. 57 Temple

No. 58 Purdue

No. 59 Arkansas State

No. 60 Vanderbilt

No. 61 Connecticut

No. 62 Arizona State

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