Quarterback Khalil Tate emerged from relative obscurity in 2017 to captivate the nation. His dazzling ball carrying powered Arizona to a four-game winning streak, which included the Wildcats' first win over UCLA since 2011, and a rout of a top-15-ranked Washington State team that beat UA by more than 60 points just 11 months prior.
A late-season dip for the Wildcats and the surprise firing of Rich Rodriguez in January amid allegations of misconduct sent Arizona into the offseason with uncertainty, in what might otherwise be a promising 2018. UA returns a host of starters on both sides of the ball, and Tate's progression may well be the catalyst for Arizona's first divisional title since 2018 -- all that's missing is stability.
Kevin Sumlin's arrival as head coach provides that.
A winner at both Houston and Texas A&M, Sumlin also brings an impressive track record with quarterbacks that should bolster the motivated Tate. Offensive coordinator Noel Mazzonne also knows something about succeeding in the Pac-12 with dual-threat quarterbacks, having coached Brett Hundley at UCLA. The key for an Arizona team likely to put up big points is the maturation of the defense in Marcel Yates' third season as coordinator.
A host of youngsters, led by Tony Fields, Colin Schooler and Kylan Wilborn, gives Arizona the foundation, but the defense needs to make considerable strides overall if the Wildcats are to contend in the South.
Athlon Sports polled a few editors and college football contributors share their realistic win/loss projection for Sumlin's Wildcats in 2018.
Arizona Football Game-by-Game Predictions for 2018
Steven Lassan (@AthlonSteven)
Considering how wide open the Pac-12 South is, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Kevin Sumlin make a big splash in his first year in Tucson. Arizona’s schedule is favorable, as key contests against USC and Oregon take place at home, and this team won’t have to face Washington or Stanford from the North. And of course, Sumlin should be able to build a prolific offense around dynamic quarterback Khalil Tate. If Arizona is going to win the South in Sumlin’s first year, progress on defense is a must. This unit has made small gains under coordinator Marcel Yates and returns nine starters this fall. With a favorable schedule and a quarterback capable of carrying a team to a division title, the Wildcats certainly won’t lack for intrigue in Sumlin’s first year.
Mitch Light (@AthlonMitch)
Kevin Sumlin inherited one of the most exciting quarterbacks in the country in Khalil Tate and a very soft Pac-12 schedule that does not include games against Washington or Stanford. The non-conference trip to Houston (one of Sumlin's former schools) will be a tough test, but the Wildcats should head into the Sept. 29 showdown with USC without a loss. The most difficult stretch will be in October when Arizona plays at Utah and UCLA and hosts UCLA.
Bryan Fischer (@BryanDFischer)
Outside of maybe Joe Moorhead at Mississippi State, few new head coaches take over a team ready made to contend quite like Kevin Sumlin does in Tucson. He's got a Heisman candidate in Khalil Tate, an improving young defense with plenty of experience and a coaching staff that will be a breath of fresh air after Rich Rodriguez. That trip to Houston is going to be tricky but the Pac-12 South very well should come down to that game at Utah. I'm not quite sure the team can quite get to that point of making it to Santa Clara but the Wildcats will come very close.
Kyle Kensing (@kensing45)
Among the Pac-12's five new head coaches, Kevin Sumlin arguably inherits the situation most conducive to immediate success. Tate's explosiveness in the run game and cannon arm elicit positive comparison to former Sumlin quarterback Johnny Manziel. The run game has a nice mix in J.J. Taylor and Nathan Tilford, and the wide receiving corps features potential playmakers in Shun Brown, Shawn Poindexter and Tony Ellison.
The defense's progress is truly make-or-break for Arizona. The Wildcats could have taken command of the Pac-12 South last November, but after rallying to tie USC with eight minutes remaining, defensive miscues cost Arizona the game and the divisional lead. In that loss is a snapshot of the biggest hurdle UA faces. Despite having the firepower to lead the Pac-12 in points per game, winning shootouts week after week isn't a formula for sustained success.
(Kevin Sumlin photo by Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics, courtesy of arizonawildcats.com)