Arizona football's offseason began with unusual tumult, as former head coach Rich Rodriguez — fresh off his fifth winning season in six with the Wildcats — was fired in January amid allegations of misconduct. But Rodriguez's departure led to the hiring of Kevin Sumlin, who had successful tenures at both Houston and Texas A&M, and was an innovative offensive mind as an assistant at Oklahoma.
Adding Sumlin's perspective with the return of quarterback Khalil Tate, a breakout star during the 2017 campaign, generated anticipation for the 2018 season. Then came Week 1, and the new era began with a thud.
Arizona's rally effort against BYU fell short, with the Wildcats dropping a 28-23 decision. The offense never clicked, and initial reactions feared the worst. Autumn has not yet arrived, but Arizona may head to Sumlin's old stomping grounds in Houston facing a must-win for the Wildcats' bowl aspirations.
Arizona at Houston
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 8 at 12 p.m. ET
Spread: Houston -4
Three Things to Watch
1. The old Tate
Kevin Sumlin told reporters this week the obvious: One of the primary failings in Arizona's offense against BYU was not using Khalil Tate in more zone-read situations. Tate passed 34 times, demonstrating offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's apparent desire to showcase more of the quarterback's arm, but rushed just six times.
Striking the right balance, and doing so earlier in the game — not after potentially falling in a hole, as happened to Arizona over the course of last week's third quarter — is vital to getting Tate rolling. In the same vein, the threat of Tate running should open lanes for J.J. Taylor, who was good in Week 1, if not a bit under-utilized.
2. Start early
Both Houston and Arizona struggled in one similar facet Week 1: starting slow. While the Wildcats failed to capitalize on a couple of early drives into BYU territory, resulting in just a three-point lead at halftime, Houston fell behind an overmatched Rice bunch early and had to rally.
Cougars quarterback D'Eriq King got cooking in the second half, which produced 28 Houston points. But the real difference was that Houston came out of halftime much more aggressive on defense. The Owls racked up 24 points by intermission, but just three after.
Despite its misfires in Week 1, Arizona is not the kind of opponent Houston wants to, nor can afford spotting 24 first-half points. With Heisman Trophy hopeful Ed Oliver keying the rush, the Cougars have to harass Tate early and often. And Oliver drawing double-teams and chip blocks can lead to opportunities for teammates like Isaiah Chambers, who got to the quarterback for three sacks vs. Rice.
3. Pivotal turnovers
Arizona was at its best a season ago when its defense forced takeaways. Not coincidentally, the Wildcats garnered no turnovers against BYU. Part of that was the Cougars' offensive line kept Arizona from generating consistent pressure on the quarterback.
Houston coughed up a pair of fumbles against Rice, which proved to be the only effective means of slowing the Cougars the Owls had. A few critical turnovers could mean the difference in what should be an evenly matched contest.
Valid concerns set in about Arizona's previously promising 2018 season after the slog of an opener. Week 1 of a new regime can bring some growing pains, however, and Khalil Tate's demonstrated his ability enough before for any panic button-pushing to be considered premature.
Still, Noel Mazzone and Kevin Sumlin must put him in better position to make plays — especially against the talented Houston defense. Everyone who follows college football evenly casually knows Ed Oliver by now, but the emergence of Isaiah Chambers as a sack machine last week shows the versatility of this Cougars defense.
One side of either Houston's defense or Arizona's offense (with a much different play-calling approach) will set the tone early. This is a huge potential bounce-back game for the Wildcats — and one they possibly need badly.