Murphy's law was the rule of order for Arizona Wildcats football in 2016: What can go wrong, probably will.
A smattering of injuries sustained early in the season — and repeatedly over the course of the campaign — doomed the Wildcats to a 3-9 finish, the program's worst finish since 2005. And yet, it still could have been worse. A surprising rout of rival Arizona State to cap the year ensured Arizona would avoid its first winless conference slate in more than seven decades.
After ending 2016 with a win over an in-state opponent, Arizona seeks to open its 2017 season in similar fashion. Arizona and Arizona State host FCS counterpart Northern Arizona in alternating years, and the results are pretty typical. A solid squad and potential Big Sky Conference contender this season, NAU's best hope to win over the Wildcats for the first time in decades could be named Murphy — if 2017 is anything like 2016.
Northern Arizona at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 2 at 11 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Three Things to Watch
1. Run game depth
A big byproduct of Arizona healing up in the offseason is deploying the deepest and perhaps the best rushing attack the Wildcats have had in Rich Rodriguez's tenure. UA returns Nick Wilson, a breakout star in 2014 who was hampered the last two seasons. Also returning from injury is J.J. Taylor, a dynamo through three of Arizona's initial games last season — including against Washington — before going down for the season.
Those two will play together for the first time alongside Brandon Dawkins, the nation's third-most prolific rushing quarterback a season ago. Add highly touted recruit Nathan Tilford, and the Wildcats have a number of options with which to proceed on the ground.
2. Year 2 of Marcel Yates' defense
Rodriguez split with longtime assistant Jeff Casteel after a disastrous 2015 season in which the Wildcats allowed close to 36 points per game. Former Boise State defensive coordinator Marcel Yates came aboard with plans of reintroducing a 52-base scheme, similar to that which defined Arizona in its Desert Swarm era of the 1990s.
The dramatic departure from the speed-based 3-3-5 odd stack became an issue, particularly on the defensive line.
Despite its struggles a season ago, Arizona should not have issue with Northern Arizona. The biggest key for the Wildcats will be keeping everyone healthy.
In Week 1 two years ago, All-American linebacker Scooby Wright sustained a near season-ending injury against UTSA. The Wildcats' inability to put the Roadrunners away early had Wright on the field deep into the game when he went down.
Keeping the Lumberjacks from hanging around is crucial, and after the last two seasons, expect that understanding to come through in Rodriguez's approach.
Arizona needs to bounce back in a big way in 2017. With a talented Houston team coming to Tucson in Week 2, and Utah marking the Pac-12 opener two weeks later, the Wildcats need to start that process off strong with NAU.
The Lumberjacks rush defense was solid last season, holding opponents to 4.2 yards per carry. Arizona needs to test that early and build a big lead before halftime. Defensively, this is the ideal opponent against which to establish a more positive tone after struggling mightily the last two seasons.