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Arizona Football: Ranking the Toughest Games on Their Schedule


New Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin arrives in Tucson with pieces in place that could combine for a breakout season. Arizona exceeded most expectations in 2017, at one point reaching the Top 25 en route to a winning record. Primary among the contributors, and leader of the 2018 Wildcats, quarterback Khalil Tate generated national buzz with his dual-threat playmaking.

Arizona Wildcats QB Khalil Tate

Tate paces Arizona into a new era. The Wildcats face a manageable slate in 2018, avoiding Pac-12 North heavyweights Stanford and Washington. The Wildcats also have more home games in Pac-12 play than road as a result of the conference's uneven schedule.

With experience on an improved defense and the talented Tate guiding the offense, Arizona can make noise in Sumlin's debut campaign.

12. Sept. 15 vs. Southern Utah

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Football Championship Subdivision program Southern Utah makes the trek south from Cedar City to Tucson in Arizona's final non-conference game. The Thunderbirds won the Big Sky Conference and reached the second round of the FCS playoffs a season ago, employing a balanced, prolific offensive attack. An Arizona defense still cultivating its identity under coordinator Marcel Yates will have to contend with the running back duo of Jay Green and James Felila, but the Wildcats should have a distinct advantage all the same.

11. Sept. 22 at Oregon State

The Tate Express was rolling when Oregon State visited Tucson last November, and Arizona avenged one of its uglier losses in an all-together brutal 2016 with a blowout to compound the Beavers' own struggles. Oregon State is the first of four opponents on Arizona's schedule with first-year head coaches, and Jonathan Smith has a most cumbersome Year 1 endeavor of the bunch.

College football rankings: Oregon State

Still, Arizona is seeking its first win in Corvallis since 2009. Strange things can happen in Reser Stadium.

10. Sept. 1 vs. BYU

A last-second field goal pushed BYU past Arizona in Week 1 of the 2016 season, marking the first of nine losses for the Wildcats in that campaign. The programs' roles were reversed in 2017, with Arizona rebounding for its fifth winning season in six years, while BYU suffered its first sub-.500 finish since 2004.

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Offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes seeks to reinvent the BYU offense, which last year ranked No. 124 in the FBS in points scored.

9. Oct. 6 vs. Cal

Arizona's visit to Berkeley last October produced some magic -- that's been a pretty consistent between these programs in recent meetings, actually. Before Arizona's 45-44 overtime win, the last encounter ended with Austin Hill bringing in a game-winning, Hail Mary from Anu Solomon. In 2013, Arizona escaped with a 33-28 victory.

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The 2018 edition could be just as contentious. Second-year Golden Bears head coach Justin Wilcox exceeded expectations in his debut campaign, and the Golden Bears have the pieces to emerge as a dark horse in 2018.

8. Nov. 2 vs. Colorado

A late hit on quarterback Brandon Dawkins last October proved fateful not just for Colorado, but for Arizona, as well. Tate stepped in at quarterback on that initial drive, and set a quarterback rushing record in Arizona's narrow defeat of the Buffaloes in Boulder.

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Perhaps lost in Tate's star turn was that Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay racked up yards and scores at a torrid pace himself. Lindsay's gone, but Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian could give the Arizona defense similar fits. The Buffs will look to make a statement in Tucson heading into the season's final month.

7. Nov. 24 vs. Arizona State

Of all the nation's rivalries, Arizona and Arizona State might have one of the most acrimonious. The Duel in the Desert to award the Territorial Cup -- college football's oldest rivalry trophy -- does not have the historic stakes of Michigan-Ohio State or Alabama-Auburn. However, the bitterness between fan bases makes this one of the most intense rivalries anywhere in the country.

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In 2018, the series adds a new chapter with cultural importance. First-year head coaches Sumlin and Herm Edwards are the first black head coaches for either program.

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As far as the on-field outlook, Tate and Arizona State's Manny Wilkins are two of the most promising quarterbacks the Pac-12 has to offer in the coming season.

6. Oct. 27 vs. Oregon

After a penalty-plagued encounter last November, Arizona will be out for revenge when Oregon comes to Tucson in 2018. This marks the Ducks' first visit to Tucson since Ka'Deem Carey led a blowout of Oregon in 2013, the first in back-to-back wins for the Wildcats. Oregon since claimed the last two meetings.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: Oregon

Should all go according to plan, all eyes will be on the quarterbacks. Oregon's Justin Herbert is a potential No. 1 overall draft pick next spring, and a dark-horse contender for the Heisman Trophy.

5. Oct. 20 at UCLA

Chip Kelly had Arizona's number in his tenure at Oregon, beating the Wildcats in every meeting from 2009-12. The Ducks' average margin of victory in the 2010, '11 and '12 encounters was 31 points, with Oregon scoring a combined 153 points. However, an overtime Oregon win in 2009 might induce more headaches among Arizona faithful than any of the blowouts, as the Ducks' end-of-game rally to force overtime and subsequent victory denied Arizona its first-ever Rose Bowl -- a milestone the program is still chasing.

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Arizona has a track record for missteps when it comes to the Rose Bowl, referring both to the Game and the Stadium. UA hasn't won a game at the former in its last three tries, and it visits the hallowed Pasadena grounds deep enough into the season that the Bruins should be acclimated to Kelly's scheme.

4. Sept. 8 at Houston

Sumlin capitalized on his first head-coaching opportunity, building onto a solid foundation at Houston and returning the former Southwest Conference powerhouse to some national prominence. In his last season at UH, Sumlin had a Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback in Case Keenum, and the Cougars came within one game of crashing the BCS party.

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Sumlin returns to his old stomping grounds in just his second game as Arizona head coach, with a Heisman candidate quarterback donning the visitors' uniforms this time. However, Houston welcomes its old coach back with a Heisman-caliber playmaker on the other side of the ball, Ed Oliver. The imposing defensive tackle leads a stacked Cougars defense, hungry to shut Arizona down just as it did in a win at Arizona Stadium last year.

3. Nov. 17 at Washington State

The low point of Arizona's dismal 2016 came in a November visit to Washington State. The Cougars blasted the Wildcats, 69-7, marking UA's worst loss since the 1940s. Arizona gained revenge last October with a blowout win, which knocked Washington State out of the top 15 and off its perch atop the Pac-12 North. All that translates to the Cougars this time having payback in mind.

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Washington State's undergoing considerable roster change heading into 2018. Maintaining the high standard set with nine-win campaigns in each of the last three seasons will be a tall order, but Arizona draws the Cougars deep into the schedule. The team's identity should be fleshed out by this point.

2. Oct. 12 at Utah

Utah's physically imposing style stands in stark contrast to the up-tempo brand of football Arizona's employed in recent years. After losing every meeting from 2012-15 -- including a heartbreaker in that final matchup to deny the Utes a shot at the Pac-12 Championship Game -- Utah's claimed the last two.

NCAAF Top 25 Rankings: Utah

The Utes can make it three straight on a Friday night early in the campaign. Rice-Eccles Stadium will be loud for the arrival of Tate and Co. The quick turnaround from facing a physical Cal team six days later could compound the difficulty of drawing Utah's hard-hitting defense.

1. Sept. 29 vs. USC

Past results don't necessarily impact the future when players and coaches change. However, no program has had Arizona pegged quite like USC. The Trojans are 33-8 all-time against the Wildcats, last year riding a stifling first-half performance and pair of late touchdowns to hold off a UA rally in the Coliseum.

College Football Top 25 Rankings: USC

The Trojans combat Arizona's explosive offense in the coming campaign with one of the most talented defenses in the country. USC welcomes back leader Cameron Smith, and defensive end Porter Gustin -- sidelined against UA a season ago -- will aim to chase down Tate on every single snap.

For a September game, this one carries particular gravity for the Wildcats. A win would propel them to front-running status in the Pac-12 South.

-- Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.

(Top photo by Stan Liu/Arizona Athletics, courtesy of