Would anyone have guessed heading into the 2019 season that on Oct. 12, Washington would be two games back in the Pac-12 North race, while Arizona would hold sole possession of first place in the South? While it's a small sample size, the first half of the season and the early part of conference play have been wildly unpredictable. And that brings us to the Sonoran Desert.
Arizona has won four straight, including wins over Texas Tech, UCLA and Colorado by 11, three and five points, respectively. Close games are the norm for the Wildcats this season, and Washington's last two visits to Tucson have produced tight contests as well. UA won on a field goal in 2014, and UW scored its first win in the state of Arizona since 2006 with an overtime defeat of UA in 2016.
The Huskies suffered their second loss in Pac-12 play last week at Stanford. Their Pac-12 championship hopes aren't dead, but a third loss would all but eliminate them heading into the back half of the campaign.
Washington at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 12 at 11 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington -6.5
When Washington Has the Ball
Washington's offense this season might be the most up-and-down unit in all of college football. Quarterback Jacob Eason's big arm has been a game-changer at times, adding dangerous deep-ball explosiveness behind a physically imposing run game. In the losses to Cal and Stanford, though, Eason had his two lowest completion percentages (60 and 44.4) with one total touchdown to two interceptions.
Arizona's pass defense ranks No. 11 in the conference, allowing 337 yards per game. The Wildcats have faced four pass-heavy offenses, most notably Hawaii (No. 4 nationally with 356.8 passing yards per game); Texas Tech (No. 12 at 314); and Colorado (No. 23, 300.2), and they have leveraged the high volume of attempts into takeaways. Last week's win at Colorado marked UA's first contest without an interception this season.
Washington must establish the run behind a big, physical offensive line and a deep rotation of ball-carriers. That rotation does take a hit with Richard Newton's injury against Stanford, though. That means getting Salvon Ahmed more touches. Ahmed was electric in a Sept. 28 win over USC, but he saw just six carries at Stanford.
When Arizona Has the Ball
Quarterback Khalil Tate missed the Sept. 28 win over UCLA due to a tweaked hamstring, but he showed no ill effects in his return at Colorado. Although not rushing at the same record-setting pace he set two years ago, Tate has been dangerous with his feet (261 rushing yards at a 7.25 per-carry clip, two touchdowns) while passing more effectively than ever before in his career. Tate is completing nearly 68 percent of his attempts, averaging 9.1 yards per attempt, and is coming off a personal-best 404-yard outing.
Of course, Tate's ability to spring big plays sometimes causes him to force the issue. If Washington can bring pressure, interceptions are there to be had.
Although Arizona has a reputation as a running team — and comes into Saturday night's matchup ranked second in the Pac-12 at 221 yards per game — the Wildcats have not broken 100 in either conference game. It's no coincidence that the team has been without J.J. Taylor for all but a drive in both of those games. His status for Saturday is uncertain. Power back Gary Brightwell has been solid, averaging 6.5 yards per carry and posting a team-high four touchdowns. But with Taylor's availability unknown and Bam Smith dealing with some dings, the run game is facing some uncertainty.
Last season, Washington defensive coordinator Jimmy Lake often withheld the blitz and let his defense sit back. The result was the nation's best numbers against the pass. Perhaps the Huskies will attempt to make Arizona a passing team in the same way that both UCLA and Colorado approached the Wildcats.
The Huskies looked like a College Football Playoff contender on paper heading into the season, but now, after two conference losses, vying for the Pac-12 title will require some breaks. Washington won't be lacking for motivation on Saturday coming off the Stanford loss, but neither will Arizona, as it aims to prove itself a legitimate contender in the South.
Arizona's defense has made massive strides since the first two games. The Wildcats offensive line is quietly one of the best in the Pac-12. If it comes down to the fourth quarter, Arizona has proven its mettle in the final stanza so far this season. Expect another thriller late into the night in Tucson, coming down to the final possession.
Prediction: Arizona 28, Washington 27
— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.