Arizona vs. BYU: Wildcats to host Cougars in Sumlin’s debut
After a tumultuous offseason, Arizona is set to get back on the field.
The Wildcats were one of the most improved teams in college football in 2017, jumping from three wins the previous season to seven last year. Despite the improvement, head coach Rich Rodriguez was fired in January after sexual misconduct allegations.
Now, Arizona brings in an offensive mind in new head coach Kevin Sumlin to go along with dual-threat quarterback Khalil Tate. Tate, one of the most dynamic players in college football, is a preseason Heisman candidate following a big second half of the season last year.
The team enters the season with high hopes, and Sumlin said the excitement can be felt around the University of Arizona campus.
“Our guys are excited, and I think our students are excited,” Sumlin said. “Our students are fired up, and you can really feel it on campus.”
Arizona begins the 2018 season with a home test against a BYU team that struggled mightily a year ago. These teams played to open the 2016 season just two years ago, but a lot has changed since then.
What: BYU vs. Arizona
When: 7:45 p.m.
TV/Radio: ESPN, Arizona IMG Sports Network
Storylines to follow
Can BYU’s front seven stop Khalil Tate?
Khalil Tate came alive as one of the toughest players to stop in college football last year, accumulating more than 3,000 total yards in just eight starts. Typically, BYU has a top 40 defense, but last year, it placed 48th overall in yards per game, failing to stop dual-threat quarterbacks.
The Cougars’ defense wasn’t horrible, holding opponents under 21 points seven times last year, but it didn’t live up to the expectations of prior teams. BYU’s defense will only be improved from last year, for the Cougars return several key defensive pieces, including Khyiris Tonga and Sione Takitaki.
Has BYU figured the QB situation out?
Last year, BYU couldn’t do what they’re known for — pass. Tanner Mangum struggled before his season-ending injury, and his replacements were just as dismal in his absence. BYU’s quarterbacks combined for 2,530 yards last year, which was 90th in the FBS.
Mangum was recently named the starting quarterback for week one, and he starts the season against an Arizona defense that finished last in the Pac-12 in passing yards allowed per game last year. He played well his freshman season in 2015, throwing for over 3,000 yards and shattering multiple BYU freshman records but saw minimal playing time when he was named the backup to Taysom Hill in 2016.
Mangum, who signed his letter of intent in 2012, is one of the oldest players in college football, and Sumlin said his experience is an advantage.
“I remember the first year Tanner, their quarterback, started playing was a long time ago and it was,” Sumlin said. “He’s an experienced guy, and that’s just part of it. We prepare for everybody just about the same and worry more about where we are and what we’re doing.”
Much of BYU’s potential success this year depends on which Tanner Mangum shows up.
How will Tate perform under Mazzone?
Following the hire of Sumlin, Arizona also selected former ASU, Texas A&M and UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone as the offensive coordinator.
At his previous stops, Mazzone has been somewhat consistent with his offenses, placing between 20th and 34th nationally in scoring in seven of his eight seasons as an offensive coordinator. Also, Mazzone’s teams have ranked between 22nd and 38th in total offense seven of his eight seasons as an offensive coordinator.
Sure, these stats don’t give fans hope that the Wildcats will have a top 10 offense, but this year’s Arizona team has something Mazzone’s previous teams haven’t had — Khalil Tate.
Will Arizona’s O-line protect Tate?
The Wildcats had one of the best offensive lines in the Pac-12 last year, but that unit lost three starters. In spite of this, the unit was still expected to be strong, returning All-Pac-12 center Nathan Eldridge and starting tackle Layth Friekh.
Friekh is suspended for the first two games of the year, and Eldridge tweaked his knee in practice and is questionable for the opener. If Eldridge doesn’t start at center, Tate may be scrambling for his life against the Cougars.
QB Khalil Tate
In the big picture, Tate is the biggest factor to Arizona’s success this season, and he is looking to resume right where he left off. The last time Sumlin took over a program, Johnny Manziel won the Heisman in his first year. Tate has drawn comparisons to the former Aggie, and if he is even remotely close to as successful as Manziel this year, it will be a success.
BYU’s defense will have to expose Arizona’s depleted offensive line if they want to stop Tate.
RB Squally Canada
In the midst of BYU’s horrid quarterback play last year, Squally Canada made a name for himself. After minimal playing time in the Cougars’ first few games, Canada made the most of his reps, rushing for 710 yards and 5.9 per carry.
Because it is unknown how well Mangum has recovered from his torn achilles, it is important that Canada continues his production from last year.
LB Sione Takitaki
One of the few bright spots from last year’s BYU team was Sione Takitaki’s contribution at defensive end. He led the team in tackles for loss with 12.5, but this year, he will move back to linebacker.
If Takitaki and the rest of the Cougar front seven can expose Arizona’s beaten up line, the game could become more intriguing.