Arizona football coach Rich Rodriguez joked Wednesday that he didn’t want to be reminded about not being successful against UCLA, USC and Arizona State in the Pac-12 South.
The feeling among the Pac-12 media is he’ll continue to struggle against the trio, given they are all picked ahead of the Wildcats in 2014 race. UA was picked fourth in the South.
It will be up to the Wildcats to prove them wrong. For all the success Rodriguez has enjoyed in his first two seasons in Tucson — back-to-back 8-5 seasons and a pair of bowl victories– the Wildcats are only 1-5 against the South’s leading trio (a victory over USC in Tucson in 2012) in that span.
"It’s not like I haven’t been asked, ‘when are you going to beat ASU?" Rodriguez said during Pac-12 Media Days in Los Angeles. "Trust me, I think about it every day. My answer is pretty simple: When we are better than them. And the truth is, we’ve got to get better than them to beat them."
Rodriguez added another truth: The Wildcats haven’t yet been good enough.
"They are not going to go backwards," he said. "And that’s the challenge … We’ve got to recruit better, coach better and we’ve got to play better. We have to have more improvement than they do to beat them."
And yet, Arizona has improved greatly under Rodriguez, many believing they’ve overachieved along the way. The next level, though, is what matters, and he believes they’re getting there.
"We are pretty excited about where we’re at and where we’re going," he said.
"Our players understand in our league, there is nobody we can go out and play poorly against and win."
That was the case last year, when the Wildcats lost at home to Washington State.
The problem has been consistency, senior safety Jared Tevis said.
"We need to have that energy and focus every time we play," he said. "There have been times in the past where we have let down in games, and we can’t let that happen this year."
Wide receiver Austin Hill, back from a severe ACL injury that had him sit out last season, said the Wildcats must avoid "living off the one (big) victory." Two years ago, they were crushed by UCLA following a big win over USC. Last year, the same happened against ASU following a monumental win over Oregon.
"We’re always living in the past rather than looking to the future," Hill said. "(Arizona) needs to play each game like it’s the only game we’re playing. That’s why we always had letdowns."
It’s that mindset, Hill said, that’s kept Arizona from being a 10-win, championship-caliber team.
To get to that level this fall will require some as-yet-unidentified performers to emerge as playmakers in Rodriguez’s uptempo offense. Four players are competing to replace B.J. Denker as starting quarterback, and Rodriguez has maintained he won’t know or say who his starting quarterback will be when UA faces UNLV on Aug. 29 in Arizona Stadium. And one might not emerge as the consistent starter until after the first two weeks of the season.
It’s a varied group that brings slightly different strengths to the position.
"The truth is I really don’t know," Rodriguez said."I may not know even by the first game. The good part is the talent is there. We will figure it out."
Rodriguez said he hopes to pare the competition down to "at least two guys" in the final week before camp ends.
Whoever wins the job will be working with one of the nation’s deepest and most talented receiving groups. Hill, Notre Dame transfer Da’Vonte Neal and Texas transfer Cayleb Jones join a group of returnees that includes freshman All-American Nate Phillips, Trey Griffey, David Richards, Samajie Grant and Johnny Jackson.
"It’s a problem we don’t worry about right now," Rodriguez said about playing a number of wide receivers. "Hopefully, they all stay healthy."
The other offensive key is finding a replacement for All-American running back Ka’Deem Carey. Neal could be part of a committee approach at this position, too, along with a variety of untested options.
"We will try to do some creative things," Rodriguez said.