Entering the 2018 college football season, when No. 19 Oregon and Arizona each looked in the mirror, it would’ve been as if they were looking at one another.
Both teams were coming off disappointing 2017 seasons that led to head coaching changes. They each had a bonafide star at quarterback — Oregon’s Justin Herbert and Arizona’s Khalil Tate were both considered Heisman contenders to begin the season.
They had rebuilding defenses that were taking steps in the right direction, and they were both considered darkhorse candidates in their respective Pac-12 divisions.
But halfway through the season and the narrative couldn’t be more different for either squad.
The Ducks are one of the better teams in the nation, rising from the ashes of the past two years to reassert themselves as a Pac-12 contender in head coach Mario Cristobal’s first year.
Oregon (5-2, 2-2 Pac-12) went a combined 11-14 the past two seasons but so far under Cristobal, the Ducks are a fast and physical hybrid, beating teams in the trenches with power and on the outside with speed. He is Oregon’s third head coach in as many years, and it appears he has the Ducks on the fast track back to national relevancy.
Meanwhile, the Wildcats (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) are floundering under first-year head coach Kevin Sumlin, looking nothing like the South division darkhorse many were expecting them to be. After going 17-23 the over the past three seasons, Sumlin was brought in to attract big-time recruits and get Arizona back in the national spotlight, things he has failed to do thus far.
The contrast in styles and expectations is why Saturday’s matchup should be an intriguing one. Not only does it feature two teams going in opposite directions, the game is primed for the conference’s “Pac-12-After-Dark” theme, with kickoff being at 7:30 p.m. in Tucson.
“I know the types of problems that he poses for opponents and he has a great feel for the game,” Cristobal said of Sumlin. “He creates mismatches. He creates air and space for athletes to make plays and they certainly have a lot of athletes.”
“We're trying to beat the next opponent and the next opponent is very, very talented,” Sumlin said of Oregon. “Their quarterback is extremely talented, a lot of special players around him… they have a secondary that's probably as good as there is around — just a very talented team.”
Oregon suffered a setback last week when it fell behind 27-0 at the half to Washington State before a furious second half rally came up short in the 34-20 loss.
“The positive is that there was a response and a strong one, one that put us in a situation where it became a one-score game after fighting our way back into that thing at 27-20,” Cristobal said of the loss. “In college football, momentum is the biggest animal there is... we have to train for that response to come much sooner, to not let it snowball.”
Arizona’s 31-30 loss to UCLA hurt because, despite the poor overall record, it had a chance to be in a tie for first place in the South division with a win. Now the Wildcats enter Saturday in fifth place in the division, and in desperate need of a victory. They have to win three of their final four games to become bowl-eligible.
Only one will prevail when these two teams clash late Saturday night. Either Oregon will continue its ascent up the conference hierarchy or Arizona will save its season with the statement win it so badly needs.