Aug. 20, 1999
LOS ANGELES - They play football at Arizona, too.
The Wildcats, a force in basketball for years, have never been undisputed Pac-10 football champions, much less made a run at the national championship.
Coming off the best season in school history and second Top 10 finish, both are distinct possibilities in coach Dick Tomey's 13th year as coach.
Tomey hopes not, but realizes anything is possible despite the obvious talent and experience his team possesses.
"If you ask me if we're going to be confident, I'm going to say yes," he said. "But there's not going to be much difference between the top team and the bottom team in our conference."
The Wildcats return 16 starters from last year's team, 17 if Keith Smith and Ortege Jenkins, who shared the quarterback position, are both included.
"I love the guys we've got, I wouldn't trade them for anyone in the world," Tomey said. "I said that when we were struggling a couple years ago."
Struggling, indeed. At one point in 1997, Arizona had a 3-5 record, and there were rumblings that Tomey's job was in jeopardy.
The Wildcats are 16-1 since, with the only loss a 52-28 setback to defending Pac-10 champion UCLA last fall. That was the only blemish in a 12-1 season, and Arizona was ranked fourth in the final AP media poll.
Smith and Jenkins combined to pass for 2,743 yards and 18 touchdowns with 11 interceptions last season. Smith set a Pac-10 passing efficiency record with a 174.17 rating.
"They both did a tremendous job of handling the situation," Tomey said. "We may do what we did last year, we may not. We're probably going to start the season that way."
Among other returnees are Trung Canidate, who rushed for 1,220 yards and 10 touchdowns, and Dennis Northcutt, who caught 63 passes for 922 yards and six TDs. Nine defensive starters are back.
Tomey had a ready answer when asked whether the Wildcats were pointing toward their first-ever Rose Bowl game or, perhaps, the Sugar Bowl, site of the Bowl Championship Series' national title game.
"We have our sights set on the first day of training camp, firmly," he said. "That's where we get started. I think if your focus gets too far ahead, that's when you start screwing up."
Arizona opens its season Aug. 28 at Penn State in the Pigskin Classic in a matchup where the Wildcats or Nittany Lions could find their national title hopes dashed over four months before it's eventually decided.
"There are no exhibition games," Tomey said.
UCLA, 10-2 and ranked eighth at the end of last season, has to find a successor to Cade McNown and shore up a defense that allowed a staggering 340 points.
"We've got some kids who can throw the football, we'll be fine there," coach Bob Toledo said of UCLA's quarterback situation.
Drew Bennett, who has thrown five passes in college, enters fall camp as UCLA's No. 1 quarterback, with redshirt freshman Cory Paus listed No. 2.
"We're not going to go one-dimensional," Toledo said. "We have recruited at that position for the system. They just haven't done it yet. The quarterbacks are all capable, I'm not worried about that."
Led by Danny Farmer, who caught 58 passes for 1,274 yards and nine touchdowns, the Bruins have one of the country's finest corps of wide receivers, and their top three rushers return, too.
Arizona and UCLA meet on Oct. 30 at the Rose Bowl in what could be the Pac-10 game of the year, although Southern California, Arizona State and Oregon could be heard from before the race is over.
USC, 8-5 under first-year coach Paul Hackett last season after a disappointing 28-19 loss to TCU in the Sun Bowl, hopes to be better.
"I think we're headed in the right direction," Hackett said. "The offense is going to have to carry us, especially early in the season."
The Trojans return their entire offensive line along with quarterback Carson Palmer, wide receiver R. Jay Soward and running back Chad Morton.
The defense, however, will be much less experienced.
Arizona State entered last season with national championship hopes, but went a disappointing 5-6.
"It seems like I've been asked about what happened last year in every interview since December," ASU coach Bruce Snyder said. "It was obviously a year where we had a lot of high expectations. We have a lot of hungry guys. I think everything is positive at this point."
Quarterback Ryan Kealy and tailback J.R. Redmond are among seven returning starters from an offense that averaged 30.3 points and 411.8 yards per game. The defense, which allowed two fewer points than UCLA in one less game, will have to improve if the Sun Devils are going to contend.
"I do believe the leadership on the current squad will be able to handle a problem much better than last year's team," Snyder said.
Like UCLA, Oregon will be inexperienced at quarterback, having lost Akili Smith.
"I have no clue," Oregon coach Mike Bellotti said when asked who will play the position. "If we played a game today, (A.J.) Feeley would start."
Feeley has thrown 10 passes in college, none last year, when the Ducks went 8-4.
"Last year's team was initially led by the offense, this year's team will initially by led by the defense," Bellotti said. "We have eight starters, and the linebacking unit may be one of the best in the nation."
The Pac-10 has eight returning coaches and two well-known newcomers - Rick Neuheisel at Washington, and Dennis Erickson at Oregon State.
"It's amazing how things work out," said Neuheisel, a former offensive coordinator at UCLA who coached Colorado the past four years. "This was just one of those opportunities that felt right.
"I don't know where we'll end up. We're not going to concede anything. I also know where there's transition, there are bumps."
Erickson, who won national championships at Miami in 1989 and 1991, was fired as coach of the NFL's Seattle Seahawks following last season.
"I wanted to get back into college football after four years in the NFL, which I thoroughly enjoyed," he said. "There's a commitment from our president, there's a commitment to get things done."
By JOHN NADEL
AP Sports Writer