It wasn't that long ago that Arizona's football team played for the Pac-12 title, but it sure seems like it.

Entering this season, the Wildcats are more focused on escaping the South division cellar than winning the division.

Just three years after winning the South, going 10-4 and reaching the top 10 in the national rankings, Arizona is coming off a 3-9 season in which they finished last in the South with a 1-8 conference record.

This month, BuffZone.com is previewing each of Colorado's opponents, with this installment focusing on the Wildcats, who visit Boulder on Oct. 7.

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez came away from spring ball believing his team will improve, despite having a bunch of question marks across the board.

"We've just got so many unknown guys that I think have the talent and are going to be good enough to win with, but until they do it in a game, you don't really know," Rodriguez told Tucson.com after the spring game in April. "I feel good about their attitude. I think we've got a bunch of guys who love football. There's no question we'll be better."

The Wildcats almost have to be better than last year, when they were last in the conference in scoring (24.8 points per game) and finished ninth in scoring defense (allowing 38.3 points per game). They gave up 34 or more points in every conference game.


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Offensively, Arizona should be in great shape at tailback if they can stay healthy. Nick Wilson and J.J. Taylor have the potential to be dynamic runners, but they combined for just 93 rushing attempts last year.

Brandon Dawkins returns after starting last year at quarterback, but he may not be the starter this year. He's got the most experience, but sophomore Khalil Tate will push for the job. Regardless of who starts, the Wildcats need more production through the air.

Defensively, the Wildcats took a step back in their first year with coordinator Marcel Yates, but expect to be better this year. Seven starters are back, including most of the secondary.

"We all have an idea of what to do and what to expect," defensive tackle Parker Zellers told Tucson.com in the spring. "Going into our second year with the new defense, I hope and I think things will start to click more and go a lot more smoothly."

That's the hope across the board at Arizona, where Rodriguez's seat is warming up. After going 26-14 in his first three years, Rodriguez is 10-15 in his last two, and he's lost 12 of his last 14 conference games.

Arizona may not be a Pac-12 title contender, but the Wildcats need a bounce-back season.

CU opponent preview: Arizona Wildcats

Date with CU: Oct. 7, at Folsom Field in Boulder, time TBA

Head coach: Rich Rodriguez, 6th season (36-29; 156-113-2 career)

Series: CU leads 14-5

Wildcats in 2016: 3-9, 1-8 in Pac-12

Returning starters: 14 - 7 on offense, 7 on defense

Offensive players to watch: WR Shun Brown, Jr. (29 catches, 521 yards, 3 TD); QB Brandon Dawkins, Jr. (98 of 182, 1,348 yards, 8 TD, 6 INT; 131 rushing att., 944 yards, 10 TD); WR Cam Denson, Sr. (15 catches, 242 yards, 2 TD); LT Layth Friekh, Sr. (20 consecutive starts at LT); WR Shawn Poindexter, Sr. (6 catches, 82 yards); RB J.J. Taylor, Fr. (38 att., 261 yards, 2 TD); RB Nick Wilson, Sr. (55 att., 331 yards, 3 TD).

Defensive players to watch: DE Justin Belknap, So. (16 tackles, 1 sack); CB Dane Cruikshank, Sr. (60 tackles, 2 INT, 7 PBU); SS Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles, Jr. (78 tackles, 4 TFL, 2 INT, 6 PBU); FS Isaiah Hayes, So. (38 tackles, 1 sack); OLB DeAndre' Miller, Sr. (18 tackles, 5 TFL, 3 sacks); CB Jace Whittaker, Jr. (35 tackles, 1 INT, 11 PBU); DT Parker Zellers, Sr. (12 tackles, 3 sacks).

Notable: Arizona led the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game (235.0) and per carry (5.54). ... Dawkins averaged 94.4 rushing yards per game, the fifth-best average among quarterbacks at the FBS level. ... Dawkins did struggle throwing the ball, completing just 53.8 percent of his passes. ... Wilson has been limited to 14 games the past two years because of injuries, but has been very productive in his career when healthy, with 2,466 yards and 28 touchdowns on the ground, averaging 5.8 yards per carry. ... Arizona has one of the most experienced offensive lines in the Pac-12, returning four starters from last year. ... Kicker/punter Josh Pollack returns after handling both jobs last season. He was 9-for-11 on field goals inside 50 yards, including 8-for-8 inside 44 yards. ... Since a 38-31 win at CU in 2015, Arizona is 2-12 in Pac-12 play, including 0-7 on the road. ... CU snapped a four-game losing streak to the Wildcats with a 49-24 win in Tucson last season. ... The Wildcats are the only team on CU's schedule with a bye the week prior to facing the Buffs.

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.