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Under-the-radar Arizona sitting pretty in Rose Bowl race

The trivia question popped onto the TV screen -- which Pac-10 team has never been to the Rose Bowl? -- and Cam Nelson took a shot.

"Arizona," he guessed.

Correct.

Yeah, Arizona, 31 years a league member, remains the only Pac-10 team that's never reached the conference's ultimate destination. We're not hearing much about the possibility this season, either. Not yet, anyway. But maybe we should start listening.

The talk has centered on USC, and now Oregon, and for good reason. The Trojans have dominated the Pac-10 for years, and after the Ducks dominated the Trojans last week, they're 5-0 in conference play and alone in first place with four games remaining. But here's some more trivia:

Who's alone in second place, and the only other team controlling its destiny on the road to Pasadena?

Nelson, a senior safety, knows the answer to that one, too. Arizona (5-2, 3-1) is sitting pretty, even if no one's paying attention. The No. 21 Wildcats host Washington State on Saturday, so go ahead and mark down another win. Things get much more difficult after that; the last four games come at California, home against Oregon, at rival Arizona State and at USC.

But considering preseason expectations, and where the Wildcats are now, it's easy to be optimistic, and we shouldn't fault them for dreaming of big, unprecedented things.

"We don't deserve any credit," Nelson said, "because we're not a very established program. ... But I feel like when it's all said and done, they'll be talking about us in that race."

Trivia time: Where did media pick Arizona to finish in the Pac-10? Answer: Eighth -- and don't think the Wildcats missed the slight.

"I think our guys took exception to that," coach Mike Stoops said. "We played a lot of good games last year."

Which is why Stoops is still here this season, his sixth. After he left a cushy post as defensive coordinator for his brother Bob at Oklahoma, Mike Stoops' first four Arizona teams went 3-8, 3-8, 6-6 and 5-7 (after starting 2-6). People wondered whether he'd get a fifth season, and as late as the last regular-season game in 2008, the questions about his future lingered.

But Arizona beat archrival Arizona State, then beat BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl -- the Wildcats' first bowl appearance since 1998 -- and after the 8-5 finish, Stoops received a three-year contract extension.

The 'Cats had to replace nine starters, including record-setting quarterback Willie Tuitama. And an offense built around tight end Rob Gronkowski -- maybe you hadn't heard of him, but you would have -- had to be scrapped when Gronkowski was lost for the season with a back injury. At 6-foot-6, 265 pounds, Gronkowski accounted for 672 receiving yards and a team-high 10 touchdowns in 2008. He was poised for a breakout season.

The Wildcats thought they were, too, until the injury.

"We had to reassemble who we were a little bit," Stoops said. "We had to change a little of our identity."

Gronkowski's injury wasn't the only one. Arizona has played at times this season without tailbacks Nic Grigsby and Greg Nwoko and defensive end Brooks Reed. But the most important development came when Nick Foles took over for Matt Scott at quarterback.

Foles, a sophomore transfer from Michigan State, ranks third in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency, and that's despite struggling in a win over UCLA (three interceptions and a fumble, but he had the flu). Arizona ranks second in the league in passing, and Stoops says they're just beginning to learn what Foles can do. Add a solid, if unspectacular defense, and it's easy to understand the Wildcats' optimism.

"I feel like we're better than our record," Nelson said.

Arizona's losses came at Iowa, 27-17 -- before coaches had settled on Foles -- and then at Washington, last month. The Wildcats blew a 12-point lead in the last four minutes and were foiled by a wacky interception that might actually have been an incompletion.

"It was a sick feeling," Foles said. "We had the game."

But here's what Stoops likes about his team. They didn't get too down on themselves after the loss. And they're not too high now, even as euphoria builds around town. The coach sees a team that is confident in itself, and a program that is finally maturing.

"It's starting to come to fruition," Stoops said. "We're becoming more stable, building consistency. We're starting to see a better product. We're not having the peaks and valleys of an immature program. There's not huge fluctuation in our play.

"We're just better in so many ways. I think we're built for the long haul."

Trivia time again: The Wildcats first appeared in the AP Top 25 on Oct. 25 (at No. 23). How long had it been since their most recent appearance?

Answer: A long, long time. Try nine years. And 104 games.

"I always wondered," Nelson said, "what it would be like to be a Top 25 team."

And?

"It's nothing different," he said. "Coach Stoops smiles a lot more now. That's about the only thing that's changed."

Everyone's smiling more. But the Wildcats insist they're not satisfied. They'll be bowl-eligible on Saturday after they beat Washington State (if you've been paying attention, you understand this is as close to a sure thing as there is in college football). But they're aiming higher.

"We're talking now about taking pride in (the ranking)," Stoops said. "We want to stay there. We want to build consistency. We've talked about it, that we're in a great place right now. But we don't want to miss a step."

"We're achieving what we set out for," senior offensive tackle Adam Grant added. "At the same time, we can't get overconfident. We want to be in first place."

Stoops and the 'Cats won't look past Washington State, of course. It would be a violation of every football team's favorite cliché. But we can. The schedule is back-loaded with three of the Pac-10's best teams (Oregon, USC and Cal), as well as a hated rival (Arizona State).

Three of the last four games come on the road, but the fans are already looking forward to Nov. 21, when No. 7 Oregon comes to Tucson. It's looking like a Rose Bowl showdown, and does anyone remember the last time the Ducks were in town? Two years ago, when they were ranked No. 2. But Dennis Dixon's already-injured knee collapsed, and so did Oregon's dreams.

It was a bad loss for Oregon, and a big win for Arizona (and Stoops). But the 'Cats were playing spoiler then. This time around, both teams could be dreaming big.

"Best-case scenario," Nelson said, "is to win out and make the first Rose Bowl appearance ever in Arizona history. The Rose Bowl, that would be real big."

If it seems like a long shot, and maybe it still is. But the potential exists for Arizona to do something unprecedented. It's November, and Arizona isn't involved in a trivial pursuit.

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