Saturday night's Iowa-Arizona battle is one of the biggest to ever take place at Arizona Stadium. The Wildcats have not hosted a game between two ranked teams since their magical 12-1 season in 1998, and this is only the second time in school history a ranked Arizona team will host a ranked opponent in a nonconference game.
For the occasion, a rare capacity crowd will stage a "Red-Out" in the desert. Coach Mike Stoops has been vocal in asking for a boisterous crowd this week, while Iowa folks have been discussing what effect the heat will have on the Hawkeyes. The atmosphere will be charged in the only game of the weekend featuring two Top 25 teams, and the victor will leave feeling like it passed a big test.
1. Can Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi avoid mistakes? The 23-year old senior threw 15 interceptions in just 11 games last season, four of which were returned for touchdowns (including one against Arizona). So far this year, he has yet to throw a pick in 41 attempts. Stanzi should get help from the productive rushing tandem of Jewel Hampton and Adam Robinson, and Iowa's physical defense figures to give Arizona fits. If Stanzi avoids costly missteps, he stands a good chance of improving his record as a starter to 21-4.
2. Arizona needs to take full advantage of scoring opportunities. Points figure to be at a premium in this one, and the Wildcats can't afford to waste chances like they did a year ago in Iowa City. In the first half of a 27-17 loss to Iowa last season, Arizona had to settle for a field goal after facing a first-and-goal at the one-yard line. Later, the Wildcats ran a fake field goal that failed. Trips to the red zone must result in touchdowns against an Iowa defense that will finish the season among the top 10 in the nation.
3. Could this be a Rose Bowl preview? Arizona figures to remain in the Pac-10 race at least until November clashes with USC and Oregon. With a potential pro at quarterback in Nick Foles, talented skill players in Nic Grigsby and Juron Criner and what appears to be a stout defense, there is no reason Arizona can't win the Pac-10 and reach its first Rose Bowl. And while Iowa may not be the Big Ten favorite, the Hawkeyes could wind up in the Rose Bowl if Ohio State skips over Pasadena and lands in the BCS title game. The Hawkeyes' three toughest games -- Penn State, Wisconsin and Ohio State -- are all at home, and they have two weeks to get ready for Michigan. Iowa may not survive the full slate, but a second-place Big Ten finish is possible, and that could be good enough for a trip to Pasadena -- and a potential rematch with Arizona.
Iowa enters the game as a one-point favorite. Arizona is 5-0 against the spread in its last five games as a home underdog. However, Iowa is 8-2 vs. the number in its last 10 nonconference games vs. BCS opponents. Sorry to give conflicting trends, but those are the facts.
In two games this season, Arizona has surrendered just 90 yards on 42 passing plays (2.1 yards per passing play). Opposing quarterbacks are 17-for-37 for 124 yards and have been sacked five times for a loss of 34 yards.
SI.com NFL draft analyst Tony Pauline weighs in with his thoughts on the top pro prospects in this matchup:
DE Adrian Clayborn, Iowa: Clayborn entered the season as the nation's top-rated senior defensive lineman, according to NFL scouts. He constantly disrupts the action behind the line of scrimmage or runs down ball-carriers in backside pursuit. Clayborn's explosive playing style and body type are a perfect fit for a conventional 4-3 alignment. Grade: First-round prospect.
DL Christian Ballard, Iowa: Ballard may not receive the headlines his teammate does, but he has the potential to start in the NFL. His size/speed numbers compare favorably to Clayborn, and Ballard offers the athletic skills and versatility to be placed at tackle in a four-man line or defensive end in a 3-4 system. Grade: Second- to third-round prospect.
QB Nick Foles, Arizona: Foles is the best quarterback prospect to come from Arizona in more than a quarter-century. The redshirt sophomore and former Michigan State transfer has the arm strength and pocket poise necessary to play at the next level. He simply needs more experience on the field to fine-tune his game. Grade: Third-round prospect.
WR Juron Criner,* Arizona: Criner is a sure-handed wideout who has been the go-to guy in the Wildcat offense. The junior is a solid route runner and displays skill running after the catch. Criner nicely projects as a third receiver on the NFL level. Grade: Third- to fourth-round prospect.
Iowa has the better, more physical team, but those expecting an easy win for the Hawkeyes should consider two factors: 1) Valuable Iowa defensive coordinator Norm Parker will miss his second straight game after being hospitalized with complications related to his diabetes; 2) The Hawkeyes last traveled to the state of Arizona in 2004, and though that Iowa team finished 7-1 in the Big Ten, it got walloped by Arizona State, 44-7. This one won't be easy, but Iowa will pull it out in the fourth quarter. IOWA 23, ARIZONA 20.