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With Rich Rod running show, Wildcats starting to show teeth

Since the turn of the century, there haven't been many more polarizing figures in the world of major college football than Rich Rodriguez.

The majority of people choose to focus on the negative, that of course being his controversial decision to leave a West Virginia team he had turned into a national power for what he thought was a move to an even bigger stage at Michigan, only to have that blow up in his face after three unsuccessful seasons, including 2008 when the Wolverines went a dismal 3-9 in posting the worst record in school history.

In addition to the unprecedented lack of success on the field, Rodriguez came under fire for some of his coaching methods, including the alleged belittling of players and even more serious NCAA violations regarding the running of practices and off-the-field workout sessions that resulted in sanctions against the program for the first time in history.

Michigan fired Rodriguez in January of 2011 after amassing a 15-22 record, and he spent nearly a year working as a television analyst while continually weighing his options.

Whether you like him or not, agree or disagree with his tactics, Rodriguez is a very good football coach and Arizona Director of Athletics Greg Byrne got the jump on the rest of the schools who may have considered courting him at the end of last season by hiring Rodriguez on Nov. 21, 2011, a little more than a month after firing former head coach Mike Stoops.

Arizona logged just three winning seasons in Stoops' seven-plus years at the helm, and since 1998 when the Wildcats went 12-1 and finished as the No. 4 team in the country under Dick Tomey, they've won fewer than 45 percent of their games and haven't finished higher than a tie for second (2009) in the Pac-10/Pac-12 Conference standings. Stoops had the team in three straight bowl games (2008-10), but lost two of them.

At the press conference introducing Rodriguez, Byrne was clearly pleased with where his search for UA's new coach took him.

"We looked far and wide for our next coach and found what we were looking for in Rich Rodriguez. He's a talented, proven leader with outstanding success at the top level of college football," Byrne noted.

For his part, Rodriguez certainly said all the right things as he tried to put his past indiscretions behind him, while at the same time energize a fan base that has been clamoring for a winner for quite some time.

"I'm eager to get back to coaching and look forward to becoming part of the Arizona family," Rodriguez said. "It's a great individual opportunity for me and I believe that outstanding success is on the horizon for Arizona Football."

Lest anyone be fooled, while almost assuredly a wiser man, Rodriguez hasn't softened his approach in his first year in Tucson and it's already paying dividends as the Wildcats have exceeded last year's win total (four), doing so in impressive fashion last week by turning a 15-point, second-half deficit into a 39-36 victory at home over No. 10 USC.

At 5-3, Arizona needs just one more win to become bowl eligible and while a lot would need to go right for the team to earn a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game, picking up that season-defining victory should happen at some point as bouts with UCLA, Colorado, Utah and rival Arizona State remain.

Rodriguez is known for his wide-open offenses, and it hasn't taken long for his new team to buy what he's selling, the 'Cats ranking first in the conference in total offense (553.6 ypg) and second in scoring (39.1 ppg). Impressive individual efforts have come from senior QB Matt Scott, who leads the league in passing (2,724 yards, 20 TDs, nine interceptions), Tucson native Ka'Deem Carey (961 yards, 12 TDs) who ranks third in rushing, and the duo of Austin Hill (54 rec., 937 yards, seven TDs) and Dan Buckner (51 rec., 656 yards, three TDs) who rank in the top-six among the league's pass catchers.

The UA defense has a ways to go to catch up, the unit allowing 31.1 points and 483.9 total yards per contest to rank 11th in the conference in both categories. The Wildcats have been especially lax in defending the pass (316.4 ypg, 16 TDs allowed), which not only ranks them last in the league, but 117th nationally.

Rich Rodriguez attracts attention simply by walking into a room, but the hope, at least for Arizona and the man himself, is that it will all be positive from here on out as his Wildcats continue to claw their way up the Pac-12 ladder. Beating USC was certainly a step in that direction, and a return to postseason play will give the program additional ammunition when it comes time to landing big-time recruits who would have otherwise looked elsewhere in the past.