TUCSON, Ariz. (AP) — The Rich Rodriguez desert project, by most accounts, is ahead of schedule.
Despite a thin roster and a brutal schedule, Rodriguez has led Arizona to five wins, the most recent over a top-10 opponent, putting the program on the cusp of bowl eligibility in its first season under the new coach.
The Wildcats weren't supposed to be this good this soon, but Rodriguez had an inkling they might have some resiliency when he and the coaching staff pushed them during spring practice.
"We had a new coaching staff and were teaching a new system, and just tested them a little bit mentally to see whether they would respond or go in a shell," Rodriguez said. "We were hard on them about all the things you're supposed to teach and develop and to see how they react. I saw that early in the spring that these guys do want to get better and they're trying to take to the coaching and system. I saw that in the spring and see that now in the fall."
This first season under Rodriguez was supposed to be a foundation-setter with a sharp learning curve.
The transition to a new coach often takes time and it figured to take a little longer with Rodriguez's non-stop, no-huddle offense and 3-3-5 defense, schemes that were drastically different from what the Wildcats had been running.
Arizona's players weren't in the best of shape when Rodriguez took over, either, so the coaches had to spend extra time working on conditioning to keep up with the go-all-the-time style.
From the start of his tenure in the desert, Rodriguez tried to temper expectations, particularly when he looked at the lack of depth on his roster. Sure, he wanted to win right away, like all coaches would, but building a program takes time, sometimes a few years.
The Wildcats decided not to wait for the building process.
Charging ahead with a nearly unstoppable offense and a scrappy defense, Arizona opened the season with three straight wins to return to the AP Top 25 for the first time since November 2010.
The Wildcats faced a gauntlet of ranked team to open the Pac-12 season, losing to Oregon, Oregon State and Stanford. Arizona had a chance to win two of those, though, losing to the Beavers by three and the Cardinal in overtime.
Beaten up and worn down, the Wildcats recuperated during their bye week and bounced back with resounding 52-17 win over Washington, a team that had been ranked earlier in the season.
They followed it up with easily the biggest win so far under Rodriguez, outlasting No. 10 Southern California 39-33 in an offensive shootout last Saturday in Tucson.
The win improved Arizona to 5-3 overall, 2-3 in the Pac-12 and moved them back into the rankings at No. 24. The Wildcats also debuted in the BCS standings at No. 22 this week.
"I do think it makes us more relevant," Rodriguez said of beating USC. "It should. It doesn't make us a top 10 team — we've lost three games — but it hopefully gives our guys confidence. Hopefully, it makes recruits sit up and notice."
It's certainly been easy to notice what the Wildcats have done on offense.
Snapping the ball almost as soon as the officials place it down, Arizona has left opponents breathless, putting up more yards than all but three teams in the country, averaging 553 per game.
Fifth-year senior Matt Scott, once brushed aside by predecessor Nick Foles, has been dynamic in leading the Wildcats with his arm and legs, ranking second nationally with 386 total yards per game.
Arizona also has developed a solid run game behind hard-running sophomore Ka'Deem Carey and its defense has done its best to fight through a lack of depth a numerous positions.
The Wildcats also have confidence, particularly after beating USC, and a schedule that gets a little easier after that brutal stretch.
Arizona faces UCLA in Los Angeles on Saturday, then has Colorado, Utah and rival Arizona State to close out the season. The Wildcats should at least have a chance at winning all four of those and, who knows, have a shot at winning the Pac-12 South to earn a spot in the conference championship game.
"Our goal is to build the best program in America," Rodriguez said. "We've got a long way to go, but the process has started."
And they've done it lot faster than anyone expected.