Editor's note: Ninth in a series previewing the Pac-12 football season.

LOS ANGELES — Just when it looked like Arizona was a legitimate contender, the bottom fell out. Last season's 7-1 start, which included an AP ranking as high as No. 9 along the way, was followed by five consecutive setbacks.

"The end of the season was disappointing in a lot of different ways," said Arizona coach Mike Stoops. "We played well through the first eight games and really didn't do the things necessary to win down the stretch."

The late slide included losses to Stanford, USC, top-ranked Oregon and Arizona State. It culminated with a 36-10 loss to Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.

Stoops said the Wildcats faced problems on the ground. Teams ran at them effectively, something they were unable to do on offense. It contributed in certain situations, he explained, to those losses and is something that has to be addressed.

Shortcomings often know no timetable.

"Sometimes they get exposed early in the season. Sometimes they may get exposed toward the end of the season. That is something that just kind of happened," Stoops said. "We played more physical teams probably at the end, and it's an area that we didn't react as well as I would have liked."

Even so, Stoops is optimistic about the future. The Wildcats have gone to bowl games three straight years.

"We feel like we've developed a very solid program. Taking the next step in becoming an elite program in this conference and in this country is something that we're going to work hard on," said Stoops, who is challenging his team to strive for an opportunity to win or compete in a championship game.

The Pac-12 media, however, picked Arizona to finish fourth in the South Division.

When asked why, Stoops delivered a quip.

"I don't know," he said with a laugh. "(They) must think I'm a bad coach."

OFFENSE: Senior quarterback Nick Foles, who led the Pac-10 in passing yards and completions per game in 2010, headlines an attack that includes returning first-team, all-conference receiver Juron Criner. The senior made 82 receptions for 1,233 yards last season to lead the Pac-10 in receiving yards per game.

DEFENSE: Senior linebacker Paul Vassallo was the Pac-10's third-leading tackler a year ago. He's backed by a solid secondary that includes cornerback Trevin Wade and safety Robert Golden. Combined, the seniors made 107 stops for a defense that held four opponents to nine points or less.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior placekicker Alex Zendejas Jr. has led the Wildcats in scoring the past two seasons with 172 points. He made 14 field goals and converted 41 PATs in 2010, but missed five kicks in both situations.

PLAYMAKERS: Foles passed for 3,191 yards and 20 touchdowns last season despite missing two games because of a sprained knee. ... Criner had 11 touchdown catches. ... Vassallo was a monster on defense, tallying a team-high 102 tackles last season.

TOUGH STRETCH: Talk about a tough way to start conference play. The Wildcats host Stanford and Oregon before taking a trip to USC in consecutive games without a bye.

EXTRA POINTS: Former BYU offensive coordinator Robert Anae is Arizona's offensive line coach and running game coordinator. ... The Wildcats are 25-21 at home under Stoops. ... Arizona was the only Pac-10 program that failed to earn a berth in the Rose Bowl.

email: dirk@desnews.com

Arizona Wildcats

2011 media poll: 4th, South

2010 record: 7-6, 4-5

Head coach: Mike Stoops (40-45, ninth season)

2011 schedule

Sept. 3 — NO. ARIZONA

Sept. 8 — at Oklahoma State

Sept. 17 — STANFORD

Sept. 24 — OREGON

Oct. 1 — at USC

Oct. 8 — at Oregon State

Oct. 20 — UCLA

Oct. 29 — at Washington

Nov. 5 — UTAH

Nov. 12 — at Colorado

Nov. 19 — at Arizona State

Nov. 26 — LA.-LAFAYETTEArizona Wildcats

2011 media poll: 4th, South

2010 record: 7-6, 4-5

Head coach: Mike Stoops (40-45, ninth season)

2011 schedule

Sept. 3 — NO. ARIZONA

Sept. 8 — at Oklahoma State

Sept. 17 — STANFORD

Sept. 24 — OREGON

Oct. 1 — at USC

Oct. 8 — at Oregon State

Oct. 20 — UCLA

Oct. 29 — at Washington

Nov. 5 — UTAH

Nov. 12 — at Colorado

Nov. 19 — at Arizona State

Nov. 26 — LA.-LAFAYETTE