UNIVERSAL CITY, Calif. - The Arizona Wildcats have rebuilt their image with a new head coach, two new schemes and a national television deal that could make them household names in a matter of months.
They remain, however, the Pac-12's forgotten program.
The UA was picked to finish fourth in the six-team Pac-12 South, ahead of rival Arizona State and Colorado, during Tuesday's media kickoff event at the Gibson Amphitheatre.
The Wildcats, who went 4-8 a year ago, didn't receive a single first-place vote in their division; USC got 117 of them, followed by ASU (three), UCLA (two) and Utah (one). The conference's media picked Oregon to win the Pac-12 North and advance to the conference title game; the Ducks were followed in the poll by Stanford, Washington, Cal, Washington State and Oregon State.
Arizona's low poll position was expected.
The Wildcats have been picked to finish in the top half of the Pac-12 just once since 2004. They remain the only original Pac-10 Conference team never to play in the Rose Bowl.
"It's like that every year," UA linebacker Jake Fischer said Tuesday. "Even when we finished second in the Pac (in 2009), they had us picked all the way down at eighth or ninth.
"I mean, the play is going to speak for itself."
UA quarterback Matt Scott was more blunt.
"I feel like unless you're Oregon or SC, you don't get a lot of respect in the Pac-12," he said.
"I mean, I don't care. I don't even know how they figure out these rankings. Do they plug into their calculators? Is it points? Height? You know, at the end of the season, nobody's ever right."
Despite the Wildcats' protestations, it's surprising they weren't picked lower.
The team had to win its final two games last season just to finish 4-8. Coach Rich Rodriguez was hired Nov. 22 as Mike Stoops' full-time replacement. The former Michigan and West Virginia boss has worked hard to remake the Wildcats in his image, but concerns remain.
The team is still probably too slow on both sides of the ball and far too thin on defense to compete for a conference title. Scott has the tools and experience to be a team leader, but his backups have never played a combined college snap.
Luckily, the Wildcats aren't alone.
Conference-wide upheaval was the major theme of the offseason.
Fellow South teams Arizona State and UCLA replaced their coaches with Todd Graham and Jim Mora, respectively, and Colorado - led by second-year coach Jon Embree - lost its leading passer, receiver and rusher. The resulting months have been "a time of extreme change and strain," Graham said, but his team - and, similarly, Arizona and UCLA - seems ready for the season to start.
Tuesday's media day, located steps from Universal Studios, had a Hollywood feel. Coaches and players took questions from stools located at center stage of the Gibson Amphitheatre; above them, 14 televisions and one movie theater-sized screen flashed school and conference logos.
Backstage, Washington coach Steve Sarkisian admired a wall adorned with names of the famous artists who have played there.
Commissioner Larry Scott unveiled the Pac-12's new television network schedule and on-air talent. Matt Scott and Fischer, both media day newcomers, posed for a picture with Fox Sports personality Erin Andrews. Rodriguez spent time on Petros Papadakis' nationally syndicated radio show.
And when the smoke-blowing ended, there was fire.
The Arizona contingent's lunch was briefly interrupted by a fireball from a nearby Universal Studios stunt show, providing a did-you-see-that moment to a day that had previously felt strangely familiar.
"There's a new attitude surrounding the football program," Fischer said. "Everyone is working as hard as I've seen them work. The work ethic of the coaches and everybody giving it their all. I believe it's going to show itself."
• Cornerback Jonathan McKnight will be limited at the start of training camp but should be on the field when Arizona opens its season Sept. 1, Rodriguez said. McKnight missed the entire 2011 season after tearing his ACL in practice; he was limited throughout spring drills.
• The Wildcats released their first depth chart Tuesday, and it was - as expected - incomplete. Just eight first-stringers were designated as such without the word "Or." They are: Scott, center Kyle Quinn, right guard Trace Biskin, safety Jared Tevis, punter Kyle Dugandzic and linebackers Fischer, Rob Hankins and Hank Hobson. The linebackers' incomplete distinction may be for lack of better options: A pair of rotation players, Brian Wagner and David Lopez, left the program this summer. Wagner was the nation's returning tackles leader.
"(With Wagner) leaving, we were disappointed in that," Fischer said. "It's going to be hard to replace him because he was such a smart player and can play. At middle linebacker, you need somebody who is smart and capable of directing plays and directing the D-line and where people need to go."
The Arizona Wildcats have been picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 South, and for good reason. The team has been selected in the top half of the league just once in the last nine seasons. Here's a look at each year's preseason poll, and how the Wildcats ended up finishing:
Year Poll projection Final overall record (place in standings)
2004 10th place 3-8 (eighth-place tie)
2005 Eighth place 3-8 (eighth place)
2006 Sixth place 6-6 (sixth-place tie)
2007 Seventh place 5-7 (sixth place)
2008 Seventh place 8-5 (fifth place)
2009 Eighth place 8-5 (second-place tie)
2010 Fifth place in Pac-10 7-6 (fourth-place tie)
2011 Fourth place in Pac-12 South 4-8 (fifth-place tie in Pac-12 South)
2012 Fourth place in Pac-12 South ??