The Arizona Wildcats faced the nation's best wide receiver, Oklahoma State's Justin Blackmon, when the teams met two weeks ago in Stillwater, Okla.
Last week brought the presumptive No. 1 pick in next spring's NFL draft, Stanford quarterback Andrew Luck, to Tucson.
Now, the Wildcats must prepare for Oregon's LaMichael James. In three games, James - who, like Luck, was a Heisman Trophy finalist a year ago - has rushed for 325 yards and five touchdowns.
Three players, all considered the best in the nation at their positions. All in three weeks.
"The player in me would have relished the chance to compete with these guys here - but I'm glad I'm not," UA defensive tackles coach Joe Salave'a said with a laugh. "It's one thing to try to get ready for one guy, but to account for the others?"
As scary as it seems, James - who travels to Tucson for Saturday's 7:15 p.m. game at Arizona Stadium - might be the best player Arizona faces all year.
The Ducks tailback certainly has the most impressive résumé. In two-plus seasons as a starter, James has rushed for 3,602 yards and 40 touchdowns. He has caught 520 yards' worth of passes and four scores.
James touched the ball just 13 times in last week's 56-7 win over Missouri State but put up 231 yards of total offense - a 17.8 yards-per-play average. He ran 12 times for 204 yards and caught one pass for 27 yards.
But it's James' intangibles, and not necessarily his numbers, that make him so hard to stop. UA linebacker Paul Vassallo said defenders can fill gaps at the line of scrimmage and still miss James as he runs by; the Ducks' splits are so wide, and their tailback is so fast, that it's easy to look silly.
"You might still be in your gap, but the way they block everything, the gap is so big that he may still fit in your gap," Vassallo said. "That's something that's so different you definitely have to be gap-sound."
Tim Kish, the UA's defensive coordinator, called James "an awesome back."
"If he's not the best, I don't know where you'd categorize him. He's damn close," Kish said.
Yet, among Arizona's players and coaches, James is merely the latest great player to cross their paths this year. Blackmon paced the Cowboys to a 37-14 in over the Wildcats, and Luck delivered on the way to a 34-10 victory in Tucson a week ago.
Still, the Wildcats aren't backing down.
Defensive tackle Sione Tuihalamaka said the challenging September "makes me excited, and makes me want to work harder toward our goal."
The UA figures it can only improve, even if it falls short in the effort.
"It's hard for other people to imagine, but for our young guys to get this kind of competition and experience, it's priceless," Salave'a said. "We've just got to make sure that we go into each contest with an attitude that we have a chance. And we do have a chance. We just have to make sure we're sound in what we do."
Go to azstarnet.com today at noon to chat with Ryan Finley about UA football and this week's game.
the cruelest month
For the third time this year, Arizona will face a Heisman Trophy candidate and arguably the nation's best player at his position.
6-1 • 215 • Junior • Ardmore, Okla.
• 2011 stats: Blackmon has caught 27 passes for 329 yards and three touchdowns in wins over Louisiana-Lafayette, Arizona and Tulsa. He caught just seven passes for 57 yards and a score against Tulsa last week, snapping a 14-game streak of 100-yard games.
• Against Arizona: Blackmon paced the Cowboys to a 37-14 win in Week 2, catching 12 passes for 128 yards and two scores.
6-4 • 235 • Junior • Houston
• 2011 stats: Luck has completed 57 of 85 passes for 786 yards and eight touchdowns in three games, and has been intercepted just once. Luck's quarterback rating of 173.44 is 10th-best nationally.
• Against Arizona: Stanford's star quarterback completed 20 of 31 passes for 325 yards and two touchdowns in the Cardinal's 37-10 win over the UA last weekend. He ran three times for 36 yards.
5-9 • 185 • Junior • Texarkana, Texas
• 2011 stats: James rushed for 325 yards and five touchdowns and caught nine passes for 144 yards and a score in a loss to LSU and wins over Nevada and Missouri State. His 108.33 rushing yards per game rank 26th in the nation.
• Against Arizona: James will face the UA for the third time in his career when the 10th-ranked Ducks visit Arizona Stadium on Saturday. He rushed 19 times for 117 yards as a freshman in 2009, and put up 126 yards and two touchdowns on 28 carries a year ago.
• What: Oregon at Arizona
• When: 7:15 p.m. Saturday
• TV; radio: ESPN2; 1290-AM, 107.5-FM, 990-AM (Sp)