Editor's note: This story first appeared Sunday as an exclusive for our print readers.
Late Saturday afternoon, moving slowly through pre-game traffic, four motorcycle cops escorted a caravan of buses carrying The Citadel's football team and traveling party. The door of each Gray Line coach was painted with a Wildcat logo and these words:
OF ARIZONA ATHLETICS
You might say the UA was so eager to play the Bulldogs, so jacked up to engage in a dress rehearsal before Iowa visits Arizona Stadium, that it supplied transportation (and directions) just to make sure The Citadel wouldn't be a no-show.
It was a game that worked well for both teams. Arizona won routinely, 52-6, an encouragingly robust crowd of 54,814 paid to watch, none of its starters got seriously hurt and the Bulldogs were sent off for a night flight to Charleston, S.C., with a $450,000 payout.
"I don't think anybody is getting carried away here," said UA coach Mike Stoops. "But we've done what we need to do."
Unless you're the Oregon Ducks or South Dakota Coyotes, you didn't have a better day of college football than Arizona. And it might get better.
The "Game Day" crew at ESPN has so few choices for Saturday's on-location football telethon that it's entirely possible the Iowa-Arizona game will be chosen over, say, Clemson-Auburn or a tainted Notre Dame-Michigan State pairing.
Arizona hasn't done much to merit inclusion into the Game Day spotlight, but that was true last year when ESPN set up on the UA Mall for the Oregon-Arizona game. Iowa is the story. Arizona is the gritty, midlevel outsider trying to puff up its rep.
Also keep in mind that those in power to select each week's Game Day festivities probably view Tucson on September 18 as some sort of meteorological hell, confusing our lovely city with, say, Yuma or Tempe. Remember this: when push comes to shove in the TV ratings game, always go with the Fighting Irish, even if they are playing .500 football.
Besides, Arizona will be far too occupied with the Hawkeyes to worry about prettying up the place for ESPN.
"Every game now gets bigger and bigger," said UA quarterback Nick Foles. "It'll be a big showdown in Tucson."
Iowa will provide the deep-dish resistance that Toledo and The Citadel couldn't.
It's difficult to know what to make of the UA's 2-0 start; Toledo couldn't cover the pass and The Citadel couldn't stop anything. Neither had enough firepower to truly test Arizona's defense, which, while holding opponents without a touchdown in two games, still isn't ready to be called Desert Swarm 2010.
It was like a golfer prepping for a Pebble Beach U.S. Open by playing 36 holes at Randolph North. You might shoot 63 but the greens were slow, the rough was cut and there was no wind.
That's not to say UA tailbacks Nicolas Grigsby and Greg Nwoko, who did good impressions of someone on the Heisman ballot, have to give back their statistics.
Nor is it to suggest that Stoops demanded anything less than full throttle. With the exception of using No. 2 quarterback Matt Scott in the first half, the Wildcats didn't pull their other starters until they led 45-3 in the fourth quarter.
"Up until this point we haven't been stressed," said Stoops. "This isn't the caliber of defenses we're going to see. It's going to get drastically better next week."
It's never a bad thing to open 2-0, against anybody, but one of the inherent issues with early-season, walkover victories is that you don't know how you will react on third-and-short against a Top 10 team such as Iowa. And you don't know if you can stand up to 60 minutes of physical football without some significant breakdowns.
One of the most telling developments of the early season has been Arizona's fan support. The Wildcats sold all but 3,000 tickets for a lower-tier team from South Carolina, and according to associate athletic director James Francis, they've sold all but 100 tickets for the Iowa game.
When the UA buses delivered the Wildcats to the tailgate area near the UA Mall at 5 p.m., Saturday - cheerleaders, the band, maybe 2,000 fans anticipating their arrival - it was something of a turning point in Arizona football. It was electric.
"I was sort of shocked at how many people there were," said Foles. "I don't know if there was an open seat in the house."
Stoops was similarly impressed. He has coached games here with fewer than 44,000 in the seats. He has grown the program from a this-job-could-get-me-fired level to a near-sellout against The Citadel.
Keeping his game face on, Stoops was the first to walk through the welcoming mob. No other UA coach, not Larry Smith, not Pop McKale, not Hall of Famer Jim Young, had experienced such a welcome. It was a snapshot moment.
"It's what you always want your fans to do," he said. "You want to create this environment of involvement and an environment of winning. It's very meaningful. You can't measure that."
Chapter I is in the books. Arizona is 2-0 and it has earned the community's attention. The season begins now.