At the start of the season, Arizona was not only the favorite to win the Pac-10 football title and earn its first-ever Rose Bowl berth, it was also considered a strong contender for the national title.

The Wildcats were ranked No. 1 in the nation by Sports Illustrated, with five players making the cover. That may not have been such a great thing, considering the so-called SI "jinx." Still the Wildcats were a consensus top-10 pick by other publications and polls with perhaps their best team in history.But their national title hopes were dashed in midseason when Colorado State of the WAC knocked them off in Tucson. Then three weeks later their Rose Bowl dreams were dealt a serious blow when Oregon upset them 10-9.

So now the Wildcats are here in Southern California, about 25 miles south of where they wanted to be this week, playing Utah in the Freedom Bowl. Not exactly what they had in mind back in September.

About the only motivation for Arizona in Tuesday's game (7 p.m. MST) is to defeat the team that beat the two teams that broke their hearts earlier in the year.

"We want to beat Utah because they beat two teams that beat us this year," said Arizona running back Ontiwaun Carter. Kind of a convoluted motivation, but one the Wildcats are using, nonetheless.

Carter has been a big reason for Arizona's success the past couple of years when the Wildcats compiled a 12-4 Pac-10 record, best in the league.

A year ago the Wildcats capped off their season with a shocking 29-0 victory over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl and they'd like to do a similar number on Utah, even if the Utes aren't in the same league as the Hurricanes.

Carter became the Wildcats' all-time leading rusher this year when he rushed for 1,163 yards. That gave him 3,457 yards for his career.

While Dick Tomey's Wildcats are primarily a running team, they averaged 201 yards through the air this year on the arm of junior quarterback Dan White. A transfer from Penn State. White completed 169 of 296 passes for 2,181 yards and 14 touchdowns this year.

Richard Dice was his favorite target, catching 56 passes, more than twice as many as the next Arizona receiver.

Utah defensive coordinator Fred Whittingham said Arizona will present more offensive problems than any Ute opponent this year. He compares the Wildcats to Oregon because of their size and running ability

The strength of the Arizona team, however, is its defense.

The Wildcats ranked second in the nation in rushing defense, allowing just 65 yards per game. They allowed more than 100 yards rushing in just two games all year and haven't allowed an opposing running back to run for over 100 yards in 33 games, almost three years. Considering that Utah's Charlie Brown has run for more than 100 yards in four straight games coming into the bowl game, something has to give Tuesday night.

Known as the Desert Swarm, the Arizona defense is renowned more for its speed than its size. Linebacker Sean Harris led the team in tackles this season with 89.

The defense also puts tremendous pressure on opposing quarterbacks, so Mike McCoy and the Ute offensive line will have to beware.

Arizona came up with 47 sacks this year, led by noseguard Chuck Osborne with 11, defensive end Tedy Bruschi with 10 and defensive tackle Jim Hoffman with 8.

The weakness of the Arizona "D" may be the secondary, which grabbed only four interceptions all season with no players getting more than one (in contrast Utah had two players with six apiece). But the problem McCoy will have is having enough time to pass against the Wildcats quick pass rush.

"Arizona will the best team we've played this year, by far," said Ute coach Ron McBride.

In a tight game the difference could be in the kicking gameand here the Wildcats have an edge with Steve McLaughlin. The senior from Tucson hit all 26 extra points and was 23-of-29 on field goals. He led the Pac-10 in scoring and won the 1994 Lou Groza Collegiate Placekicker award.

The Wildcats are healthy going into the game with every projected preseason starter available to play.