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Arizona Wildcats football: Greatest team in school history — 1993 or 1998?

WRITER’S NOTE: Here’s a feature to go with our countdown of the Top 50 football players in Arizona Wildcats history. We take a look at the best teams in school history; compare the 1993 and 1998 starting lineups and cast your vote at the bottom.

Tedy Bruschi and the Wildcats after they shut out Miami in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl. Tucson Citizen photo

Tedy Bruschi and the Wildcats after they shut out Miami in the 1994 Fiesta Bowl. Tucson Citizen photo

It’s the greatest defense in University of Arizona history vs. the school’s most dynamic collection of offensive talent. It’s the great debate.

Whenever UA football alumni get together, especially those who played for coach Dick Tomey, there has been one running argument for the past 15 years. Which team was better:

The 1993 Fiesta Bowl-winning squad that finished 10th nationally in the Associated Press poll, or the 1998 squad that went 12-1, beat Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl and was No. 4 in the final rankings?

Players from those teams account for 28 percent of the names on our Top 50 countdown of the best Wildcats of all-time, and the list of the best teams in school history starts right there: 1993 vs. 1998.

It’s no use to ask Tomey, who coached both teams. It would be like asking him which grandchild is his favorite. But the man in the best position to hold judgment remains curious about how it all would have played out on the field.

“The key matchup would have been the offensive line of the 1998 team vs. the defensive front of the 1993 team,” Tomey said.

“That defensive front may have been one of the best ones in the history of the game. The 1998 team was so explosive offensively. The difference between the two is clear.”

The 1993 Wildcats, who went 10-2, featured two College Football Hall of Famers on the defensive line: tackle Rob Waldrop and end Tedy Bruschi, as well as standout Jim Hoffman.

That team’s top six tacklers all played in the NFL. UA shut out Miami in the Fiesta Bowl and allowed a minuscule 30.1 rushing yards per game — the best mark in the NCAA since 1959.

Coach Dick Tomey with Chris McAlister (left) and Barrett Baker celebrating the win over Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images Sport

Coach Dick Tomey with Chris McAlister (left) and Barrett Baker celebrating the win over Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. Photo by Todd Warshaw/Getty Images Sport

The 1998 Wildcats had nine offensive starters play in the NFL, including receiver Dennis Northcutt and first-round running back Trung Canidate, and that number doesn’t include Keith Smith and Ortege “Leap by the Lake” Jenkins, the guys who co-existed in one of the productive quarterback time-shares in recent memory.

“I think we were more explosive on offense and our defense … to be honest, I have to say our defense was better than theirs,” said cornerback Chris McAlister, a unanimous All-American on the 1998 team.

“That’s going to be hard to say, and it’s debatable, because they gave up very little rushing yards. But they still had a little problem with the long ball. Our defense was shaped a little different. I think we were a little stronger on the back end and they were a little stronger on the front end.”

Could the blazing-fast Canidate get the “six inches of daylight” he said he always needed, and gouge the Desert Swarm defense? Could Smith and Jenkins have avoided being victims of a Waldrop-Bruschi sack sandwich?

While one team was known for defense, the other for offense, the other sides of those teams were pretty good, too.

The 1993 offense had Ontiwaun Carter, Chuck Levy and Billy Johnson in the backfield, strong-armed Dan White at quarterback, solid receivers with Terry Vaughn and Troy Dickey, and a veteran offensive line, led by guard Warner Smith.

The 1998 defense featured McAlister, linebackers DaShon Polk and Marcus Bell, and linemen Joe Tafoya and Daniel Greer. Not bad. That team allowed only 18 points per game.

“Put us together on the field right now, we might win,” McAlister said with a smile. “We have fewer guys in wheelchairs probably.”

Other teams worthy of UA’s best-team discussion include the Larry Smith teams of the 1980s that produced some of the program’s top players and biggest thrills, but the Wildcats had at least three losses in each of his seven seasons.

The 1975 team — starring quarterback Bruce Hill, receiver Theopolis Bell and defensive tackle Mike Dawson — was ranked throughout the season, finishing at 9-2.

Arizona might have been 10-1 if Arizona State’s John Jefferson’s end zone dive had become known as “The Trap” instead of “The Catch.”

The 1961 team, led by the quarterback Eddie Wilson and the Touchdown Twins — running backs Bobby Lee Thompson and Joe Hernandez — went 8-1-1 and had one of the best offenses in the nation.

But it all comes back to 1993 vs. 1998.

Take your pick. While each team fell achingly short of the Rose Bowl, those teams helped Arizona post the second-most overall victories in the Pac-10 in the decade.

“I think that period of time was when Arizona was a nationally talked about football team,” Tomey said. “Arizona really launched itself into the national consciousness.”

Which Arizona team was better?
1993: 53%
1998: 46%
335 users voted

The 1993 starting lineup vs. the 1998 starting lineup

QB Dan White QB Keith Smith/Ortege Jenkins
RB Ontiwaun Carter/Chuck Levy RB Trung Canidate
RB Billy Johnson WR Dennis Northcutt
WR Troy Dickey WR Jeremy McDaniel
WR Terry Vaughn TE Mike Lucky
TE Rod Lewis FB/TE/HB Kelvin Eafon/Brandon Manumaleuna/Paul Shields
LT Mu Tagoai LT Edwin Mulitalo
LG Pulu Poumele LG Steven Grace
C Hicham El-Mashtoub C Bruce Wiggins
RG Warner Smith RG Yusuf Scott
RT Joe Smigiel RT Manu Savea
DE Tedy Bruschi DE Joe Tafoya
DT Rob Waldrop DT Daniel Greer
DT Jim Hoffman DT Keoni Fraser
DE Jimmie Hopkins DE Eli Wnek
OLB Shawn Jarrett OLB DaShon Polk
LB Sean Harris ILB Marcus Bell
LB Brant Boyer OLB Scooter Sprotte
CB Claudius Wright CB Chris McAlister
CB Jey Phillips CB Kelvin Hunter
SS Brandon Sanders SS Greg Payne
FS Tony Bouie FS Rafell Jones
K Steve McLaughlin K Mark McDonald
P Matt Peyton P Ryan Springston
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