It may sound hard to believe at the start of the season, but the Arizona Wildcats stood in front of USC as the Trojans’ last ranked opponent of the regular season.
Arizona’s 49-35 loss against USC last Saturday showed many of the Wildcats’ strengths, flaws and potential. Falling from behind in the first half was expected, considering the superiority of the opponent, but coming back from a 22-point deficit in the second half to tie the game 35-35 late in the fourth quarter shows just how special Arizona can be with Khalil Tate.
However, squandering any chance of pulling off the upset with back-to-back interceptions show just how far the Wildcats have to go before they can chase the ever-so-elusive Rose Bowl.
The Rose Bowl was never in Arizona’s immediate future this season anyway. It’s home to one of the College Football Playoff semi-final games this year and losses to Houston and Utah eliminated the Wildcats from contention. Also with only Colorado (5-5, 2-5) and UCLA (4-5, 2-4) remaining in the way, it is all but assured that USC will win the Pac-12 South.
Washington is the lone one-loss team in the Pac-12 and the conference’s lone remaining chance to send a team to the Final Four. It would come with compiling a resume-building November with wins over No. 21 Stanford, No. 25 Washington State, and No. 17 USC in the conference title game.
Regardless of whether or not Washington makes it to the playoffs, it seems unlikely that a three-loss Arizona team will make it to a New Year’s Six bowl, and that’s okay.
Arizona can mow through Oregon and Oregon State and prevail over Arizona State to finish the regular season 9-3. That alone would count at a major success considering the Wildcats finished last year 3-9. They wouldn’t be the first team in the Grand Canyon State to pull off that kind of turnaround this year.
Better that and a Holiday Bowl victory over someone like Penn State or Michigan — as currently projected by ESPN — this season, rather than actually getting the USC upset and win out only to be in over our heads and throughly disappointed at the end.
We’ve seen this before from Arizona. The Wildcats defeated Oregon on the road in 2014 and reached the conference championship game with a chance to break into the back door of the playoffs. Instead, they fell in embarrassing fashion in rematch against the Ducks which included the center throwing up on the football before snapping it to the quarterback. The Wildcats went on to be the third team to lose to Boise State in the Fiesta Bowl.
In 2009, the Wildcats finished the regular season 8-4 but they were a minute away from defeating Oregon (again) at home in front of the ESPN College Gameday crew in a game that would’ve put them in the Rose Bowl for the first time. That minute was spent with the fans infiltrating the sidelines prematurely in preparation of ritualistically rushing the field in celebration. Oregon marched down the field, tied the game and won in overtime. The Wildcats went on to get shut out by Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.
Who’s to say the same thing wouldn’t happen this year had the USC game gone differently? If it wasn’t USC this year, it could be Washington in the title game and then any of the current Top 10 teams.
Right now the best thing the Wildcats have going for them is Khalil Tate. That’s been proven to be good enough to take down the mediocre and lowly teams in the Pac-12 and maybe even our Big Ten or Big 12 counterparts.
Next year, Arizona should be ready to contend for the Pac-12 championship, because that type of winning is done with a guy like Khalil Tate being one of the team’s best players but not the only stud.