As they’ve done every odd-numbered year since 2005, the Arizona Wildcats face the Northern Arizona Lumberjacks this Saturday in Tucson.
Traditionally, Arizona wins this game, using it as a slight leg up on the quest for bowl eligibility. Will that be the case again this year? Before the matchup with our bearded brethren from Flagstaff, let’s dive into some of the numbers underlying this Saturday’s game:
Arizona has won their last 12 games against NAU, with 8 of those wins coming since 2000. That’s not to say the Wildcats have never lost to the Lumberjacks, but they haven’t lost since 1932.
- Herbert Hoover was president;
- Arizona State was still Arizona State Teachers College; and
- Arizona’s population was 426,000.
It’s been a lifetime since NAU upset Arizona, and it’s arguably the one reliable win the Wildcats could count on year after year. Even in Arizona’s darkest hour — under head coach John Mackovic — the Wildcats still managed to beat NAU 37-3.
It doesn’t look like this year will be any different.
Over at Football Study Hall, Bill Connelly’s S&P+ projects the Wildcats will beat the Lumberjacks by 20, with a score of 41-21. This isn’t surprising — NAU is an FCS school, and FCS schools tend to be significant underdogs against FBS opponents.
In fact, every other Pac-12 team playing an FCS opponent is favored by at least 24, so the Wildcats are a little behind the curve.
Part of why Arizona is only favored by 20, though, is that NAU is a decent FCS opponent.
Though they were not ranked in the initial FCS Coaches’ Poll, the Lumberjacks were fifth in the “others receiving votes” section, effectively ranking 30th in FCS. NAU has, in recent years, been a pretty good FCS opponent, making the playoffs in 2013 and posting a record every year from 2011 through 2015.
This year in particular, the Lumberjacks return some quality talent. Sophomore quarterback Case Cookus is the star of the group. He headlined an NAU passing offense that ranked 8th in FCS in 2015, and his season was cut short by injury after just four games last season.
Cookus will test Arizona’s secondary, and, if he plays well, this game could be closer than expected.
No matter how this game turns out, Arizona fans will look at it as a kind of litmus test.
If Arizona dominates, fans will expect the Wildcats to exceed expectations and win 8 or 9 games this season. Likewise, if NAU keeps it close, fans will panic and expect UA to win 4 or maybe 5. It’s only natural to do this, since this game will be the only evidence we have of how good the Wildcats actually are.
The problem is that it has never, ever, ever worked like this. In 2015, the Wildcats demolished the Lumberjacks 77-13. That team went on to barely win six games — beating No. 10 Utah in double overtime to get there — and snag a New Mexico Bowl berth.
A much closer call in 2009 (with Arizona winning 34-17 over NAU) led to an 8-5 record and a Holiday Bowl berth. If the NAU game is a litmus test, it’s a pretty bad one.
So don’t read too much into this game. We can save the deeper evaluation for after the Houston game. For now, securing the win — as they’ve done the last twelve times they’ve played NAU — is more important than how they win.