Last season the Arizona Wildcats had all of one game that could really make or break their season.
It was the final game, and the result was a shattered season.
But even that game against Arizona State, as painful as it was, could not be considered a “big game,” outside of course the reclaiming of the Territorial Cup and the bragging rights that come with it. A victory would have sent Arizona to some low-level bowl game, but that is hardly an accomplishment.
In other words the Wildcats really didn’t have a big game last year, not in any real sense.
This Saturday is different. Much different.
Although the Washington Huskies will not be ranked when they come to Tucson (thanks a lot, Stanford), this game is the final test in Arizona’s resurgence. Beating Colorado was outstanding, especially given how the team did it. For the team’s bowl chances it was a necessary victory, and it allowed the Wildcats to hold the top spot in the Pac-12 South for another week.
But where the game against Colorado was a chance for Arizona to prove it has grown, the matchup with Washington is an opportunity for the Wildcats to show they’ve arrived.
That’s right. This is the game.
Of course, Arizona is not supposed to win. The Cats are underdogs, which is probably just as well. Despite being 4-1 there is legitimate reason to doubt them. The defense has been solid but not dominant, and the offense has seen its run game disappear of late.
Yet, the team has been finding new and different ways to win, displaying an ability to adapt to whatever the situation needs. That and the late-game poise (Arizona has outscored Colorado, UCLA and Texas Tech by a 29-3 margin in the fourth quarter) in theory gives the Wildcats a chance every single time they take the field.
It also doesn’t hurt to have a healthy Khalil Tate, as he is still one of the most dynamic threats in the sport.
And that’s just it: the more Arizona has played this season, the less their success has seemed like a fluke. The model is sustainable, and could likely even be improved upon.
The idea that Arizona could actually be good is new and even a little uncomfortable, but if they beat the Huskies on Saturday it could actually be a reality.
And if it is, then you have to ask yourself what else is possible with this team.
Just for fun, let’s imagine a world where the Wildcats beat Washington. The team would then be 5-1, with a 3-0 record in the Pac-12.
Unfortunately the rest of the schedule is daunting, with trips to USC and Stanford and Oregon wrapped around a home tilt with Oregon State. Then there is the home game against Utah before finishing things up against ASU in Tempe.
That all seems quite rough, but then again, we’re talking about a 5-1 Arizona who beat Colorado on the road and Washington at home and is now a winner of five straight games. That same Arizona team has a top-tier quarterback leading a diverse offense as well as a resurgent defense that creates turnovers and gets key stops. They’re all guided by a coaching staff who is finding a way to maximize the talent on the roster.
Suddenly the rest of the schedule seems less difficult as the teams left begin to look beatable. Not because of anything about the opponents, mind you. Just, why couldn’t Arizona, itself a good team, beat them?
You know, Arizona has been surprisingly good before.
Back in 2014 when the Wildcats won the South, it never truly felt like they were going to win the division. Even though the team started 5-0 with a road win over No. 2 Oregon, one couldn’t help but feel like the other shoe would drop at some point and the team would have to settle for another 7-8 win season.
The team kept on winning, though, and a few breaks with other results led to them playing ASU for the division title.
An amazing season, it never really felt special because no one ever truly believed the Wildcats could do what they were in the process of doing.
However, for a program like Arizona unless they go out and destroy opponents on a weekly basis, every game in a season like this will be equal parts exciting and stressful.
The last time Arizona was legitimately good was that 2014 season, and it coincidentally happened to feature a home game against the Washington Huskies. The Cats won by a point on Casey Skowron’s 47-yard field goal as time expired, an opportunity they would not have had if Washington coach Chris Peterson could do game-clock math.
Arizona improved to 8-2 with the win, a record that allowed everyone to start dreaming about what could happen.
No matter what happens this Saturday, there is still far too much football to know how things will ultimately play out.
But when it comes to the 2019 Arizona Wildcats, a victory would do so very much not just for their postseason chances, but perhaps anything beyond just a bowl game.
Whereas a loss would halt the winning streak and inject a dose of reality into the season, a win would get Arizona to 5-1 (3-0) and serve notice that they will be a force in the conference the rest of the way. What that would translate to is anyone’s guess, but the dream would live on.
I don’t know about you, but I’m not ready to wake up just yet.