And just like that, the optimism is gone.
Arizona’s competitive loss to USC is now a distant memory, replaced by a 2019-esque performance against Washington.
The Wildcats looked bad in all facets of the game for three quarters, only providing any kind of real fight and pushback in the fourth, when Washington pulled many of its starters.
At least Arizona’s first-stringers are better than Washington’s backups?
The question now, as the season moves toward its final three games, is who are the Arizona Wildcats?
Their 0-2 record certainly gives the impression that they are every bit as bad as last year’s team that lost its final seven games, and the loss to the Huskies only helped to paint that picture.
But what if that record, and also what is now a nine-game losing streak, says more about scheduling than it does them?
Remember the rough stretch that cost Mike Stoops his job? The 2010 Cats got off to a 7-1 start but lost their final five games, three of which were against top-15 teams. The other two losses were close against solid USC and ASU teams, with the defeat at the hands of the Sun Devils (or maybe just James Brooks?) being particularly painful.
That losing streak was halted in Week 1 of the next season with a non-conference victory over Northern Arizona, but then Arizona’s next three games were against top-10 teams in Oklahoma State, Stanford and Oregon. Those were all non-competitive losses, and they were followed by competitive defeats at USC and Oregon State.
Then Stoops was fired. It had to be done.
A similar situation may be playing out in front of us, for many of the same reasons.
We all knew when the abbreviated schedule was released the first three games were going to be Arizona’s toughest. Incidentally, the one that got cancelled — the opener against Utah — may have been the most winnable.
There was no Portland State to beat and feel good about, nor was there a chance to get payback against Hawaii or perhaps beat Texas Tech for a second consecutive season. A home game against Stanford was sandwiched in there, and there’s nothing about the Cardinal that scares you.
It’s fair to say Arizona wins some of those games, right? A victory over any of those teams would have stopped the losing streak. A victory over all four would have put Arizona in a pretty good place.
A fast start would not have meant Arizona was back, of course. Last season’s 4-1 record was a mirage, aided by the softest part of the schedule.
Conversely, it’s possible this season’s start is also a mirage.
No one should be surprised that Arizona is 0-2. The Wildcats were double-digit underdogs in both matchups, entering each game with a severe talent deficit.
That’s not the case going forward.
Starting this weekend at UCLA, Arizona — still not favored to win — has no excuse to not be competitive. The Bruins have looked better to start the season, yes, but have done so against the softest part of their schedule.
A close loss at Oregon has them looking better, but we all know how quickly the shine of a moral victory can be wiped away.
Then again, at least UCLA has a victory this season, even if it came at home against a Cal team that had little more than a day to prepare.
So what should we expect Saturday? A Bruins expert isn’t sure about the home team, especially because of its questions at quarterback.
For Arizona’s part, it will be interesting to see how they bounce back. Earlier in the week Kevin Sumlin fell on the sword for his team, saying the coaches need to give their players a better chance.
He also addressed the losing streak.
“I’m the common denominator in there,” he said. “There’s a hell of a lot of players who were playing Saturday night that had nothing to do with last year. I mean, a lot of them.
“We can lump it all into everything but you (can) just lump that on me, because in the end my name is on it.”
He’s not wrong and it’s tough to imagine anyone coming to his defense.
The players can, though.
If the fourth quarter of the loss in Washington showed that the team did not quit then it would not be a surprise to see them play much better against the Bruins. Many in the rotation were Sumlin recruits, so they should be more likely to keep playing hard for the coach who brought them into the fold.
For them and everyone else on the roster, the game against UCLA not only offers the next chance to end the losing skid, but because of the schedule one of the best.