Before the 2021 season began, the Vegas oddsmakers put Arizona’s win total at 2.5.
The Wildcats finished the season with just one victory, so by that metric it was a failure.
But was it?
Bill Parcells was right when he said you are what your record says you are, and Arizona’s record says it was a bad football team. But that was hardly a surprise.
All along we knew the roster lacked talent, with that issue only being exacerbated by injuries and roster attrition. The team that walked off the Sun Devil Stadium field Saturday evening was not a particularly good one, and in reality it was actually a bad one.
They turned the ball over with an impressive level of consistency, coughing the ball up at least once in all but one game. While there is never a good time to fumble or throw an interception, many of Arizona’s miscues directly led to points for the opponent. Meanwhile, Arizona’s defense generated just six turnovers on the season, with half of them coming against NAU.
The Cats were also not good in the red zone, scoring touchdowns just 12 times in 39 trips. Conversely, opponents scored touchdowns on 29 of 38 trips inside Arizona’s red zone.
There are a number of other stats that help to reveal why the team finished with just one win, but if you watched the team at all this year you don’t need the aid of statistics to understand what kind of team this was.
But in some ways, those stats—just like the record—don’t tell the entire story.
While Arizona did beat Cal, it should have won games against NAU and Washington. There were opportunities to earn victories over BYU, UCLA, Colorado and Utah, too.
Even the last loss to Arizona State was largely competitive, and if not for the Wildcats’ own miscues the final score would have been very different.
While it was frustrating to watch the team lose week-after-week, especially when it didn’t have to be that way, this season should not be judged by wins and losses or, as is the case, win and losses.
No, this season was always about a new coaching staff building a foundation that could support success in the future.
So, did it?
There were certainly things to be displeased with. The inability to curb the penalties is concerning, as was some of the play-calling and in-game decision-making. The shuffling of quarterbacks, at least when there were multiple healthy passers to choose from, was clunky and what happened to making the TE an important part of the offense? The fullback?
However, the team never quit and continued competing even when it would have been easy to mail it in. They went into games confident, which was no small feat. The players, most of whom were not recruited by Fisch or his staff, wanted to play hard for their coaches because they believed in what those very coaches were asking of them.
The defense dramatically improved, while the offense was generally able to move the ball, albeit while struggling to score points. My colleague Brian Pederson summed up the enigma that was the offense rather nicely with this tweet.
Further, it appeared the game plans and talent usage improved as the coaches gained a better understanding of the roster.
There was tangible improvement among many players on the team, too. QB Will Plummer is an obvious example, but he’s far from the only one.
In summary, the coaching staff proved it could motivate the players, showed an ability to put them in position to succeed and did an admirable job of coaching up the roster. The new coaching staff seemed to grow over the course of the season and now, with that experience in hand, figure to get better at their jobs, too.
Now the most important aspect of the rebuild will begin, again. Fisch has talked about how hard he and his staff will hit the recruiting trail as they try to lock in what is currently set to be a solid class while, ideally, adding more talent to it.
By way of traditional recruits or the transfer portal, it is incumbent upon the coaches to significantly upgrade the talent within the program. No position group is truly set and while it’s reasonable to expect current players to improve with maturity and better coaching, that’s not nearly enough.
The coaches seem to know that and have a plan in place to address it. If they are successful on the trail, that combined with what was shown in 2021 should be enough to leave most Arizona fans optimistic about the program’s future. Not that the Cats will be competing for division titles or the Rose Bowl in the very near future, but that better days and multiple-win seasons are indeed ahead.
For Arizona, it’s really all about 2022, 2023 and beyond. Just, in order to get to those seasons they had to get through 2021, which despite the final record should not be seen as a failure.