Good luck, Jedd Fisch.
Fisch, hired on Dec. 23 to replace Kevin Sumlin, inherits a 12-game losing streak and now a slate of opponents that includes five Pac-12 road games and a season-opening trip to Las Vegas.
Here are some of the top takeaways from Arizona’s 2021 schedule:
This is Arizona’s toughest nonconference slate in years
Arizona doesn’t face a power-conference foe in non-league play for the eighth time in nine seasons in 2021. But don’t think that means it won’t be challenging, particularly for a first-time head coach.
The Wildcats will get a national stage for their opener, facing BYU at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas. The Cougars went 11-1 in 2020, ranking third nationally in scoring at 43.5 points per game, though ESPN’s Bill Connelly ranks BYU last in FBS in terms of projected returning production.
The home opener won’t be any easier, as San Diego State has a recent history of knocking off Pac-12 schools. The Aztecs, 4-4 in 2020, knocked off UCLA in 2019, ASU in 2017 and 2018, Stanford in 2017 and Cal in 2016.
Ironically, Arizona’s last meeting against BYU and San Diego State also served as debuts for Wildcat coaches. Sumlin lost at home to BYU in 2018, while the equally woeful John Mackovic era began with a 23-10 home victory against SDSU in 2001.
Lastly, Arizona faces NAU on Sept. 18 in its final tuneup before Pac-12 play. The Lumberjacks, who are currently playing a spring schedule, recently got a commitment from Oregon transfer quarterback Cale Millen, the older brother of former UA QB commit Clay Millen.
Trial by fire at Oregon
When you’re on a 12-game skid there are no ‘easy’ conference openers, but there certainly are levels of difficulty for that first one. And the Pac-12 gave Arizona a whale of an initial league game with a Sept. 25 trip to Oregon.
The defending Pac-12 champions saw starting quarterback Tyler Shough transfer to Texas Tech but they return a stacked defense highlighted by the last two conference Freshman Defensive Player of the Year winners in linebacker Noah Sewell and Kayvon Thibodeaux.
Arizona last won in Eugene in 2014 en route to the Pac-12 South title. Assuming fans are going to be allowed at games, Autzen Stadium is going to be super load for this one.
A well-placed bye
The Wildcats will get extra time to lick their wounds from the Oregon game, getting a bye immediately after and ahead of their Pac-12 home opener against UCLA on Oct. 9.
The Bruins—where Fisch was on staff in 2017—will be coming off a tough matchup against ASU when they come to Arizona Stadium, where they haven’t won since 2015.
Arizona had a bye before hosting UCLA to start Pac-12 ply in 2019, winning 20-17 as part of a 4-1 start. No need to mention what happened after that game.
Only one of Arizona’s opponents will be coming off a bye when it faces them, that being Colorado. The Buffs will be off prior to hosting the UA on Oct. 16.
Friday night fever
Arizona is playing two Friday night games this fall, but the Territorial Cup will not be one of them. That rivalry game has been slated for the Saturday after Thanksgiving this season, which has been more common in recent years after seemingly always being the day after Turkey Day.
Instead, the Wildcats’ weeknight games will be Oct. 22 at home against Washington and Nov. 19 at Washington State.
The first of these Friday matchups will be the more difficult one, both in terms of competition and circumstances. The short week will be combined with Arizona having played on the road beforehand, at Colorado, and if that trip to Boulder is at night it would mean not getting home until early Sunday.
The trip to Pullman will follow Arizona’s home finale against Utah, and considering it comes in mid-November there’s a non-zero chance it could snow and, since it’s at night, a high likelihood it will be really cold.
Chances for upsets?
There’s a very good chance Arizona is going to be an underdog in every game this fall except for against NAU, which means it will have plenty of opportunities to pull off a shocker. With very low expectations for 2021, any wins will be big for Fisch’s rebuilding plan.
Arizona has a few places where it could potentially take advantage of being overlooked by its foe, most notably Oct. 30 at USC. While the Wildcats haven’t won at the Los Angeles Coliseum since 2009, they’ll be catching the Trojans right after they make their bi-annual trip to Notre Dame and may struggle to be as motivated for the UA as the Fighting Irish.
The home finale Nov. 13 against Utah, which will probably also be Arizona’s Homecoming game, pits it against a Utes squad that will be playing the back end of a two-game road trip that begins at Stanford, while Washington State will have just come home from Oregon when it hosts the UA six days later on Nov. 19.