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That was a nice season for Arizona football, but next year must be even better

arizona-wildcats-football-season-recap-opinion-analysis-jedd-fisch-pac12-2022-territorial-cup Cheryl Evans/The Republic / USA TODAY NETWORK

By any reasonable metric, this season was a success. Arizona went 5-7, with a 3-6 mark in the Pac-12. Three of their wins came against teams that finished with winning records – with one of them over a highly-ranked UCLA – and beat rival Arizona State.

Consider the oddsmakers had them at 2.5 wins and yeah, hard to find much to complain about.

Jedd Fisch took this program to a place few anticipated it being at this point by hitting the recruiting trail hard, utilizing the transfer portal, embracing NIL and coaching up players.

Optimism – and the Territorial Cup – have returned to Tucson, and it’s a credit to what the head coach, his staff and the players have achieved in such a short amount of time. The program has come a long way from the low point of 2020, and seems well positioned for even better days in the future.

The future begins next season.

When Fisch took over, there was an understanding that Arizona Football was in bad shape. The final game under Kevin Sumlin was an embarrassment, and the roster was in desperate need of an upgrade not only in raw talent, but in coaching of the talent already there.

This provided Fisch with the luxury of time, which is something most coaches don’t benefit from. People expected progress, not greatness, and though it wasn’t necessarily seen in the win/loss record last season there were signs that the culture and vibe had undergone a transformation. The team was competitive in most games and battled until the end, and that was enough for year one.

Entering year two, the hope was following an offseason that provided an influx of talent being competitive would lead to more wins, and it did. It became evident early on that many of the issues plaguing the team last season, especially offensively, were largely fixed with improvements and the skill positions and QB.

Suddenly Arizona had the kind of team that could light up the scoreboard, and while they weren’t always victorious the Cats were more often than not entertaining. They featured a pair of 1,000-yard receivers for the first time in program history, got excellent production from the running backs and even made the tight end an important part of the passing game!

There were of course still issues inside the red zone, untimely turnovers and a defense that played better down the stretch but struggled badly for most of the season.

Hence why they won just five games and will be left out of the postseason for the fifth consecutive season.

“This season has been a good season, in terms of we’ve competed really well in a lot of games,” Fisch said after his team knocked off ASU. “We all have regrets, we all wish we won more games, but in this case right now, the build is still the build. The build isn’t changing. We’re still trying to get better. We want to get better, we want to bring in more better, more players, better players, and keep building off of what we did.”

Fisch went on to point out specific players who he anticipates will improve, before adding, “It’s an infinite game, and that’s what we tell our team, that it is an infinite game and all we want to do is just continue to see how good we can be.”

Just how good they can be is an interesting question. At its best, Arizona should probably be in bowl games most seasons and compete for a division/conference title every three or four years. Though recent times have been difficult, the Cats were on top of the Pac-12 South in 2014.

That was during a stretch in which Arizona made bowl games in five of six seasons under Rich Rodriguez. Prior to that there was some success under Mike Stoops and, if you go back even further, Dick Tomey’s Desert Swarm teams were among the conference’s best.

So while it’s not necessarily the norm, Arizona Football being good is not as far fetched as some might have you believe.

This brings us back to what Fisch and his staff have done and, as he noted, are trying to do.

The theme of this past season was “Rise With Us” and indeed, Arizona ascended. But it is because of that ascension that it is now fair to ask the program to reach greater heights as soon as 2023.

From here on out, five wins – even if one of them coming against Arizona State – is a failure. Arizona must find itself in a bowl game next season, with a win over the Sun Devils ideally helping them get to a better one, not make them eligible.

The schedule, which was among the nation’s toughest in 2022, lightens up a bit.

The non-conference slate should lead to two wins, while two of the team’s conference road games send them to Stanford and Colorado. Oregon State and UCLA visit Tucson, and then of course there will be the visit to Tempe.

Win each of those games and hey, that’s seven! Win those and steal another one or two and then you have yourself quite the campaign. It’s not an unreasonable thought, even if it would have been as recently as one year ago.

Such is the cost of moderate success.

For Arizona, beating Arizona State was more cathartic than necessary. While losing to the Sun Devils would not have negated the program’s progress, a defeat at the hands of an inferior rival would have left a bad taste in everyone’s mouths and put a different kind of pressure on Fisch heading into next season. For players who stuck around through the turmoil of the last few years, it was an excellent send-off.

“I feel like this win means a lot, especially for older guys, all the trials and tribulations they’ve been through in their career here,” QB Jayden de Laura said after the win. “ And for the young guys, it just helps them to see that this is how it should be here.

“And this is what is kind of expected with our team that we have. So, it’s a good win going into this offseason, that’s kind of the first thing I told Coach Fisch when we came into the locker room.”

The Territorial Cup victory was satisfying, and the 2022 season was enjoyable. It sends Arizona into the offseason with momentum and a smile, neither of which can be discounted.

The future will present some challenges, most notably ensuring the program does not lose much to the transfer portal and continuing to recruit at a high level while conference and geographical challengers appear to be finding their footing.

None of those concerns are the kind that should derail the progress, especially if the majority of the offense and key players on defense return. The rebuild is not complete, but it is clearly ahead of schedule.

It’s been a little bit since there were legitimate expectations for Arizona Football. We’re back to that point. For the first time since 2018, the pressure is on.

Because starting next year five wins will not be enough, Cup or not.