Season three was supposed to be the one where Jedd Fisch finally got Arizona back to a bowl game. Greatness was not expected, but at least six wins were.
Then it turned out that the Pac-12, in its final season, was arguably the best it has ever been.
Arizona’s nonconference schedule wasn’t the toughest, but in-conference the Cats are set to face off with ranked team after ranked team after ranked team after ranked team.
Fisch alluded to that fact Thursday.
“I think we’re the only team in college football that’s playing back-to-back top-10 teams,” he said of facing No. 7 Washington last week and ninth-ranked USC this week. “And on our schedule is back-to-back-to-back undefeated teams.”
So about that bowl game.
By the time the Wildcats finish with Oregon State, currently ranked 15th, it’s possible UCLA and/or Colorado will find their way back into the top 25. Oh, and a date with ranked Utah awaits in mid-November.
Five weeks in it is clear the Wildcats are, in fact, a pretty good team. Their defense has taken a massive step forward from last season and the offense, while underwhelming at times, still has a number of playmakers. Their 3-2 mark, 1-1 in the Pac-12, is about where most expected them to be at this time, though it stings a bit that they couldn’t pull off the upset in Starkville.
Even so, their improvement is more visible on the field than it is on the scoreboard and, conversely, the standings. It’s not what we expected going into the season, not after the jump the program took last year and the improvements that appeared to have been made in the offseason.
So in lieu of actual victories, are we still living in the land of accepting the moral kind?
To be clear, a bowl game is still very much on the table. Arizona is already halfway there and just because they are facing tough teams does not mean they can’t beat any of them. Ranked or not, no one left on the schedule is of the caliber of a Georgia, Michigan, Ohio State or any of the programs you absolutely can’t see the Wildcats competing with.
But other than the last final matchup of the season against ASU, the Cats are unlikely to be favored to win any of their remaining games. That says more about their opponents than it does them, and upsets are hardly impossible to pull off.
But if Arizona is unable to do what it takes to get to a bowl, provided its losses to the ranked teams are more like last week’s against Washington, it would be hard to see the season as a failure. A disappointment, yes. But not a failure.
It may actually be viewed as a success.
Think back to the Washington game, which Arizona lost 31-24. That Arizona was able to hang around with their backup quarterback, without their first-string running back and after spotting the Huskies 14 points showed something. The defense held the Huskies to season lows across the board and did not surrender a touchdown pass to Heisman Trophy candidate Michael Penix Jr.
Just like its finish against Stanford, once again with their backup QB while playing a sub-part game on the road, Arizona battled. Facing an inferior opponent, that was enough.
You can even go back to the loss against Mississippi State and see how Arizona not only plays hard, as it has since Fisch arrived, but also has enough talent to not have to play perfect in order to have a chance in most games.
That’s a very good thing and certainly not something that could have been said of the program in recent years. It represents another step on the path toward Arizona reaching its goals, and a monumental one at that.
Now, it was and is perfectly reasonable to expect Arizona to reach a bowl game this season. The transfer portal, if managed well, can hasten any rebuild, and it’s evident that Fisch and his staff have done a good job there. The additions from other college programs were added to a roster that has fared well in traditional recruiting and player development, which is why this year’s Wildcats team is one of the most talented we have seen in a while.
Any other season this roster would absolutely be good enough to reach the postseason, likely with room to spare. That knowledge is what is making watching this team, this season, so frustrating.
It’s true that Arizona has not played well the entire season, especially offensively. And yes, for all the improvements the defense has made they are hardly a dominant group, having forced just three turnovers — all fumbles — through five games.
But yet in spite of that they look every bit the bowl team, at least in terms of what we’ve seen from Arizona. Lesser Wildcats squads had no trouble getting to seven wins in the regular season, obviously with help from a conference that didn’t put up much of a fight.
This year’s version has no such good fortune. If the 2023 Wildcats are to win the minimum three more games they will do so by pulling off at least two upsets, with a good chance of at least one of those being of a ranked opponent. A good team can do it, but a team need not do it in order to be considered good.