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What to watch for when Arizona football hosts Utah in Top 25 clash on Senior Day

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-utah-utes-pac12-seniors-championship-2023-analysis Photo by Chris Gardner/ Getty Images

Ahead of his first home finale two years ago, Jedd Fisch referred to Utah as “the model” for how he wants Arizona’s program to look. This didn’t sit well with some fans, who apparently didn’t think a team that hasn’t had a losing record since 2013 to be a high enough benchmark.

The Utes would win 38-29 in Tucson a few days later, going on to claim the first of back-to-back Pac-12 titles and consecutive trips to the Rose Bowl, while the UA finished up a 1-11 campaign.

Now, Arizona (7-3, 5-2 Pac-12) and Utah (7-3, 4-3) have the same overall record. The Wildcats are ahead of the Utes in the conference standings and in the College Football Playoff rankings, with No. 16 Utah three spots ahead in the AP poll.

“I think we’re still a lot of years behind them in regards to the consistency of their program,” Fisch said Thursday. “They’ve been able to consistently go out there every week and have a brand that everybody nationally recognizes at this point in time. We’re at the very infant stages of that, we’re very new in that world. We’re trying to establish that brand. We’re proud of the fact that we’re matching up head to head against the team that we have the utmost of respect for. But in the end, it’s can you consistently do what they’ve done over the course of time.”

Arizona began the week as a small underdog but has moved to a 1-point favorite, per DraftKings Sportsbook, an indication that bettors have noticed what it has done during a 4-game win streak that included victories over three ranked teams. The UA hasn’t been favored against Utah since 2013, and the previous four games had closing spreads of 13.5 or more.

“We’ve got a champion coming in here,” Fisch said. “Certainly it’s a championship opportunity, it’s a championship game so many different ways. And we’ve got to take advantage of this moment as a program.”

Here’s what to watch for when Arizona and Utah meet on Senior Day:

So many sendoffs

According to our extremely (not very) scientific scholarship and eligibility tracker, Arizona’s roster includes 15 players who are in their final year of college football and thus will be playing their final home game on Saturday. There are more than a dozen Wildcats who are academic seniors who have or are soon to graduate but could return for another year or more.

Fisch said Arizona plans to honor all of the players who have been in the program for four or more years, as well as transfers who are out of eligibility, but the exact number who will walk during pregame activities remains fluid.

“Don’t ask me who’s walking because I don’t know,” he said. “Some will walk and return, some will walk and graduate, some have graduated and will re-walk, some have walked and won’t walk. Some haven’t walked and won’t walk. So I know we have a lot of people that are and some that aren’t.”

Those for sure to be walking including Jordan Morgan and Michael Wiley, fifth-year seniors who opted to return for a final season rather than start their pro careers after 2022. Morgan said earlier in the week he’s been looking forward to getting a redo on Senior Day, since he walked last year in street clothes after suffering a season-ending knee injury the week before.

“They were here before we arrived, they stayed committed and then they say committed to our program after a year of 1-11,” Fisch said. “They didn’t go try to transfer. After a year or 5-7 they didn’t declare for the NFL Draft. They both decided to return for their fifth years and wanted to really make an impact in the program and change the culture, and they did that. Those guys have meant the world to this program, and I hope that they get rewarded for it. I’m sure that they will when it comes to the NFL Draft this year. But what you’re also gonna see, you’re gonna see guys like that be able to be spokespeople for Arizona football in the years to come.”

Others expected to walk include sixth-year special teams guru Nazar Bombata, whom Fisch said was put on scholarship for this semester, and long snapper Seth MacKellar.

“Everybody on our team has to fulfill their 1/110th, they bring something to the program or they wouldn’t be here,” Fisch said.

Controlling the game

Arizona managed to win at Colorado last week despite losing the time of possession battle—the first time that’s happened since the Pac-12 opener at Stanford—and having a memory deficit in average starting field position. The Wildcats’ average start was their own 21, compared to the Buffs’ 37 thanks to three drives that began in UA territory and another just shy of midfield.

Colorado scored touchdowns with those first three short fields before missing a go-ahead field goal on the final one.

In last year’s 45-20 loss at Utah the field position discrepancy was 42-21 in favor of the home team. The Utes had four drives starting at midfield or better, scoring 24 points on those possessions.

“You’ve got to be able to control the game against a team like this,” Fisch said. “Over the course of years they’ve controlled the game. They run the ball when they need to run the ball. They’re not afraid to punt you back and play great defense get and then win the field position battle on the return.”

Utah is fifth in FBS in average time of possession (33:23.5) despite being second-worst in the Pac-12 in total offense. The Utes have the top punter in terms of average kick and have only turned it over eight times, five of those coming in their three losses.

Keeping the focus on the immediate

In many UA fans’ minds, the most important game of the season is next week. That’s when Arizona takes the 100-mile ride to Tempe to face ASU, bringing the Territorial Cup with it for the first time in seven years.

Recent history shows the team itself has struggled not to look ahead to that rivalry, as the Wildcats haven’t won the pre-ASU game since 2015 (ironically an overtime home win over Utah).

“We know the importance and significance of the following week, but all of our focus is on this championship game that we have this Saturday,” Fisch said.

Using the c-word wasn’t just hyperbole. Arizona is still in the hunt for a berth in the Pac-12 Championship Game but needs to win out and get some help for that to happen. And just like he said he didn’t tiptoe around mentioning becoming bowl eligible a few weeks ago, he’s not stayed quiet about his team’s title game chances.

“We’ve been very clear about that: if you want to play in the Pac-12 Championship game, you got to win on Saturday,” he said. “Then gotta win again (next) Saturday, and then you need Oregon State to beat Oregon. That’s what has to happen. So we don’t shy away from it. That’s just the bottom line. And that’s why we all work this hard. We’ve talked a little bit about the difference between sacrifice and investment. And everything that we’ve asked our team to do is invest in themselves to be able to put ourselves in position to have that conversation. So once we got into the conversation we don’t want to shy away from it.”

Here are all the scenarios for the five schools still vying for the two spots in the Dec. 1 game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas, per the Pac-12:

arizona-wildcats-football-preview-utah-utes-pac12-seniors-championship-2023-analysis Pac-12