Arizona’s football season ended Thursday night in the best way it could have.
Arizona 38, Oklahoma 24.
The team’s victory in the Alamo Bowl was a fitting end to a season that surpassed even the most optimist of expectations. The win was Arizona’s 10th of the season, and as the Sooners were ranked 12th when the game was played, it was the team’s fifth over a then-ranked opponent.
Now, if you believe a healthy and fully-loaded Oklahoma beats a healthy and fully-loaded Arizona, that’s fine. You might be right.
The thing is, we’ll never know. All Arizona could do Thursday in San Antonio was beat the team that was in front of them, and even without several key players this was not a roster bereft of high-end talent.
At times it seemed like the Sooners would be too much for the Wildcats, but as has been the case since Jedd Fisch took over Arizona never quit and, to borrow a phrase oft-used by the head coach, didn’t flinch.
That it happened on national TV was even better.
During and since the win the college football world has been inundated with talk about the job Fisch has done in turning the program around. People tuning in saw a team that created big plays on offense and defense and got to enjoy as future NFL draft picks Jacob Cowing and Tetairoa McMillan had their way with the Sooners’ secondary. They got to hear the story of Noah Fifita, the redshirt freshman QB who took over in Week 4 and never looked back. They learned of Martell Irby’s incredible and inspiring journey.
They got to experience the Turnover Sword in all its glory, and then did so again and again and again and again and again.
There is more to it, of course. This year’s team had a delightful blend of talent, stories and personalities, all of which get the spotlight when they are accompanied by wins.
Simply making it into the Alamo Bowl to play the opponent they did qualified the season as a success. The truth is while the win is great it doesn’t really change much with regards to how the season should be viewed or what the future could bring.
Now with the 2023 campaign officially in the rearview mirror, it’s time to look ahead.
“Well, I told our guys we’re going to enjoy tonight, okay,” Fisch said Thursday when asked about the pending move to the Big 12. “We’re going to put an end to this season.
“Tonight was the last game of this season. Then we’ll take a little break and we’ll come back, and then we’ll start preparing for the Big 12. We’ll be going into the Big 12 with a lot of momentum. We’re on a 7-game win streak. It’s pretty awesome for Arizona football to be on a 7-game win streak.”
Indeed it is.
Perhaps best of all is that unlike the last time Arizona was in a similar position, 2014, this seems sustainable. Time will tell if the transfer portal takes any key guys from the roster, but if not the Cats are set to return the vast majority of Thursday’s starters as well as a healthy amount of the key depth. Adding in another recruiting class, the continued development of the ‘22 and ‘23 classes and whatever portal additions may come their way there’s really no reason not to think the team will enter 2024 as a favorite to win a conference that lacks a true power now that Texas and Oklahoma are heading to the SEC.
Then again, Arizona did just beat Oklahoma so maybe it’s ready for that kind of challenge, too.
Fisch, his staff and his players deserve a break and the chance to relish in what they accomplished. But for the rest of us, August 2024 can’t get here soon enough because next season is going to come with excitement not seen in Tucson for a long, long time.
It’s funny to look at a season that saw 10 wins as a bridge, but in many ways this season was always about the future. That the present was far better than expected does nothing to change that.
What it does do, however, is raise the expectations once again.
In proving he can win at Arizona Fisch now must continue to, well, win at Arizona. He and his staff no longer have the excuse of being new or having to suffer through the struggles of a rebuild, because as of now the program has officially arrived.
“Two years ago we started this journey and uh we were coming off — we got hired here, we went 1-11, and everybody believed in what we were trying to get done,” Fisch said, before pointing out the handful of players who were joining him at the podium. “Just for this team, the amount of players we have that joined us while we were going through the adversity, for them to be able to experience this now is pretty amazing.”
Arizona’s now is much better than its then. And because of that, the future is something to look forward to.