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Arizona football: Wildcats to treat Alamo Bowl as ‘championship game’ after breakout season

arizona-wildcats-football-alamo-bowl-san-antonio-oklahoma-sooners-jedd-fisch-history-season-2023 Photo by Chris Coduto/Getty Images

With room for more than 80 teams and only 133 playing at the FBS level, mathematically it’s not that hard to make a bowl game. In fact, all but eight programs have gone bowling at least once in the previous five seasons.

Arizona is one of those eight. When it plays Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl on Dec. 28 it will be its first bowl appearance since the 2017 Foster Farms Bowl. Only UNLV, with its previous appearance coming in 2013, is ending a larger bowl drought this month.

Getting to play in arguably the biggest non-New Year’s Six game on the schedule, both in terms of bowl payout and ranking of teams—No. 12 vs. No. 14 in the final College Football Playoff rankings—is a heck of a way to cap off one of the best seasons in school history, one that comes less than three years removed from a 20-game losing streak.

Even better would be winning that game.

“I think the goal is to win,” UA coach Jedd Fisch said Monday. “The team that wins the bowl game is the team that takes it more serious. There’s two ways to prepare for a bowl game. You could choose it as a celebration of the season, or you could choose it as a championship game. We’re gonna choose as a championship game.”

It could be a different story for Oklahoma, which saw starting quarterback Dillon Gabriel enter the NCAA transfer portal Monday. The Sooners have had several other players enter the portal as well, including a starting safety and their second-leading rusher, while none of the five Arizona players to enter so far have been regular contributors on offense or defense.

Arizona last won a bowl game in 2015, beating New Mexico in the New Mexico Bowl. Its last victory in a high-profile bowl was the 1998 Holiday against Nebraska, though beating BYU in the 2008 Las Vegas Bowl could also qualify. That ‘08 team laid the groundwork for future successful seasons, with trips to the Holiday Bowl in 2009 and Alamo Bowl in 2010, and Fisch is hoping for a similar springboard.

Maybe one that a pair of playoff teams got from meeting in San Antonio last December.

“Obviously, Alamo Bowl is a great spot,” he said. “Texas played Washington last year in it, and now Texas plays Washington in the CFP. So wouldn’t that be cool, if that was a precursor? You go to the Alamo Bowl and then the next year you go to the CFP, wouldn’t that be something special?”

By making a bowl, Arizona gets an additional 15 practices to both prepare for that game but also further develop players expected to return in 2024. That may not seem like a big deal, but Fisch notes that since 2017 Utah—who was two-time defending Pac-12 champion entering this season—has gotten 90 more practices than the Wildcats because of being bowl eligible each winter.

“Training camp is only 28 practices, so you’re talking about three more training camps than we had to be able to compete,” Fisch said. “The momentum comes from really just getting better. And the team is around each other more. The team believes in each other more, they’re closer together. And sure when you’re playing December 28 and on ESPN, recruits are gonna notice it and they’re gonna see how you play the game. The way we play the game, people should want to come here. We play the game in a manner that people should say I want to go play at Arizona, and I really don’t care about the rest.”

Barring bowl opt-outs, Arizona figures to have several future NFL players in action against Oklahoma, some of whom will get drafted in the spring to end the school’s two-year draft drought.

“We’ll have a ton of players that will be in the NFL next year and years beyond that,” Fisch said. “We’re watched by NFL GMs, we’re watched by NFL coaches. Most coaches in (that) league can tell you how Arizona did every Saturday. I don’t think that a lot of other programs can say that. And that’s why I think that the bowl momentum will be nice. I heard from a lot of NFL head coaches yesterday, congratulating us on going to the Alamo Bowl, and the importance of that game, and that’s the momentum.”

Fisch said his coaching staff is already on the road recruiting, while he’ll join them Tuesday. The players will run and lift the next few days before getting in two practices Friday and Saturday, getting in more lifts and runs early next week and then beginning official bowl prep on Dec. 15. Arrival in San Antonio is either Dec. 23 or 24, and in addition to practice the team will visit SeaWorld on Christmas Day and participate in a rally Dec. 26 along the city’s famed Riverwalk.

“We’ll spend about four or five days there, really be able to experience what a bowl game is like, the way the bowl games are supposed to be done,” Fisch said. “Which is, you get there early and be able to experience practice at the bowl site and then be ready to roll. So that’ll be our plan. We should have a great December. The kids will be able to go home after the bowl game, not before, so they’ll be with us all the way through December 28.”