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Charting Arizona football’s path to bowl eligibility

It comes down to 3 specific games, according to our intrepid columnist

arizona-wildcats-football-bowl-eligibility-prediction-analysis-2023-nau Arizona Athletics

The Arizona Wildcats may not be a great team, but they are clearly better than at least three of the opponents on their schedule.

A revenge game against NAU (this is still awful to write) will start the season off on the right note, while games vs. UTEP and at Stanford in Weeks 3 and 4, respectively, should ensure Arizona has a winning record by the time the calendar moves to October.

The Lumberjacks should not have beaten a bad Arizona team two years ago. Aas it stands, some writer on this website wrote at the time that “Arizona is going to beat Northern Arizona on Saturday in Tucson. No matter how down you are on the Wildcats, they would win this game even on their worst day.”

About that.

Well, the same holds true this year and the good news is there’s little reason to be down on these Wildcats. A repeat of 2021 this will not be, as surely the ‘Jacks won’t have enough to keep up with Arizona this season. Meanwhile, neither the Miners nor the Cardinal should have the kind of offense that can match the Wildcats in any kind of shootout. And, if you expect the Arizona defense to improve even a little bit from last season then you understand why the Wildcats are halfway to bowl eligibility before they even run a play.

Conversely, barring Arizona being a total surprise they also will not go to USC and beat the Trojans. Last year’s game in Tucson was a fun and competitive contest, but despite Arizona’s improvements there is still a wide enough gap in talent to where the Wildcats will need to play their best and hope their opponent has an off night. It could happen, but you don’t expect it.

Arizona is also not likely to beat Utah. The back-to-back conference champs have been too good and even if this game is close, the feeling here is that one will go into the L column for the Cats. Sorry.

So here Arizona is, with a 3-2 record.

That means the ‘Cats need to beat three of the lot of Mississippi State, Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, Colorado, UCLA and ASU. No cakewalk, but it’s also not murderer’s row. Winning them all would be great, but we’re looking at reaching a bowl.

Our staff made its season predictions, which you can find here’re pretty bullish.

Arizona is likely to be favored or at least in toss-up games with Colorado and ASU, so we won’t look at those as it’s easy to see why and how Arizona could win. It’s probably why DraftKings Sportsbook has the UA’s season win total at 5

The other five games are all winnable in their own ways, of course, and the beauty of football is that on any given day either team could come out on top. But when looking at the schedule, these three are the most intriguing:

September 30 vs. Washington

At least a handful of people are picking the Huskies to win the Pac-12 this season, and with good reason. They were excellent last season and return the bulk of the roster, including star QB Michael Penix Jr. The Huskies won their last seven games in 2022, a streak that started with a home victory over Arizona.

That game was actually pretty close, and if not for an interesting late flag Arizona may have been in position to pull of the upset. But that’s only part of why the Cats can look at this matchup with a smirk.

Historically Washington just doesn’t consistently play well in Arizona. Just before knocking off the Cats last season the team went to ASU and lost to a Sun Devils team that won all of three total games in 2022. It was a day game in October, and with any luck this year’s matchup – which takes place in September – will also take place when the sun is still shining.

Washington’s defense also has room to improve, and if it doesn’t Arizona is one of the few teams that can really, truly keep up with them. Add in the visitors will be hitting their bye the following week and then facing Oregon the week after, it’s entirely possible their focus will be elsewhere.

These teams often play games that are closer than they should be. Arizona has lost its last six matchups with Washington, but two of the three games in Tucson were decided by one score and the game that wasn’t saw Arizona lead at halftime before the wheels came off. If this one stays close, the home team will have a great opportunity to pull off a big, early-season upset.

October 14 at Washington State

Arizona’s performance against Washington State in a 31-20 loss last season left much to be desired. With bowl eligibility still on the line, Jayden de Laura was at his worst and the game wasn’t even close. So why could this year be different?

For starters, de Laura will not be facing his former team for the first time so his emotions should be in check. Further, Washington State is a solid-but-not-dominant team who will be coming off a road game against UCLA and looking ahead to a road tilt with Oregon the following week.

Usually Arizona travels to Pullman later in the season for a really cold and snowy night game. Hopefully this one is during the day with the sun shining, but even if it’s not the Wildcats’ improvements on both sides of the ball should give them a chance.

This is far from a guaranteed win, but it is a winnable game and the kind of game a fringe bowl team needs to come up with.

November 4 vs. UCLA

Is this one obvious? Arizona went on the road and beat a ranked UCLA last season and historically plays the Bruins well, especially at home.

Chip Kelly’s squad is usually interesting, and as they break in a new starting QB this season it’s fair to wonder just how good they will be. Maybe they won’t be any good and by the time this game is played it looks like a should win for Arizona.

Or, perhaps UCLA is its usual solid-to-good self and comes into Tucson with something real to play for. In any case, nothing this offseason made it seem like whatever gap may have existed between the programs widened; in fact, it probably narrowed.

Unlike the other games on this list, it doesn’t take much effort to imagine Arizona beating UCLA. The blueprint for Jedd Fisch and his team is there.

And finally, this game represents the only time all season Arizona will play back-to-back home games, having hosted Oregon State the week before, so that will be nice. It will also be Homecoming, so that has to count for something.

Odds/lines subject to change. T&Cs apply. See for details.