The Arizona Wildcats just completed the fourth 10-win season in school history, the first since 2014, after rallying to beat Oklahoma in the Alamo Bowl for their first bowl victory in eight years. That win came a little more than two years after ending a school-record 20-game losing streak.
The 10 wins are the most by an FBS team since 1960 within two years of having lost at least 20 in a row. The previous best was South Carolina, which won nine games in 2001 not long after a 21-game skid.
The program’s major—and swift—turnaround under Jedd Fisch has brought it the kind of national attention that’s normally reserved for Arizona’s men’s basketball program. Football has been in the national spotlight like this a few times before, but in those previous instances the rise didn’t continue. If anything, it swiftly dropped.
Following a 10-2 season in 1993, capped by a shutout win over Miami in the Fiesta Bowl, Arizona was tabbed by Sports Illustrated as its preseason No. 1 team. The Wildcats would start out 4-0 before a shocking home loss to Colorado State and finish 8-4.
Five years later, after posting the best record in school history—12-1—the UA was a the preseason No. 4 team in 1999 but got bulldozed at Penn State to open the season and went 6-6. A year later, Dick Tomey was forced out.
And after the surprising 10-win performance in 2014, which included Arizona’s only appearance in the Pac-12 title game, it dipped to 7-6 and was 3-9 a year after that.
Those all happened in a very different college football environment, though, one without pseudo-free agency and the allure of long-deserved player compensation for their name, image and likeness. Those era also didn’t have a full-fledged playoff, like FBS will debut in 2024 with the expansion to 12 teams competing for a national title instead of four the past decade.
It’s much harder to keep a team together from one year to the next, but Arizona looks like it might be able to do that. It will no doubt be ranked in the preseason Associated Press Top 25 for the first time since 2015 and just 11th time in school history.
But could the UA be a legit national title contender next year, as well as a frontrunner to win the Big 12 Conference in its first season of membership? Here’s our assessment of how things look for the program going into the offseason:
The projected roster
The NCAA transfer portal officially closes on Wednesday, Jan. 3, and as of now Arizona has seen 11 players from the 2023 roster opt to go elsewhere for next year.
The most notable departure is quarterback Jayden de Laura, who started 16 games after coming over from Washington State before an injury (and Noah Fifita’s performance) relegated him to the backup. Sunday’s announcement by reserve defensive lineman Jacob Kongaika that he was entering the portal hurts from a depth standpoint, but that’s one area where the Wildcats aren’t lacking in options.
Assuming there are no other significant losses to the portal, either now or during the post-spring practice window, Arizona is set to return 16 starters from the Alamo Bowl win over Oklahoma. There are currently 29 players on the 2024 roster who have started a game for the UA, combining for 294 starts: 93 in the secondary, 87 on the offensive line and 57 apiece in the defensive front seven and at the skill positions.
The UA has so far landed four players from the portal, most recently ex-Northwestern offensive lineman Alexander Doost, and signed 17 high school and junior college players in the early signing period last month.
Going into 2024, the roster has approximately 82 of 85 scholarships available. That’s factoring in players who have eligibility remaining who may be done with football, such as Senior Day participants Roberto Miranda and Anthony Patt and redshirt offensive lineman Jacob Reece, who may medically retire due to a heart issue that has prevented him from playing the last two seasons.
The graduation of potential first-round pick Jordan Morgan is by far Arizona’s biggest loss, and his absence during the Alamo Bowl was noticeable. Adding Doost from Northwestern gives offensive line coach Brennan Carroll another option to fill the opening starting job, most likely right guard, but another portal pickup there couldn’t hurt.
Arizona started six different players on the defensive line and had 10 log at least 100 snaps. Four of those have graduated, including two full-time starters, and one has transferred. Both ex-UC Davis tackle Chubba Ma’ae and junior college add Bryce Butler will help fill that void, but if defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen intends to stick with the same rotation scheme—why break what clearly doesn’t need fixing—the UA will probably add at least one more to the trenches while also hoping some of the younger guys develop into usable pieces.
A reliable second linebacker to pair with Jacob Manu is also a big need, as that was a revolving door in 2023. Justin Flowe and Daniel Heimuli both couldn’t hold onto the spot, with Heimuli since transferring, and defensive back Martell Irby ended up becoming the de-facto MLB down the stretch. Taye Brown and Kamuela Ka’aihue both showed promise in limited action and should both be in the mix for a bigger role, and 2023 4-star signee Leviticus Su’a has had a year to learn the system, but if a plug-and-play ‘backer can be found in the portal Arizona will probably make a push for them.
The other two transfer pickups, ex-Indiana cornerback Jordan Shaw and ex-Tennessee safety Jack Luttrell, provide depth for positions that return every starter for 2024. Safety Genesis Smith was the most impactful freshman on defense and is the heir apparent on the back line.
One or more of the UA’s many young receivers will need to prove they deserve the open starting receiver spot, while Rayshon ‘Speedy’ Luke and redshirted Brandon Johnson will have to hold off incoming freshman speedster Jordan Washington for carries behind Jonah Coleman. If those things don’t happen in the spring then the portal may be the answer in the summer, if not sooner.
The 2024 schedule
The Big 12 is expected to release the official 2024 schedule some time this month, and the order of Arizona’s nine conference games will impact win projections. For now, though, we know the UA will host ASU, Colorado, Houston, Texas Tech and West Virginia and visit BYU, TCU, UCF and Utah. The Wildcats open the season at home against New Mexico and NAU and then end nonconference play at Kansas State, a Big 12 opponent that it had previously scheduled a home-and-home series to start this fall.
The 11 FBS opponents combined to go 64-73 in 2023, and only five played in bowl games. Using their most recent performances as a barometer, Arizona’s “toughest” road opponents figure to be K-State (9-5) and Utah (8-5), while West Virginia (9-4) has the best record of the foes coming to Tucson.
All five road games figure to be difficult, though, since they’re either new locales or ones Arizona has not had much success at. The home slate is far easier, on paper.