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An early look at the 2024 Wildcats and Big 12 football

Anthony Gimino Avatar
January 6, 2024
Arizona Wildcats linebacker Jacob Manu sacks Arizona State quarterback Jaden Rashada in 2023. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

The 2024 preseason Big 12 football favorite will be a team that won 10 games this season, beat Oklahoma, and returns a high number of starters, including All-America talent on offense.

The Oklahoma State Cowboys.

OK, kidding Arizona Wildcats fans!

As of now, I’m leaning toward the Wildcats, who will finish right around No. 10 in the final AP poll thanks to a seven-game winning streak that included the thriller over the Sooners in the Alamo Bowl. Oklahoma State – which had a surprising season of its own at 10-4 with a Big 12 title game appearance – won’t be far behind.

Emphasis on as of now.

Team projections can change in small or big ways based on transfer transactions (there is still a two-week window for football from April 16 to April 30 for players to enter), injuries and coaching moves.

Just this week, Oklahoma State got big news with the NCAA ruling for a seventh year of eligibility for quarterback Alan Bowman. He passed for 3,460 yards this season, including 402 in a bowl win over Texas A&M.

Bowman returns in the backfield with Ollie Gordon II (who won the Doak Walker Award as the nation’s leading running back), and the entire offensive line (expertly coached by former Arizona player and assistant coach Charlie Dickey) is slated to be back.

Wildcats have to find a new DC superhero

On the other hand …

On Saturday, the Wildcats got bad news with the announcement that defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen was leaving for Texas, where he will be the co-defensive coordinator and linebackers coach. Nansen has overseen a remarkable improvement of the Wildcats defense in the past two seasons.

Nansen has a strong relationship with Texas coach Steve Sarkisian, and this move had been rumored to be in the works.

Nansen’s departure is not ideal and this will be a test for coach Jedd Fisch to find the next guy up – perhaps that coach is already on the staff – but it’s more in the “small news” category. Fisch has deep connections through the NFL and college, and he has a step-into-a-great-opportunity job for whoever he decides to target for the job.

I trust Fisch on this one.

I also wouldn’t argue if he makes the great Duane Akina the next coordinator. Akina, a stalwart on Dick Tomey’s staffs at Arizona, rejoined the program after the 2022 season as the safeties coach, infusing a new generation of Wildcats with energy, enthusiasm and expertise.

PHNX Wildcats host Mike Luke with a one-minute breakdown on the departure of Johnny Nansen.

Akina’s presence also had much to do with the Wildcats going from 125th nationally in scoring defense (36.5 points per game) in 2022 to 29th this year (21.1).

Credit the coaching staff and Nansen’s adjustable 4-2-5 scheme, but no scheme works without the players. And the Wildcats have, as of now, eight starters returning on defense for 2024.

The list starts with linebacker Jacob Manu, a tackling machine who figures to pile All-Big 12 honors onto the first-team All-Pac-12 honor he received this season. The Wildcats have tall cover men (Ephesians Prysock, Tacario Davis), Alamo Bowl hero safety Gunner Maldonado, versatile Treydan Stukes, line anchor Bill Norton and emerging players such as edge rusher Russell “Deuce” Davis II.

Fisch will be looking to select a few more portal pieces.

Another pass rusher to replace Taylor Upshaw would be nice. A plug-and-play middle linebacker, especially in the more run-heavy Big 12 – did you know the Big 12 was first among conferences with 4.69 yards per rush? – seems vital. Can never say no to more rotational players on the interior of the line.

No matter who is the coordinator, the defense has a chance to be elite in 2024.

We know the offense – Noah Fifita, Tetairoa McMillan, Jonah Coleman, a strong OL core – will be.

So, yes, Arizona and Oklahoma State make the most sense to be at the top of the new-look Big 12 next season. The expanded lineups of the SEC and Big Ten will soak up most of the college football oxygen, but the Big 12 is full of tough, gritty teams who figure to live in the back end of the Top 25.

Utah (8-5 in 2023) is still Utah and will bring back quarterback Cam Rising, whose season was wiped out due to a knee injury.

Kansas State (9-4) lost quarterback Will Howard to Ohio State but is ready to unleash youngster Avery Johnson, pairing him with 1,200-yard rusher DJ Giddens. West Virginia surged to a 9-4 record in 2023, saving coach Neal Brown’s job and then some.

Devin Neal is returning for his senior season at Kansas (9-4) after rushing for 1,280 yards, joining quarterback Jalon Daniels, who missed the majority of the season due to injury after being selected the Big 12’s preseason Offensive Player of the Year.

Colorado, with coach Deion Sanders, is the ultimate wildcard. TCU was playing in the national championship game just one year ago. Texas Tech finished well and brings back Tahj Brooks (1,538 yards). UCF added Arkansas transfer quarterback KJ Jefferson, a run-pass threat to pair with running back RJ Harvey (1,416 yards), who is returning for his sixth season in college.

I’m telling ya, this league is stacked with backs.

Even with no more Nansen, I like Arizona’s chances.

Follow Anthony Gimino on X

Top photo: Arizona Wildcats linebacker Jacob Manu sacks Arizona State quarterback Jaden Rashada in 2023. (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

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