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Someone at my day job – OK, it was my boss, so I guess I should provide a proper response – asked me this week if I was “still optimistic” about the Arizona Wildcats football team.
I mean, if you consider being part of the crowd that thought the Wildcats were going to go over the preseason 5.5-win total at BetMGM and therefore invested a Jackson on said wager, then, yes, perhaps I have been strolling on the sunny side of the street.
But optimism sounds almost too … optimistic.
I’m comfortable with the Wildcats.
Where are you on the scale?
- Rose-colored glasses
- Maybe these clowns will beat ASU
The Wildcats are 3-2, which is where reasonable folks thought they would/could/should be at this point in the season. They play at No. 9 USC this Saturday, after which they likely will be 3-3. Then comes a road game against a very nice and high-powered Washington State team that enters this week ranked No. 13. So, 3-4.
If that happens, that’s where Arizona should be. No big deal. No pessimism. I’d still be sitting comfortably if the Wildcats were 3-4.
After that, the Wildcats would have to find three wins in five games to get bowl-eligible:
In order of most probable:
1. At Arizona State on Nov. 25 – Will the Sun Devils be looking for their first conference win?
2. UCLA, Nov. 4 – Cats did win last season in Pasadena, when the Bruins were better.
3. At Colorado, Nov. 11 – Boulder is absolutely rockin’ these days, but this one is gettable.
4. Oregon State, Oct. 28 – Lovin’ what Jonathan Smith has done with the Beavers, but we’re due for a Tucson upset, right?
5. Utah, Nov. 18 – Utes’ physicality has been a problem for UA. On the other hand, will Utah’s offense be fixed late in the season?
So, overall, I’m still comfortable with Arizona being able to order up some kind of three-win combo from that menu.
What about the Wildcats’ defense?
I’m actually less comfortable about a defense that is physically and statistically improved. But we’re now in Season 9 of the turnover wasteland that is Arizona’s post-Pac-12-South-winning era. That 2014 defense wasn’t historically great like the Desert Swarm teams were – although Scooby Wright’s award-winning season certainly was – but that was the last season in which Arizona routinely covered for its other shortcomings and changed the outcomes of games due to turnover margin.
Led by Scooby (six forced fumbles) and football-magnet Tra’Mayne Bondurant (five forced fumbles, three recoveries, two interceptions), the Wildcats were plus-8 that season.
Since then, Arizona is minus-51 in turnover margin. It was last nationally in this category in 2021. It was second to last in 2020. The Wildcats are minus-5 in five games this season.
I neither had the patience nor inclination to research how minus-51 stacked up to other Pac-12 teams in that span, but the Wildcats’ number is probably the worst, and you get the point anyway. Minus-51 is minus-51 is minus-51.
The Wildcats are 4-17 against ranked teams since the end of the 2014 season, and you probably see what’s coming here. What’s the theme in those four rare upsets? Arizona, if only briefly, changed the narrative and was a cumulative plus-4 in turnovers, never losing the turnover battle in any of those games.
When you’re the underdog, turnovers are the great leveler. Mostly, though, Arizona has been getting leveled.
One of the first steps toward turnover-creation is pressuring the passer, which the Wildcats are doing much better these days (finally, and yay!). And yet the increased chaos (30 tackles for loss, 11 sacks this season) has resulted in exactly zero interceptions so far.
Meanwhile, I am comfortable with Noah Fifita at quarterback. Coach Jedd Fisch didn’t say earlier this week if Jayden de Laura is returning from an ankle injury to play against the Trojans, and I’m mostly hoping he doesn’t. De Laura, who can be brilliant, has been a regular root cause of lopsidedly bad turnover margins.
Maybe Fifita will be, too. Maybe not. Maybe he’ll be a better quarterback. Maybe not. But I’m comfortable finding out if he is he is the future … and I’d like to find out as soon as possible.
Not even sure what that is anymore with Arizona football because the bar has been pulled so low. But I’m OK chillin’ at the six-win mark and giving Fisch’s upgraded recruiting efforts more time to percolate.
Your comfort level may vary.
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