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One more before 2024: Wildcats should beat Oklahoma

Anthony Gimino Avatar
December 27, 2023
Arizona Wildcats wide receiver Jacob Cowing reacts after a touchdown against Arizona State (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

I think the Arizona Wildcats football team is going to beat 10-2 Oklahoma.

That is a sentence I never thought I would be able to write – and, like, totally mean it — on Dec. 27, 2023.

If I had written those words in that order back on Sept. 1 when I started to provide some coverage on the Wildcats for PHNX Sports, you would have thought:

  • Oh, so that’s why AG left sportswriting for a while.
  • Should we call 9-1-1?
  • Well, there must be a crazy enough timeline somewhere in the multiverse …

But, here we are, in this time, in this reality, and the reality is that No. 14 Arizona is not only my favorite to win Thursday night’s Alamo Bowl in San Antonio but the oddsmakers agree. The Wildcats are about a 3-point favorite against the 12th-ranked Sooners.

And they are motivated.

“This is our championship game,” Wildcats linebacker Martell Irby said at an Alamo Bowl press conference on Tuesday.

The college football world did not see this Arizona team coming in 2023. Improved after a 5-7 record in 2022? For sure. Getting to a low-level bowl game? Reasonable.

Winners of six in a row against what turned out to be a hellacious Pac-12 lineup and aiming for only the fourth season with double-digit victories in school history?

Abso-freaking-lutely not.

Ahem. It was just 26 months ago that the Wildcats were on a 20-game losing streak.

But nothing about what third-year coach Jedd Fisch has done to rebuild Arizona is fluky.

Wildcats have ‘no weakness’

The Wildcats are constructed with strong lines, multiple weapons on offense, double-digit future NFL players, a tall secondary, more-than-solid special teams, a leader to rally around on defense in linebacker Jacob Manu, and a precocious freshman quarterback in Noah Fifita.

“There’s no weakness,” Oklahoma defensive coordinator Ted Roof said of the Wildcats offense.

“Tremendous balance; explosive plays in the run game and the pass game. Their offensive line is well-coached. They know how they’re protecting and also who to target in the run game. But their quarterback, he’s pretty special. …

“You can just feel as you watch the tape. You sense a sense of confidence and belief that they have in him.”

Fifita has completed 217 of 295 passes for 2,515 yards with 23 touchdowns and five interceptions since taking over in the fourth quarter of the fourth game of the season. He is eighth nationally in passing efficiency (167.5 rating) and will find out a day after the bowl game if he has been selected for the Shaun Alexander Award, given to the top freshman in the country.

PHNX Wildcats host Mike Luke and Jason Scheer discuss Wildcats basketball and the Alamo Bowl as a springboard to a high 2024 preseason ranking for Arizona football.

As for the UA defense, Oklahoma players were complimentary, too. Arizona has made the nearly unimaginable jump from 124th nationally in total defense (467.7 yards per game) to 37th (340.9).

“They’re very disciplined,” said Oklahoma’s leading receiver, Drake Stoops.

“They definitely know where they’re supposed to be and where their help is and how they can complement each other in their schemes. Yeah, they play sound. They play hard. They’re real strong inside. On the back end they’re disciplined, and they’re all really kind of playing together.”

That’s Arizona. Playing together through the bowl game.

Senior left tackle Jordan Morgan opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft, and after coming back this season following an ACL tear, who could blame him? Morgan is rated No. 24 on the Big Board of ESPN draft analyst Mel Kiper Jr.

Other than that, Arizona has been unaffected by opt-outs or significant transfers.

That’s not true about Oklahoma.

Dillion Gabriel is one of the quarterbacks who is rated higher nationally than Fifita in passing efficiency, but he left Oklahoma to transfer to Oregon. The Sooners also had two starting offensive linemen leave for the NFL Draft, while another OL went into the portal.

The Oklahoma defense lost safety Key Lawrence (transfer), but junior linebacker Danny Stutsman decided to come back for more after picking up some All-America honors.

Nationally, the attention will be on new Sooners dual-threat quarterback Jackson Arnold, a five-star recruit from the 2023 class who will be getting his feet wet in the bowl game before carrying OU into the SEC wars next season.

“I think he’s pretty special,” Arizona defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen said of Arnold. “Obviously, he was a highly recruited kid coming out of high school. He knows the offense. He’s dangerous with his feet.”

Nansen added: “We’re excited. I know our guys are excited to play.”

And that’s perhaps one of the most important parts of this matchup.

This will be Oklahoma’s 25th consecutive bowl appearance. The Alamo is a good bowl, for sure, but, yawn, it’s not the College Football Playoff and it’s not a New Year’s Six bowl, which is the neighborhood in which the Sooners want to live.

Meanwhile, this is Arizona’s first bowl game of any kind since 2017. Hip-hip-hooray!

It feels a bit like 1993 all over again – the Wildcats vs. Miami in the Fiesta Bowl. Or 1998 – Arizona against Nebraska in the Holiday Bowl.

It means more to Arizona.

Irby explained why the bowl is so important for this team.

“We all want to take part in it because it means that much to us,” he said. “We’ve been working since January to end this the right way. We all want to go have fun. We all want to go make memories with our brothers one last time.”

This definitely sounds a memory for a lifetime: The Arizona Wildcats beating a 10-2 Oklahoma team.

And that’s not crazy at all.

Follow Anthony Gimino on X

Top photo: Arizona Wildcats wide receiver Jacob Cowing reacts after a touchdown against Arizona State (Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports)

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