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Having covered the Arizona Wildcats football team for as long as I have, sometimes you get blasted with vibes from way back in the past.
Here we are, in November 2023, and the vibe is November 1992.
I might have seen this movie before.
The circumstances surrounding what Arizona is doing right now aren’t a perfect match to what was going on with Dick Tomey’s program in the nascent Desert Swarm days of 1992, but there is something eerily similar happening with Jedd Fisch’s third Wildcats team. Sense that? Something special is comin’.
Just like it felt in 1992.
I needed to confirm with the one guy who is in the best position to speak to this: Brandon Sanders. He was a standout strong safety on the 1992 team and he’s privy to the meetings rooms in 2023 as the program’s coordinator of football alumni and high school relations.
“I definitely have some feeling that it will be the same because of the foundation Jedd has built,” Sanders said. “This team, they are understanding who they are, and that’s the recipe for winning. This is a well-rounded team, while our 1992 team was more defensive.”
That’s true, but some similarities:
- Both teams were coming off losing seasons.
- Neither team started the season with anything other than modest outside expectations.
- Each team started slowly: 1992 going 1-2-1 with an ugly tie at a horrible Oregon State team; 2023 treading water with a 3-3 record, including a regrettable overtime loss at Mississippi State.
- Each team was boosted by a foundational recruiting class that seemed to grow up all at once.
- Both used a close call against a national power to inspire confidence that all things are possible.
In 1992, that was an 8-7 loss at No. 1 Miami. In 2023, that was the 43-41 triple-overtime loss at USC.
In 1992, Arizona then ran off five consecutive victories, with the first two being against ranked teams – No. 11 UCLA and No. 8 Stanford.
In 2023, the Wildcats have turned around their fortune with consecutive wins against ranked teams – No. 19 Washington State and No. 11 Oregon State.
“Between the USC and the Miami game, I think, yeah, that’s right on the money,” Sanders said. “The similarity is that each team could see they could play at a high clip.”
Tomey often told the story that after the Miami loss in 1992 Sanders exemplified that new confidence, exclaiming, “We can beat everybody.”
“We had that belief,” Sanders said. “I felt sorry for UCLA (the next week), because they didn’t know what was coming.”
And then a month or so after that, in early November, Arizona slapped down No. 1 Washington 16-3. What sometimes is forgotten, though, is the Wildcats lost their final two games – 14-7 at USC and 7-6 against ASU.
“We were not ready for the success at that moment,” Sanders said. “We practiced hard and everything else, but we kind of lost our way a little bit. And in the past 31 years, I have never seen USC play us the way they played us that year.”
So, yes, the 2023 team will have to ready itself to start getting every opponent’s absolute best shot.
It wasn’t until 1993 that Arizona fully matured, going 10-2 and shutting out Miami 29-0 in the Fiesta Bowl.
“That 1993 team, we knew we were the Desert Swarm,” Sanders said. “We talked about in 1992, but in 1993, we knew who we were.”
Back then, the foundational success came from the 1990 recruiting class – Rob Waldrop, Tony Bouie, Sean Harris, Chuck Levy and lots more – buoyed by the 1991 class that featured Sanders and Tedy Bruschi as the emotional heart of the team.
Fisch built his foundation even quicker, with the 2022 class contributing second-year stars such as Noah Fifita, Tetairoa McMillan, Jacob Manu, Jonah Coleman, Jonah Savaiinaea, Wendell Moe, Ephesians Prysock, Tacario Davis and more. Fisch hasn’t had to deploy his 2023 class very much yet, but that will be key next season. Stacking stellar recruiting classes is what created Arizona’s Desert Swarm run.
If the similarities hold, the best is yet to come for Fisch. Even if they lose Saturday night, the foundation is in place. Back for more in ’24.
“This team, with how it’s built and how I see them work … their work ethic is a lot like us in 1993,” Sanders said. “I see that focus. Coach goes at them hard in practice and they just keep responding.”
Something special is coming. Maybe the Wildcats already feel like they can beat everybody.
Top photo: Wildcats linebacker Taylor Upshaw celebrates a tackle for loss against Oregon State (Zachary BonDurant-USA TODAY Sports)
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