Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every Arizona football game for 2022
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Arizona.
Coming off the worst stretch in program history, Jedd Fisch got to work this offseason not just looking to improve the talent but to resuscitate a program left for dead. He did that on the recruiting trail and in the community, and the results have been tangible. Arizona had arguably the most successful recruiting class in the country from one year to the next, and Fisch has built some real momentum.
But after a 1-win season, Fisch needs to work in a hurry. Arizona doesn’t have a particularly favorable schedule, but there are some sneaky upset possibilities.
And if the Wildcats can get the production they need to out of a vaunted freshman class, 1-win seasons are a thing of the past.
Is Jayden de Laura the answer at quarterback?
Arizona hasn’t had consistent — much less good — quarterback play since 2018, when Khalil Tate had 2,530 passing yards and 26 touchdowns with eight interceptions.
Since then, the Wildcats haven’t just been bad. They’ve been brutal.
Enter Jayden de Laura, the reigning Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year with Washington State. The Cougars’ coaching change sent de Laura packing, and he found himself in Tucson, where he has the opportunity to become a star. Fisch has a track record of success with quarterbacks, and he went out and got de Laura some toys to play with — UTEP transfer Jacob Cowing and freshman Tetairoa McMillan.
If de Laura is simply good, that’s a huge improvement over recent history.
Can Fisch’s enthusiasm translate to wins?
Fisch has done something that no Arizona head coach has done in decades — go out and work in the community. Tucson isn’t your average Pac-12 city. The Wildcats have been so bad for so long that enthusiasm is running on empty. But when a coach engages, like Lute Olsen did, famously, Tucsonans respond.
There were reports out of Tucson for years that Kevin Sumlin was asleep on the job, or worse, and that Rich Rodriguez, Sumlin’s predecessor, downright resented his station. Coming from West Virginia and Michigan, maybe that makes sense. But Fisch seems genuinely pleased with his job, and he’s building some buzz in a place where there was none.
Now comes the hard part. Winning games.
Will Arizona turn over a new leaf in the turnover department?
Arizona was dead last in the country in turnover margin last year at minus-17, with 18 interceptions, five fumbles, and only six takeaways. Quite frankly, there wasn’t another team even close to the Wildcats in ineptitude. Four of the five Arizona players who attempted at least 1 pass for Arizona last year had more interceptions than touchdowns.
Of course, it all starts with de Laura, who showed a penchant for taking care of the ball with Washington State. In 2020 as a true freshman, de Laura had five touchdowns and four interceptions. Last year as a full-time starter, he had 23 touchdowns and nine picks.
Arizona simply cutting their turnovers in half — while hitting on a few more takeaway opportunities themselves — will translate in the win column.
Week 1: at San Diego State (L)
The Aztecs were hit hard by graduation, losing 56% of their offensive production and 39 percent of their defensive production. SDSU was particularly decimated on the offensive line and in special teams, which includes the loss of all-world punter Matt Araiza.
But almost inexplicably, San Diego State has become a consistent team after being a doormat for much of the previous two decades.
While Arizona is on the rise and SDSU is facing a slight decline, the Aztecs should still win this one after beating the Wildcats 38-14 last year.
Week 2: vs. Mississippi State (L)
Mike Leach has put his stamp on Starkville in a hurry, leading the Bulldogs on a 3-win turnaround from 4-7 to 7-6 last season, with wins over No. 15 Texas A&M, No. 12 Kentucky, and No. 17 Auburn, along with narrow losses to Arkansas, LSU, and Memphis by a combined eight points. Reverse those endings, and the Bulldogs are a 10-win team, something they’ve achieved only once since 2000.
Leach is no stranger to Arizona, either, having regularly flummoxed the Wildcats during his tenure at Washington State. The Bulldogs will win this one handily.
Week 3: vs. North Dakota State (W)
Crazy as this seems, this is the toughest pick on the schedule. NDSU is for all intents and purposes an FBS-level program. The Bison have won nine of the past 11 FCS championships, with 8 14-win seasons since 2011. Head coach Matt Entz is 37-4 in three seasons at the helm and NDSU just continues to roll. Quite frankly, the Bison might have more talent than the Wildcats at this point, and at many other points: NDSU is 6-0 against FBS teams since 2009 with wins over Kansas in 2010, Minnesota in 2011, Colorado State in 2012, Kansas State in 2013, Iowa State in 2014 and No. 13 Iowa in 2016.
ESPN’s Football Power Index only gives Arizona a 53.2-46.8 edge, basically a pick-em. I’ll take the Wildcats, but I won’t be happy about it.
Week 4: at Cal (W)
Arizona danced for joy last season after breaking a 20-game losing streak — the longest in the nation — with a 10-7 win over the COVID-stricken Bears last year. Cal was without seven starters and 24 players and coaches in the loss, finishing with just 122 yards of total offense.
The Bears aren’t going to have such abysmal numbers this time around, but Arizona got better while Cal got worse in the offseason. The Wildcats retooled passing attack should have a big game against a Bears defense that needs to find a pass rush.
Week 5: vs. Colorado (W)
It’s hard to imagine the Wildcats pulling off three straight wins after being so, so bad for so, so long, but Arizona gets the Buffaloes at home after losing to Colorado, 34-0, last season. The Wildcats’ shell of an offense got a much-needed talent infusion during the offseason, while the Buffaloes lost some major contributors to graduation and to the transfer portal.
Fisch seems to be talking a big game in Tucson. If he can get the Wildcats to above .500 almost midway through the season, the fan base will be totally bought in.
Week 6: vs. Oregon (L)
With Arizona humming at an improbable 3-2 start — I’m already starting to doubt my prediction — the Ducks come to a rollicking Arizona Stadium. For Wildcat fans, flashes of 2013 and 2018 will dance through their eyes.
Arizona is just not there from a talent and depth standpoint to upset Oregon this time around. Revisit this in two years, though.
Week 7: at Washington (L)
How quickly 3-2 turns into 3-4. Heading into a bye week — and with USC, Utah, and UCLA to follow — the Wildcats will fall apart on the road at Husky Stadium. Washington has won five straight over Arizona and hasn’t lost at home to the Wildcats since 2007.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. USC (L)
With both teams coming off a bye, neither team benefits from a scheduling quirk. USC will need to use the bye to bounce back from what is expected to be a bloodbath with Utah. But even if the Trojans are the walking wounded, they are a far better team than Arizona, and they’ve won nine straight in the rivalry.
Another big year on the recruiting trail, and the Wildcats will catch up sooner or later. They’re a year or two away from an upset over their SoCal foes.
Week 10: vs. Utah (L)
After Utah won in 2018 and ’19 by a combined score of 72-34, the Wildcats kept it relatively close last year in a 38-29 loss in Tucson. With the game moving back to Salt Lake City, where Arizona hasn’t won since 2014, the undefeated Utes will continue marching toward a Pac-12 title.
The Wildcats will keep it close again, but with USC, Utah, and UCLA in a three-week span, Arizona’s got to be hurting.
Week 11: at UCLA (L)
UCLA has won eight of the past 10 in this hoops-heated rivalry, and the past two margins weren’t particularly close: 17 points in 2020 and 18 points in 2021. The Bruins haven’t lost at the Rose Bowl to Arizona since dropping two straight in 2008 and 2010. And now, UCLA returns Dorian Thompson-Robinson and Zach Charbonnet.
With the Wildcats woozy after the hardest three-game stretch in the league, they fall to 3-7.
Week 12: vs. Washington State (L)
Washington State has averaged 50 points against the Wildcats over the past six games — scoring 113 in the past two — and Arizona had to out-gun the Cougars to even win two of the last six. Jayden de Laura bouncing from Pullman to Tucson obviously plays hugely in Arizona’s favor, but Cameron Ward has major potential. for Wazzu. The Wildcats drop to 3-8 with the loss.
Week 13: vs. Arizona State (W)
The Territorial Cup, one of the west’s best in-state rivalries dating to 1899, has been a matchup of runs and streaks. Arizona State is currently riding a five-game winning streak with a combined margin of 215-106.
But after a tumultuous offseason for the Sun Devils and a revelatory offseason for the Wildcats, the tide is turning.
Arizona wins a close one by turning up the heat on the ASU offensive line and the Wildcats close out a four-win season with some big-time momentum.
2022 Projection: 4-8 (3-6)
Perspective is a funny thing. If you’re Stanford or Cal, and you’re writing a season obituary that includes just 4 wins, you’re hurting.
If you’re Arizona, and you can quadruple your 2021 win total while continuing to add pieces on the recruiting trail? Well, you’re feeling pretty good.
The Wildcats are clearly trending in the right direction under Fisch. At least on the recruiting trail, something Sumlin and RichRod abandoned. If Arizona shows tangible improvement in 2022 — at least three wins — then the Wildcats can continue to sell Fisch’s vision. If they win just one game again? It’ll be hard to sell anything.