Saturday Out West Crystal Ball: Predicting every Arizona football game for 2023
Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Arizona.
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The buzz in Tucson is palpable. Coming off a 4-win improvement — no small feat, considering the dearth of talent that existed in the desert — Arizona is building perhaps its best recruiting class of all time, getting ready to leave for the friendlier schedules of the Big 12 and ready to snap a 5-season bowl drought that is the program’s longest since 1999-2008.
This is everything Jedd Fisch promised when he took as a first-time head coach in 2021. Two decades under some of the best and most innovative minds in football has paid off for him.
Now everything needs to come together, especially a defense that has lagged behind the offensive rebirth that Fisch has spearheaded.
Can the defense make the leap?
Last year, with the addition of guys like quarterback Jayden de Laura, transfer wide receiver Jacob Cowing and freshman wideout Tetairoa McMillan, the Wildcats improved to 6th in the league in total offense and 3rd in passing yardage per game. They surged from a Pac-12 worst 17.2 points per game in 2021 all the way to 30.8 ppg last season.
Now it’s the defense’s turn. Defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen is back to run the ship, and he’ll be counted on to correct fixable issues like tackling, communication and angles of pursuit. With some talented newcomers in the fold, including former Cal linebacker Orin Patu and former Oregon linebacker Justin Flowe, the Cats are counting on a similar transformation on defense, which finished 10th in the conference.
Arizona will have to make up for the loss 0f defensive lineman Kyon Barrs, cornerback Christian Roland-Wallace, safety Jaxen Turner and linebacker Jerry Roberts.
Does the off-field momentum translate?
Getting a commitment from local 5-star edge rusher Elijah Rushing out of football powerhouse Salpointe Catholic was a watershed moment for the program. Rushing is nothing short of one of the top players in the country, the kind of player who would blow off Arizona in the past. Then adding a commitment from coveted in-state 4-star quarterback Demond Williams? The hot fudge and cherry on top of the sundae.
And Fisch is only getting started. With the big move to the Big 12 coming up, and the chance to rid themselves of UCLA, USC, Oregon and Washington — while adding Texas and Florida as recruiting territories — Fisch is ready to go big-game hunting.
Can Arizona get back to bowling?
But all the momentum will mean little if Arizona stubs its toe this season. After improving to 5 wins last year, getting to a 6th would be huge to Fisch.
“It’s our best team,” Fisch said at Pac-12 Media Day. “It’s our best team. We’re not going to shy away from that. I don’t know what that means in regards to wins, but I do know what it means in regards to the type of players we have, the quality of players we have, the talent we have. Our guys are going to go out there and play at a very, very high level. If they play at the level that I think we’re going to play at, I think we’re going to win a lot of games this year.”
Week 1: vs. Northern Arizona (W)
For the handful of Wildcats who remain from Fisch’s first season in 2021, a miserable 1-11 campaign, the sting of suffering the first loss to in-state “rival” Northern Arizona in almost 90 years still lingers. That 21-19 defeat was shocking at the time and still is. A Lumberjacks win this year is beyond belief, as evidenced by Arizona’s 96.3% chances according to ESPN’s Football Power Index.
Week 2: at Mississippi State (L)
Will Rogers torched the Arizona defense last year to the tune of 313 yards and 4 touchdowns, but Fisch knows it could’ve been worse. The Bulldogs’ pass-catchers actually cost them points, though it did not prove to matter. MSU put the game away with a 14-0 4th quarter, as Arizona could only muster 7 2nd-half points.
MSU is switching schemes and will be more balanced under new coach Zach Arnett, but with Rogers back and the game shifting to Starkville, it’s hard to imagine a different outcome.
Week 3: vs. UTEP (W)
UTEP last beat Arizona in 1970; since then, the Wildcats have won 13 straight in the former rivalry. The teams played all but 1 season between 1946-1977, with Arizona claiming a 39-11-2 all-time edge. The last time they met was 2017, a 63-16 Arizona win. This one might particularly hurt the Miners, as former UTEP star Cowing now catch passes for the Cats.
Week 4: at Stanford (W)
Stanford has beaten Arizona 6 straight times, which makes it a bit surprising that ESPN’s FPI gives Arizona a 52.3% chance to win this matchup. But fortunes have flipped for the programs, as Fisch is in the midst of architecting a turnaround while the Cardinal bottomed out the past couple of years.
Arizona has a decided offensive edge in what could be their first win over Stanford since 2009, though it remains to be seen if the Cardinal catch on to Troy Taylor’s scheme early in Year 1. For the Wildcats, it’s a good time to catch Stanford on the road.
Week 5: vs. Washington (L)
All of the pain and frustration that that Huskies have felt from Arizona State, they take out on Arizona. Unlike the surprisingly close ASU/UW rivalry, Washington is 25-11 against Arizona, with 6 straight wins. Arizona’s last win came during their dream season in 2014, when they beat the Huskies 27-26.
Washington kept its foot on the throttle last year, despite de Laura’s 400 passing yards and 4 touchdowns, winning 49-39. Not to be outdone, Michael Penix Jr. had 516 passing yards and 4 scores, and he’s back this year along with wide receivers Rome Odunze, Jalen McMillan and Ja’Lynn Polk. The Cats don’t stand a chance at stopping that trio.
Week 6: at USC (L)
With a Heisman winner helming the offense, a brilliant offensive mind steering the whole ship and talent all over the field, the Trojans are the obvious favorites for Pac-12 champions. As such, it is little surprise that ESPN’s FPI gives Arizona just a 6.8% chance to spring the upset.
Still, after a close matchup last year — Lincoln Riley, Caleb Williams and the Trojans won 45-37 — the Wildcats won’t be intimidated. They should be, though. USC has won 37-of-45 games in the rivalry, including 10 straight, as Arizona last won in 2012.
Dorian Singer’s transfer to the Trojans also adds a little more attitude to the matchup.
Week 7: at Washington State (W)
Arizona leads the series 27-19, but Washington State has won 3 straight, including 31-20 last year at Arizona Stadium. In a heated matchup between de Laura, the Cougars’ former Pac-12 freshman of the year, and his new squad, the Wazzu defense picked him off 4 times. The Wildcats only managed to score 6 points in the first 3 quarters.
That’s nothing new for Arizona; Rich Rodriguez was still in town the last time the Cats beat the Cougars, with Arizona pulling out all the stops in a 58-37 victory in 2017.
With de Laura growing more and more comfortable in Fisch’s scheme, I’m pegging Arizona to pull off the big road win.
Week 8: Bye
Week 9: vs. Oregon State (L)
The Beavers are going to be a tough out this year, boasting one of the best offensive and defensive line combinations in the conference. What Jonathan Smith has done in short order at his alma mater is impressive. When the teams last met in 2019, Oregon State was coming off a 2-win season in Smith’s debut, but the signs of a quick turnaround were apparent. The Beavers won that year in Arizona Stadium, 56-38, en route to a 5-7 record.
Just a few years later, Oregon State won 10 games for the first time since 2006, and that was without good quarterback play. Smith went out and snagged DJ Uiagalelei, and if the former Clemson QB can recapture his mojo, the Beavers are going to be very good.
Week 10: vs. UCLA (W)
The Wildcats pulled off one of the surprise upsets of the 2022 Pac-12 season last year, beating the Bruins 34-28 at the Rose Bowl. And UCLA had Dorian Thompson-Robinson.
With DTR off to the NFL, I’m picking Arizona to pull off a 2nd straight win over the Bruins, even if ESPN’s FPI only gives the Wildcats a 41.2% chance. If Dante Moore explodes out of the gate for the Bruins, I reserve my right to adjust this prediction.
Week 11: at Colorado (W)
Arizona avenged a 34-0 Colorado shutout in 2021, winning last year 43-20. But that beatdown was against a brutal Buffaloes squad. This year’s Colorado roster is a complete enigma. Coach Prime’s offseason overhaul was unprecedented, and the talent upgrade seems obvious. But the Buffs do need some depth on both sides of the line, and meeting this late in the year might be to their detriment.
Week 12: vs. Utah (L)
Like so many of the conference’s other top teams, Arizona has been futile against Utah for more than a half-decade. The Utes have won 6 straight against Arizona to seize control of a rivalry that they once led 20-19. Now it’s 26-19 as the teams prepare to take the battle to the Big 12.
For Arizona to win its first in the matchup since 2015, it’ll need Cam Rising to still show some lingering effects from his Rose Bowl torn ACL. That might be the Cats’ only hope against what is a deeper and more talented Utah team.
Week 13: at Arizona State (W)
The last iteration of the Territorial Cup in the Pac-12 comes after one of the legendary games in the long rivalry. In 2022, Arizona snapped a 5-game losing streak against its rival with a 38-35 win. Running back Michael Wiley was the obvious hero, rushing for 214 yards, including touchdown scampers of 72, 51 and 12 yards.
Wiley is back this year for a repeat performance, but the Sun Devils might be pluckier than we think in Year 1 under Kenny Dillingham.
2023 Projection: 6-6 (4-5)
The time is now for Fisch and the Cats. Unlike the Pac-12, which has been alternately dominated by USC, Oregon, Washington and Utah in recent years, Arizona has a chance to start fresh in the Big 12 in 2024. That puts a lot of pressure on this year to set themselves up for greatness, and Fisch is up to the task.
We’re only talking about one additional win, here. But it’s a big win. And the Cats will get it.