Posted on June 26, 2023
Each preview consists of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer.
OverviewJedd Fisch has Arizona trending in the right direction.
The Wildcats return eight starters on offense from a group that was No. 6 in the nation in passing yards per game.
Their starting quarterback, running back, tight end, and two of their top three wide receivers are all back for the 2023 season.
But it’s not just the skill positions where talent is returning.Three proven starters from Arizona’s offensive line are back from a unit that finished No. 17 in the country in tackles for loss allowed per game.
Still, the Wildcats won’t break their five-year bowl drought unless the defense improves. Just three starters return from the “D” that was the sixth-worst in the FBS in points allowed per game.
Fisch hit the transfer portal hard to shore up that side of the ball. Yet, until the defense takes a step forward, UA will remain short of bowl eligibility.
Best-Case ScenarioThe Wildcats find a way to reach six wins.
Four-star linebacker transfer Justin Flowe synchronizes perfectly with returning starter Jacob Manu to improve UA’s 36.5 points allowed per game.
The LB unit becomes the strength of the defense, generating pressure and tackles for loss that result in forced turnovers.
Along the line, three-star Cal transfer Orin Patu, three-star UCLA transfer Tyler Manoa, three-star Georgia transfer Bill Norton, three-star Indiana transfer Sio Nofoagatoto’a, and three-star Michigan transfer Taylor Upshaw all contribute from Week One.
The result is a stouter front seven that gets off the field on third down.
The Cats were No. 126 in the nation in Third Down Percentage Defense, allowing opponents to convert 47.8 percent of the time.
But with Flowe and Manu leading the way, the group gets stops and allows the Arizona offense more possessions to convert into points.
In the secondary, Treydan Stukes, Ephesians Prysock, Isaiah Taylor, and Gunner Maldonado take advantage of the improved play up front.
Arizona was the second-worst team in the nation in forcing interceptions last year, finishing the season No. 130 in the FBS with just three interceptions.
But with immediate-impact transfers along the D-Line and linebacker corps, the secondary produces more turnovers in key moments.
The result is a 6-6 season with victories over Northern Arizona, UTEP, Stanford, UCLA, Colorado, and Arizona State.
Worst Case ScenarioThe transfers on defense don’t produce as expected and Arizona squanders its potent offense.
An injury to either Flowe or Manu would be a nightmare scenario for Fisch, forcing four-star freshman Leviticus Su’a to step up.
And if Su’a isn’t ready to see significant playing time, the primary strength of the UA defense becomes a problem.
Three-star Washington LB transfer Daniel Heimuli doesn’t post the same production as Manu or Flowe, while backups Sterling Lane II and Jeremy Mercier aren’t able to adequately match the production, either.
The result is an exposed linebacker corps that gets taken advantage of in both the pass and run game.
On offense, Fisch’s scheme continues to struggle in the Red Zone. For all the potency of Arizona’s passing attack and the spectacular depth at running back, the Cats were a disappointing No. 85 in the nation in Red Zone Efficiency.
The problems within the 20-yard line held UA’s scoring offense back, putting the Wildcats just No. 48 in the nation in points per game despite boasting the No. 6 passing offense and No. 20 total offense.
Fisch’s scheme is able to move the ball, but gets stuck once the field is scrunched up.
The problem isn’t fixed in 2023 and Arizona stumbles it’s way to a disappointing four-win year.
What Should HappenThe Wildcat defense should take a step forward. Fisch focused his transfer portal efforts on improving his defense and the results should show.
Per 247Sports, Arizona brought in the No. 6 linebacker transfer in the cycle with Flowe while adding D-Line transfers from Georgia, Michigan, Indiana, UCLA, and California.
Fisch also signed four-star freshman linebacker Su’a who should contribute in his first year.
The added weapons on defense should come to fruition with an increase in forced turnovers. Arizona was 99th in TO’s forced last season but enters the new year with a focus on improving those numbers.
Flowe should be the catalyst that provides the boost. His production should be strong, but it’s the emotional leadership and ability to rally the defense behind him that should make the difference.
The Arizona staff and players know they have one of the most powerful offenses in the country and the team’s primary flaw is on defense.
Forcing turnovers can change the outcomes of games and should become the calling card of the “D.”
At the end of the day, Fisch’s defense should produce pivotal turnovers in game-deciding moments that allow Arizona to secure wins.
What Must HappenThe Wildcats must get increased production from its returning players on defense.
Defensive linemen Ta’ita’i Uiagalelei, Russell Davis II, and Jacob Kongaika exceeded expectations in their freshman seasons. But for Arizona to reach bowl eligibility, each must take a step forward in their sophomore year.
The Arizona staff would prefer to have a healthy rotation along the line, creating plenty of opportunity for Uiagalelei, Davis, and Kongaika to see the field.
Junior defensive lineman Tiaoalii Savea should have an increased role, too, and Fisch needs all the help he can get up front.
At the same time, increased production is needed from UA’s returning players in the secondary.
Prysock, Stukes, Taylor, Maldonado, and DJ Warnell Jr. comprise the core of the defensive backs. But the group combined for just two interceptions the entire season.
Those numbers must be improved for Arizona to reach bowl eligibility.
Greatest StrengthArizona’s offense is loaded.
Jayden de Laura is comfortable in Fisch’s offense and the Wildcats have multiple weapons at every skill position.
Star receiver Jacob Cowing returns after leading the Pac-12 in receptions (85) and finishing fourth in yards (1,034).
His 85 catches were the most by an Arizona receiver since 2002 and his seven touchdown catches was tied for second in the Pac-12.
Sophomore Tetairoa McMillan returns, too.
McMillan was the top true-freshman receiver in the country, topping the charts with 702 yards receiving on 39 catches with eight touchdowns.
His eight touchdown catches were tied for first in the Pac-12 and he set the Arizona record for receiving yards as a true freshman.
And that was just his first year.
Now that Dorian Singer has transferred to USC, McMillan becomes the clear No. 2 option behind Cowing and should see a substantial increase in production.
The Cowing-McMillan combination is arguably the top receiver duo in the Pac-12 and is one of the top wide receiver units in the nation.
Tight end Tanner McLachlan is one of the best in the Conference as well. He posted 34 catches for 456 yards and two touchdowns last season, creating a mismatch in the center of the field.
De Laura himself threw for 3,685 yards passing which was the third-most in program history. His efficiency was the difference-maker, though, completing 62.5 percent of his passes while throwing 25 passing touchdowns.
With a year of experience running the system and increased levels of trust between Fisch and de Laura, the Arizona passing attack should be even stronger.
And then there’s the running back group.
Fisch’s RB unit is legitimately four-deep. Senior Michael Wiley leads the way after rushing for 771 yards and eight touchdowns last year.
But sophomore Jonah Coleman is primed for a breakout season after posting 372 yards rushing and four touchdowns in his freshman year.
At the same time, senior DJ Williams returns after putting up 376 yards rushing and three touchdowns.
Yet, it’s sophomore running back Rayshon Luke that might have the most surprising season. Used primarily in jet sweeps and other plays designed to get him into open space, Luke averaged 7.0 yards per carry in his first season.
If Luke takes a step forward in his sophomore year, the Wildcats legitimately have one of the deepest running back units in the Pac-12.
Adding to the arsenal on offense, Fisch brought in four-star Colorado wide receiver transfer Montana Lemonious-Craig. And waiting to burst onto the scene is sophomore receiver Kevin Green Jr.
All told, the Wildcats have one of the top offenses, not just in the Pac-12, but in the entire country.
Biggest ConcernThe efficiency and production of the defense are easily the biggest concern.
Fisch lost several key players to the transfer portal and is replacing them with a mixture of transfer portal additions and promotions from within.
Outside of the concerns on defense, the efficiency of Fisch’s offense in the Red Zone looms large.
Even with an improved defense, Arizona could struggle to make a bowl game if Fisch’s offense remains bogged down within the 20-yard line.
Deciding FactorsTwo freshmen have a chance to push Arizona to bowl eligibility.
Su’a is a four-star linebacker that has an opportunity to contribute immediately. If he lives up to his expectations, UA’s linebacking corps could sustain an injury to either Flowe or Manu.
But it’s freshman four-star offensive lineman Raymond Pulido that could have the bigger impact.
Arizona has a somewhat underrated front line with Jordan Morgan, Jonah Savaiinaea, and Josh Baker combining for 55 career starts.
If Pulido has the strength and skill to earn a starting role from Week One, Fisch would have the strongest O-Line of his tenure in Tucson.
But Morgan is recovering from an ACL injury and his status for the opener is questionable at this point of the summer.
Still, if fully healthy, Arizona could have a better-than-expected front line. And if Pulido earns a starting role, the lone area of relative weakness in UA’s offense would be shored up.
Schedule AnalysisSomehow, someway, Arizona will get to six wins.
The year begins with a revenge game against Northern Arizona after the Lumberjacks upset UA at home in Fisch’s first year. The result should be a 30-point statement victory.
The following week features a matchup with Mississippi State. The game likely ends in a loss, although nobody gave Arizona a chance last year to beat San Diego State on the road.
It could be closer than expected, and a Wildcat win would all but guarantee a bowl game.
Week Three features a matchup in Tucson against UTEP that should result in a victory.
A potentially season-deciding matchup follows against Stanford. Arguably a must-win, Fisch’s offense should find a way to get the job done.
A home game against Washington follows. The showdown with the Dawgs has upset potential and the Huskies tend to struggle on the road in the State of Arizona.
But Kalen DeBoer has too strong of an offense for UA’s defense to contain.
The Cats go on the road to USC the following week in what is almost certain to end in a defeat.
The game against Washington State in Pullman is another potentially defining moment. A loss is expected, but a victory would probably seal a bowl appearance.
The home game against Oregon State is fascinating. The Beavers will be favored, but Arizona has the offensive firepower to pull off the upset.
UCLA comes to Tucson the next week. Arguably a must-win, Arizona probably won’t make a bowl game if it doesn’t beat the Bruins in Tucson. And after beating UCLA in the Rose Bowl last year, the Cats might be favored.
Another deciding game follows with a road matchup against Colorado. If Arizona can’t beat the Buffaloes, a bowl game is likely beyond reach.
A home game against Utah follows. If played during the day, Arizona has a chance. But in all likelihood, it ends in a loss.
The Territorial Cup, then, could decide UA’s bowl eligibility. A loss to the Sun Devils would probably keep the Wildcats out of the postseason, while a victory might be the sixth win.
At the end of the day, a six-win season is a reasonable ceiling and a four-win year is a realistic floor.
The strength of the defense can shift the scales either way, but Fisch has proven his worth and a six-win year is a fair projection for his third year in Tucson.
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