1. Noah Fifita took over at QB midway through the season, and he’s certainly been turning some heads. What’s been the biggest key to his success?
He was the first quarterback Jedd Fisch and his staff recruited after taking over the program in December 2020 and so his skill set fits perfectly into the offense. Jayden de Laura did great as a bridge in 2022 and the beginning of 2023, but the hope had always been that once Fifita got his shot he would thrive. No one could have expected it to be at this level almost immediately.
2. Sticking with the offense, which of the skill position players is most likely to make an impact play this week?
Sophomore receiver Tetairoa McMillan could be a first-round pick in 2025, and he’s a big game away from the single-season yardage record. At 6-foot-4 he has an amazing catch radius and can run all the routes, and his hands are tremendous.
Tight end Tanner McLachlan broke Rob Gronkowski’s UA career catch record last month and he’s a very reliable target over the middle, though he may end up having to stay home more to block if new left tackle Joe Borjon struggles with Oklahoma’s pass rush.
The run game is by committee, with Jonah Coleman the most physical of the ball carriers. They’re all good catching the ball, too, so that has to be accounted for when they leak out of the backfield.
3. Jedd Fisch is in Year 3 at the helm in Tucson, and his teams have improved drastically each season. How has he been able to accomplish this?
I wish there was a better way to describe it, but it’s come down to creating a plan early on and sticking to it. That first year (he calls it Year Zero) allowed him to see just how bad things were and how much had to change, and the first full offseason was devoted to overhauling the offense so Arizona had a chance to hang with teams the following year. This past offseason it was about revamping the defense, and the results have been very noticeable.
Fisch and his staff also managed to recruit a top-30 class in 2022 while going through a 1-11 season that included the tail end of a 20-game losing streak, and that sophomore class has made 80 starts this season.
4. Entering bowl season, Arizona sits at No. 45 nationally. What has been the biggest strength of the unit, and in which area does it need to improve?
Arizona is No. 6 in the country in third down offense, 11th in red zone offense and 12th in red zone defense. UNLV is the only other FBS school in the top 12 in two of those three categories. The Wildcats are good at extending drives, maximizing their scoring opportunities and limiting the damage when opponents get inside the 20.
As for deficiencies, the pass offense can stagnate if McMillan and/or Jacob Cowing are off the field, while on defense the number of dropped interceptions has been a source of frustration. There’s nothing particularly great or terrible about the special teams.
5. What’s one thing Oklahoma fans should know about Tucson, Arizona?
It’s the only place in the world where you’ll find a stravenue, a portmanteau of ‘street’ and ‘avenue.’ In the city’s main grid, east/west roads are streets and north/south ones are avenues, but when diagonal ones were needed they became stravenues.
Might not be interesting to most people, but if you’re ever one of my Uber passengers that’s among my Tucson fun facts I’ll share.
6. Who is your favorite U of A alum of all time?
Tedy Bruschi, the Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year in 1995 (my sophomore year at the UA) and a 3-time Super Bowl champ with the Patriots who is now a special assistant to Jedd Fisch in addition to his ESPN gig. Bruschi was the bouncer working the back door at the closest bar to where freshman orientation was held in 1994 and he let 17-year-old me in the back door for $5.
7. On a scale of 1-10, how excited are Arizona fans about their future in the Big 12?
In football, there will always a certain level of melancholy since Arizona was the only school from the Pac-10 era (1978-2011) not to make the Rose Bowl, though Oklahoma and Texas leaving for the SEC makes the league feel ripe for a program on the rise to assert itself.
In basketball, particularly on the men’s side, there’s major anticipation for being in the same league as Houston and Kansas, among others, though I don’t know if the fanbase is prepared for having a 12-8 conference record still be considered good.
It should also be good for baseball, while it will be a major step down for the storied softball program, and I wonder how much the added travel will impact other non-revenue sports.
8. What’s your score prediction?
Making a bowl game this season seemed doable back in the summer, but not one of this stature. This is a huge deal for Arizona, which has only gotten to 10 wins three times in its history, and it’s treating this like a championship game. Combine that with defensive coordinator Johnny Nansen’s ability to craft game plans to hold 5 of 6 teams during the win streak to below their scoring average and I’m expecting Arizona to post its most significant bowl victory since beating Nebraska in the 1998 Holiday Bowl. Arizona wins 30-26.