This Arizona team is not your grandfather’s Wildcats. Under third-year head coach Jedd Fisch, Arizona finished 9-3 and had losses that were similar to OU’s.
SAN ANTONIO — Sooners everywhere know how close OU was to an extra special season.
Hold onto fourth-quarter leads against Kansas and Oklahoma State, win those games in Lawrence and Stillwater, and OU would’ve played Texas in the Big 12 Championship Game. Then, who knows?
Alas, those leads were lost. So were the games and the chance to play in the conference title game.
But still, it’s obvious the Sooners had themselves a splendid ball team.
Know who else had a splendid team?
OU’s opponent Thursday night in the Alamo Bowl has been somewhere between so-so and downtrodden over the past 45 seasons, the start of what became the Pac-12 Conference. During that time, Arizona has only three double-digit win seasons and one conference title.
But these Wildcats are not your grandfather’s Wildcats. Under third-year head coach Jedd Fisch, Arizona finished 9-3 and had losses that were similar to OU’s. Could’ve gone either way. Could’ve easily been wins.
Arizona lost in overtime at Mississippi State, then lost in triple overtime at Southern Cal. The Wildcats’ final loss was at home to a Washington team that will play in the national semifinal in a few days.
Final score: Washington 31, Arizona 24.
Arizona enters the Alamo Bowl on a six-game winning streak that includes victories against Oregon State, UCLA and Utah. And the Wildcats will face the Sooners having lost almost no players to opt outs or transfers; the only notable loss is left tackle Jordan Morgan, who opted out to prepare for the NFL Draft.
Truth be told, Arizona will provide a great early test for next year’s OU squad. With the Sooners moving forward without several key offensive players, including quarterback Dillon Gabriel and offensive linemen Andrew Raym, Tyler Guyton and Cayden Green, the OU team in San Antonio will look more like a preview of next season than a finale of this season.
But what better way to get a bit of a read on things than to go against a really good opponent?
That’s what Arizona is. OU is going up against a team that was oh so close to a special season, too.
Here are some other tasty nuggets to chew on before the Alamo Bowl gets underway at 8:15 p.m. in San Antonio:
Sooner to watch: Jackson Arnold is the clear answer. Now, the Sooners’ new starting quarterback will be working with an offensive line that had to be rebuilt over the past few weeks, so he’ll likely need to be graded on a bit of a curve. But we’ll still start to get a sense of what the former five-star recruit can do. What are his playmaking abilities? How does he respond under pressure? How does he fit into what new offensive coordinator Seth Littrell wants to do? All of it will be fascinating.
Wildcat to watch: Arizona has its own young, talented quarterback. Noah Fifita was the Pac-12 Freshman Offensive Player of the Year. The redshirt freshman took over when Jayden de Laura was injured and is 6-2 as the Wildcats’ starter. Fifita completed 73.6% of his pass attempts, ranking fourth nationally, and has thrown for 23 touchdowns and 2,515 yards. One of his biggest targets is second-team Pac-12 honoree Tetairoa McMillan, who played high school ball with Fifita in Huntington Beach, California.
A familiar face in San Antonio: You might have to look hard for him, but Duane Akina is Arizona’s senior defensive assistant for the secondary. He spent more than a decade on Mack Brown’s staff at Texas. He was the co-defensive coordinator in 2005 when the Longhorns won the national championship.
Cool stat going into the Alamo Bowl: This is OU’s 25th consecutive bowl appearance, the longest streak in school history. Longest by a long shot, actually. The previous record was eight consecutive bowls from 1975-82. The Sooners’ streak is also the second-longest in the nation — second only to Georgia’s 27.
Something to watch in San Antonio: Drake Stoops already ranks in OU’s top 10 for career receptions with 158 catches. But he’s just outside the top 10 for touchdown receptions. If Stoops snags three touchdown passes Thursday, he’ll tie Marvin Mims for 10th all time with 20. It would be fitting for Stoops, a Sooner stalwart, to be top 10 in both categories.
Did you know?: Arizona had one of the best passing offenses in the country this season. The Wildcats averaged 304.5 yards passing per game, which ranked 12th nationally. But in the Pac-12 with the likes of Washington, Oregon and Southern Cal, Arizona’s passing attack only ranked fifth.
If you go to San Antonio …: Eat some Mexican food. There are lots of good options. Mi Terra Cafe is a personal favorite, but you can throw a burrito and likely hit a spot that’ll leave you stuffed.
If you don’t go …: Whenever the game is over, feel free to click off the TV and head to bed with a smile on your face. With an 8:15 p.m. kickoff that is likely to be pushed back, it’s going to be a late night for anyone at the Alamodome. If you’re watching from your living room, enjoy the fact that it’s midnight (or after) and you’re already home.
Playing favorites: This is a repeat of something I did in my Game Day for the Texas Bowl, but it holds for the Alamo Bowl, too. Shoutout to all the OU students who are giving up part of their winter break to be part of the Sooner contingent in San Antonio. Players, yes, but there are lots of other folks, too. Team managers. Student trainers. Video staff. Marching band. Cheerleaders. Pom squad. Mascots. Kudos to all.