In time, after the sting of Friday night's Territorial Cup loss to Arizona State goes away, the Arizona Wildcats' 2012 season will be unquestionably viewed as a success.
The team is 7-5 in a transition year and secured a berth in a yet-to-be-decided bowl game. Running back Ka'Deem Carey posted a record rushing season, and quarterback Matt Scott showed that he could shine in the right system. A high-powered offense overcame the deficiencies of a defense that could only sometimes slow opponents down.
It's something to be proud of. Those closest to the program, however, see 2012 as the big season that got away.
Consider: Three of Arizona's five losses - Friday's game against Arizona State and Pac-12 tilts against Oregon State and Stanford - were decided by a touchdown or less. With one or possibly two wins in the close games, the season would have gone from a pleasant surprise to positively special.
Instead, the Wildcats are left awaiting their bowl fate. The choices - Albuquerque or San Francisco? - aren't quite Pasadena, or even El Paso.
"Right now, it's the disappointment of this game," first-year coach Rich Rodriguez said late Friday, after Arizona blew a fourth-quarter lead at home and fell 41-34.
"I think in time - a couple days, a couple weeks - we'll look at it (and see) there was still disappointment. We left a few games out there."
The Wildcats lost their Week 5 game to the Beavers 38-35 after OSU quarterback Sean Mannion drove his team to a touchdown in the final minutes. The 54-48 loss at Stanford, played a week later, ended after Scott threw an overtime interception and the Cardinal scored.
Friday's loss was even harder to explain - and believe.
Arizona led 27-20 and was driving inside the Sun Devils' 20-yard line when Scott, running a quarterback keeper, attempted to hurdle ASU linebacker Keelan Johnson. He mis-timed his jump, however, and Johnson was able to rip the ball out. The Sun Devils' Deveron Carr recovered. Marion Grice scored a touchdown six plays later, sparking a 24-0 run that allowed the Sun Devils to pull off the upset.
Here's a look at the good, the bad and the ugly of Arizona's 7-5 record:
• The good: Close losses typically lead to better things. Rodriguez still remembers the advice he received from former Florida State coach Bobby Bowden: "First you lose big, then you lose small, then you win small, then you win big." Arizona apparently skipped the first step, which is a good sign. And given the Wildcats' youth on both sides of the ball, things will likely only improve as players develop.
The UA lost four games by a touchdown or less in 2007, a year before securing its first bowl berth in a decade. The Wildcats actually lost three by seven or fewer points during the Las Vegas Bowl season of 2008; one year later, the program upset USC and played in the Holiday Bowl.
As much as close losses sting, they're a necessary step in the rebuilding process.
• The bad: Arizona may not get this close to nine (or 10) wins for a while. Face it: Arizona's season was a relatively charmed one heading into Friday's game. The team had won seven of its first 11 games with a patchwork defense and a home schedule that tilted games their way. The Wildcats caught Utah in a rare off-year, trounced Washington before the Huskies figured things out and snuck up on USC and Oklahoma State on the way to upset wins.
Who's to say when things will break Arizona's way again?
While the Cats' future schedules will include winnable games with Cal and Washington State, two teams the UA skipped the last two seasons, it's likely that other teams - from Washington and Utah to ASU - will be markedly better a year from today.
• The ugly: Arizona blew its chance for a better bowl. A win over their rivals would have assured the Wildcats of either the Sun Bowl or Las Vegas Bowl, depending on how many Pac-12 teams ended up in Bowl Championship Series games. The better games would have given the Wildcats more practice time - the Sun Bowl isn't until Dec. 31, 36 days from now - and a CBS television audience.
Instead, the UA will wait.
Guard Trace Biskin said he "hopes" a bowl win, and not the close losses, will define the Wildcats' season.
"Our focus from here on out is going to be going to the bowl game, preparing from here on out, and then winning the bowl game," he said.