TEMPE, Ariz. — In the college football world, there are certain rivalry games that transcend the boundaries of state or region to attract eyes across the nation — think Michigan-Ohio State, the Iron Bowl of Auburn-Alabama or the Civil War of Oregon-Oregon State.
The Territorial Cup is not one of those games.
As much as Arizona State and University of Arizona fans might like to include the Territorial Cup in that conversation, the reality right now is that the game fails to move the needle much outside Arizona’s borders.
The explanation is simple enough: There’s rarely much at stake. Neither team — let alone both — has been a national power in recent seasons, making the season’s most eagerly anticipated game primarily about bragging rights.
“Unfortunately in the last few years it’s lost a little bit because both teams have not been on top,” former Sun Devil and current Pac-12 Networks analyst Adam Archuleta said. “Rivalry games are one thing, but when both teams have quite a bit to play for and have a big profile, then they mean much more.”
There’s no disputing the game still means as much as ever within the state. ASU coach Todd Graham has said more than once already this week one of the teams involved could be 11-0 heading into the game and have an unsuccessful season if they lose it.
“We have a countdown clock (to the Territorial Cup) in the weight room year round,” Graham said. “We know this is the most important game of the year, bar none.”
UA coach Rich Rodriguez, a veteran of bigtime rivalries like Michigan-Ohio State and West Virginia-Pittsburgh, also learned quickly just how important the annual game was to the fans in Tucson.
“A lot of fans say if you win one game, win the ASU game,” Rodriguez said. “It’s a huge game, and it always will be regardless of who is sitting here (coaching).”
For players and fans alike, this game means more than most. There are bragging rights on the line for a year, along with the Cup itself, which has moved between Tempe and Tucson six times in the last decade. For most of the country, though, UA-ASU is just another game.
That includes out-of-state recruits, most of whom almost certainly are more familiar with the significance of rivalries like USC-UCLA or Texas-Oklahoma.
“I knew it was a big game between the two schools, but I never paid too much attention to it,” said ASU offensive lineman Evan Finkenberg, a junior from Coto de Caza, Calif.
This is not to say the rivalry has never come with high stakes — it has. In 1996, No. 2 ASU held off the Wildcats to stay undefeated en route to a Rose Bowl. The next year UA knocked off No. 12 ASU to dash the Sun Devils’ Fiesta Bowl hopes. But those games came more than a decade ago. In recent years, there’s been little more than bragging rights and bowl eligibility on the line.
This year is not much of an exception. Both teams are bowl eligible but in the middle of the pack in the standings, leaving them to battle for a better spot in the Pac-12 pecking order of bowl games. But there is hope for the future. Both programs hired new coaches in the offseason, intent on becoming bigger players in the national picture.
“As much as I root for the Sun Devils and everything, I think there’s a real possibility here with the new staffs,” Archuleta said. “I think they’re both doing some really great things for their programs. I think both coaches have the ability to raise their programs and get them to a much higher level than they’ve been playing at.”
So what would it take for the Territorial Cup to keep East Coast football fans awake later than usual to watch the matchup? That’s pretty simple.
“To have a rivalry game that draws attention nationwide I think requires prolonged success from both of the programs,” ASU athletic director Steve Patterson said. “You need both of the programs to be consistently successful at the same time. I think if we do that, then it can become one of those better rivalries.”
Added Graham: “From my standpoint, where I want to be is competing for the Pac-12 Championship every year. When we’re at that type of level, going to Rose Bowls and all those things, then obviously you’re going to bring more attention to every game you have, especially this one.”
Patterson and his counterpart at UA, Greg Byrne — who earned his bachelor’s degree at ASU — naturally believe their respective coaches to be the guy to turn their program into a consistent winner. And both have legitimate reasons for their confidence.
In the 10 seasons before Rodriguez arrived, West Virginia won just one Big East title and went 1-5 in bowl games. In Rodriguez’s seven seasons, the Mountaineers won four conference titles and went 3-3 in bowl games, including two BCS appearances.
“In his stay at West Virginia he was able to go in and compete at a very high level, close to playing for a national championship,” Byrne said. “That’s some good experience to have and be able to bring here.”
Graham, meanwhile, has built up two lower-tier programs, Rice an Tulsa.
“I think Todd can have a long successful career here,” Patterson said. “He knows how to build a program — he’s done it before.”
Any elevation of the Territorial Cup won’t come overnight.
While the rivalry won’t lose its in-state luster any time soon, even a biased former participant like Archuleta can put his rooting interest aside in hopes the game will soon get more respect beyond state lines.
“I’d like to see this game every year have some significance, with both teams having something to play for and both teams having successful seasons,” Archuleta said. “That will raise the profile of that game. I would love nothing more than for UA to have a stellar season and the same for the Sun Devils when they meet.”