ASU-UCLA matchup may eclipse Territorial Cup in significance

TEMPE, Ariz. — Let’s be clear from the start: For Arizona State, no rivalry comes close to the one it has with Arizona.

But there’s an opponent moving in on — or already taken — Arizona’s place as the most important team on ASU’s schedule. That’s right: It’s UCLA, which ASU hosts Thursday in what could be the next chapter of a budding rivalry.

Based on the past few seasons, it’s become clear the ASU-UCLA rivalry is approaching Territorial Cup levels, albeit in a different way.

ASU-UCLA isn’t a matchup that features hate between fan bases, divides households, produces trash talk between players and comes with a year of all-important bragging rights. No, ASU-UCLA is about championships.

"UA, there’s so much history and there’s so much hate between fans," junior defensive tackle Jaxon Hood said. "That’s what kind of cooks up the big stage for that game. This game’s about winning the title.

"So in my opinion, this is the game I think about in the offseason when I’m dead tired in here running 300-yard shuttles. I’m thinking about UCLA."

Either ASU or UCLA has represented the South division in all three Pac-12 Championship games, and the past two meetings between the teams essentially decided the division winner.

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Last season, ASU’s defense stopped UCLA on the game’s final drive for a 38-33 win. The year before, UCLA drove the field to kick a game-winning field goal as time expired. In 2011, ASU had a chance to clinch the South against UCLA but lost to begin a five-game tailspin while UCLA backed into a South title.

Those kinds of stakes haven’t been present in a Territorial Cup for quite some time. Until they are, the opportunity to win big against its chief competition will be more significant for a program that preaches national championship aspirations.

"If I’m being honest, I’ll tell you we’re going to take it one game at a time and all that, but this is the game on the schedule I look forward to myself because it’s a huge challenge," coach Todd Graham said. "It’s been us or them that’s represented the South."

Graham and UCLA coach Jim Mora took over their respective programs at the same time, during an offseason that saw 28 Division I programs hire a new head coach before the 2012 season. Since then, Mora is 22-8 while Graham is 21-9, ranking them third and fourth, respectively, among those 28 coaches. Only Ohio State’s Urban Meyer and Texas A&M’s Kevin Sumlin have been better.

That the teams under their third-year head coaches have risen in parallel fashion makes for intriguing competition between up-and-coming programs, ones that compete for many of the same recruits and play nearly identical conference schedules.

Graham more than once in the past week said Thursday’s game against the No. 12 Bruins is the biggest of the season. He’s reminded anyone who will listen what it has determined the last two years. But when comparing it to the Territorial Cup, he hedges a bit.

"It’s not the biggest game of the year," Graham said. "I don’t think I get to determine that. I listen to our fans, and our fans tell me (about UA), ‘Hey coach, that’s the game you’ve got to win.’ So that’s the game we’ve got to win. But this is the game that determines the champion every year, so heck, yeah."

Last season’s Territorial Cup game, the Wildcats had only bragging rights and bowl position on the line. The Sun Devils were trying to secure home field advantage for the Pac-12 Championship game a week after winning the South at the Rose Bowl.

"Of course we want to beat the crap out of the Wildcats," Hood said. "You put on the colors, you want to beat the Wildcats, but if you won 10 games and Arizona is ranked fourth in the Pac-12 South, then it’s like you just want to beat them because they’re Arizona. When it’s No. 1 vs. No. 2 in the South, this is why you train. You train to play these games and bring home trophies.

"I’m not taking away from the Territorial Cup at all. There’s a timer year round in the weight room for the Territorial Cup. I’m not taking away from that at all. But games you get rings from? That’s what I get up for."

The opinion may not be unanimous that beating UCLA produce the most satisfying victory, but it appears to be trending that way, and there seems to be an understanding which matchup is most important to ASU’s ambitions.

"As long as I’ve been in this conference the winner of this game goes to the conference title game," quarterback Mike Bercovici said. "I think, obviously besides those guys down south that wear navy blue and red, if you asked any of our up front linemen who they want, they want powder blue."

Because Thursday’s game comes so early in the season, it’s hard to determine the stakes. The division race in the South is still wide open. There’s no telling what will happen for either team in the following weeks. USC or even UA could beat them both out for the chance to play for the conference title.

But even with the rest of the season unclear, ASU is sticking to the belief that the path to another Pac-12 South title requires a win over UCLA.

"It doesn’t get any bigger than this," Graham said. "I don’t have to give any speeches to get them motivated for this game."

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