This year’s Territorial Cup overfloweth with significance
TEMPE, Ariz. — Hyperbole often runs rampant in sports culture these days, but this can be said with a compelling case: Friday’s game in Tucson might be the most important Territorial Cup game ever.
With the Pac-12 South title potentially on the line, the annual game between No. 11 Arizona and No. 13 Arizona State (1:30 p.m. MT, FOX) comes with higher stakes than the rivalry has seen in a long time, intensifying an already heated matchup.
"One of the things I’m sad about is some of the rivalries around the country have gone away," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "Well, none to me that I’ve ever been around is more intense than this one, and to have the teams ranked and both teams being successful coming in just makes it that much more exciting."
The winner of Friday’s game will win the Pac-12 South only if Stanford beats No. 8 UCLA in a game being played at the same time. So the stakes could turn out to be less than they might seem, but there’s little doubt this year’s game has more cachet than any in recent memory.
"It has all the components of a big-time game against a big-time opponent," UA safety Jared Tevis said. "And it’s a rivalry game, so it should be electric."
The game will mark the first time since 1986 the in-state rivals have met while both are ranked in the Associated Press Top 25 poll (the College Football Playoff poll is in its first year). It will also be just the second time in the rivalry’s 88-year history the two teams will square off with at least nine wins each. That only happened before in 1975.
Even if the Pac-12 South title doesn’t wind up with the victor of Friday’s game, which is sold out, it will still be one of the more consequential Territorial Cup games in the rivalry’s history. A 10th win is at stake, as is bowl position. Even without a division title, the winner could end up playing in a CFP Selection Committee bowl game on Dec. 31 or Jan. 1.
"The rivalry game is always most important when you see it with no records," Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said. "Now that we both have had pretty good years and have even more at stake, this makes it of added importance.
"I think it has become more relevant nationally now because of the seasons we’re both having."
A month ago, both teams were part of the College Football Playoff conversation, the Sun Devils (9-2, 6-2 Pac-12) more so before their loss to Oregon State. Both have fallen out of that discussion but not out of relevance, and it might be time to get used to that.
Graham and Rodriguez, former co-workers at West Virginia when Rodriguez led the Mountaineers and Graham coached on defense, have taken their respective programs to new heights in their three seasons.
Graham has thus far gone 27-11 at ASU with a Pac-12 South title and a bowl win. Rodriguez has gone 25-12 at UA with two bowl wins. The rivalry has benefited from their parallel success, though Graham holds a 2-0 edge over his old boss.
Including Friday’s game, ASU and Arizona (9-2, 6-2) will have met in three consecutive years with both having winning records. In the previous 18 seasons, that happened once. Could it be that the rivalry has finally reached a point of annual impact for both teams, with more than bragging rights on the line for both schools?
"I sure hope so," Graham said. "Obviously I can only control what we do. I feel like what we’ve done as a program, we’ve gotten better every year and keep progressing. Our goal is to be a team that’s competing for a championship every year in this conference."
Said Rodriguez: "This is a really good (rivalry) because it’s in the same state, division and conference."
Rodriguez makes a good point. Unlike some in-state rivalries that feature teams on different levels (think Colorado-Colorado State) or in different conferences (like Florida-Florida State), ASU and Arizona could clash with stakes like this each year if both programs sustain success.
While Graham looks to improve to 3-0 against UA, the teams are perhaps more evenly matched now than in either of the two previous matchups.
Both have high-powered offenses, with ASU scoring 37.2 points per game and UA 36.2. Both have opportunistic defenses, with ASU ranking second in the Pac-12 in turnover margin and UA third. UA’s defense is giving up an average of 24.6 points per game, while ASU’s is yielding 26.4.
"You’ve got to make sure you’ve got the right matchups," Graham said. "It’s a challenge. It doesn’t make it any easier. There’s a lot of similarities there in some of the things we do, but it’s about the personnel."
Both teams enter Friday’s game with a question mark at quarterback. Taylor Kelly will start for ASU but has not been himself since returning from a six-week absence due to a broken foot, only occasionally showing flashes of the player he was before the injury. Arizona quarterback Anu Solomon remains questionable to start due to ankle and leg injuries that caused him to miss the second half of the Wildcats’ win over Utah last week.
Those questions and others of scheme and personnel will play out on the field, but how the teams seem to match up often means very little. The emotion of this rivalry often makes it a toss up with a surprise finish, such as when UA upset then-unbeaten and Rose Bowl-bound ASU in 1986.
"This one I don’t worry about the energy coming out and that we just relax and play," Rodriguez said. "Any time you are in a big rivalry game you want them to be excited, but you want them just to play and not get too hyped up."
Graham has said repeatedly that ASU could go 11-0 before facing Arizona and have its season rendered unsuccessful by a loss to the Wildcats. Rodriguez doesn’t go as far as to say this game defines the season. But like his counterpart in Tempe, Rodriguez calls it "the most important game of the year."
Even so, both coaches have at times stuck to the cliché that "the most important game is the next one." Well, the Territorial Cup is up, and it’s more important than ever.
"Every game is a must-win game, but obviously this game is really must-win," ASU safety Damarious Randall said. "It’s for the Territorial Cup, and it’s kind of for all the marbles."
VIDEO: FOXSportsArizona.com writers Tyler Lockman and Steve Rivera share their thoughts on Friday’s Territorial Cup showdown between Arizona and Arizona State.