Remember that time when the Territorial Cup decided the Pac-12 South Division? (Hint: it was last year). That was fun.
Arizona was ranked No. 11 and Arizona State was No. 13. It was the first time since 1986 that both Arizona schools came into game as ranked teams. Stanford had knocked UCLA off its division-leading pedestal earlier in the day, but Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez didn't want the score anywhere in the stadium. It was the perfect ending to the chaotic narrative the Pac-12 South had peppered us with on a weekly basis in 2014.
The South is heading for another chaotic ending in 2015. Once again, three teams are in the mix down the stretch. But Arizona's trip to Arizona State this weekend will have zero implications for how the division plays out. The Wildcats will not be defending their division title. Arizona State, which won the South in 2013, wont' be seeking its second crown in three years.
While Utah, USC and UCLA all fight for the division, Arizona and Arizona State will be divvying up fourth and fifth place in the South. The desert teams have been deserted.
If this seems a bit harsh, it's simply to illustrate the point of how turbulent the Pac-12 South was coming into this season. You need only go back to how we voted in July in the preseason media poll to see a fairly wide array of opinions. The Arizona troll patrol was out in full force when all five Pac-12 writers picked the Wildcats to finish fifth, demanding respect for their team. But it wasn't a lack of respect that drove our votes (at least not mine). It was the uncertainty of a brutal and unforgiving division with five teams that were perceived to be very good. The South could have played out several different ways. It still can.
But while this year's Territorial Cup has all of the national appeal of East Carolina's Thursday trip to UCF, its importance within the state's borders should not be undersold.
First, the Sun Devils (5-5, 3-4) still need a victory to secure a bowl bid for the fifth straight season -- including four in a row under Todd Graham. They could still lose this weekend and win next week at Cal. But chances are Graham and Co. would prefer it not come down to the finale.
The Wildcats (6-5, 3-5) have already locked up their fourth consecutive bowl bid of the Rich Rodriguez era.
While neither team is where it thought it would be at this point in the season, both come into this game with a little momentum. The Wildcats got off the losing schneid last week with a much-needed (and landscape-altering) win over No. 10 Utah in double overtime, snapping a three game skid. The Sun Devils were also streaking in the wrong direction before a second-half surge catapulted them over Washington with what could prove to be a season-saving victory.
Since Graham and Rodriguez joined the conference in 2012, the Sun Devils have gotten the better of the Wildcats in two of the three meetings. But the Wildcats won a crazy one last year at home and two of the three meetings have been decided by a touchdown or less. So despite the lack of national implications, the game is not without drama.
“If you're a Sun Devil football player or a Sun Devil fan, this is for the alumni,” ASU quarterback Mike Bercovici said after the Sun Devils topped Washington. “This is the most important game of the entire year. This is the game you circle when you get your schedule. The message is clear, we know what we need to do. There's not much else that needs to be said.”
When talking about the game last season, Rodriguez said “the rivalry game is always the most important when you see it with no records.” Of course, he was referencing the fact that both teams still had a stake in the division. But his words still hold true. Because neither team has the record they thought they'd have, but the game still has equal importance to the players, coaches and fans.
The Sun Devils have gone on a nice little in-state recruiting tear the last couple of weeks. Could a Territorial Cup win for the Wildcats trigger some flips? And this is the last regular-season game of the Wildcats, who finally get to enjoy a bye in Week 13. Don't think they won't be fighting to go out on a high note.
Unlike last year, the rest of the college football world couldn't care less about the Territorial Cup's outcome. But with both teams fighting to rectify disappointing seasons, this year's matchup could prove as thrilling as it's ever been.