When the annual Territorial Cup football game is played Friday, it will be the first time in almost 30 years that both participants are ranked among the nation’s Top 25 Division I teams.
While an interesting statistic on its own, its significance may go much deeper.
In order for a sports rivalry to really mean anything other than bragging rights, the game itself has to have some kind of real importance behind it, preferably in a way that makes it relevant on a larger scale. And this year’s meeting of Arizona’s Pac-12 representatives – the 88th time Arizona State and the University of Arizona have met to duke it out in the “Duel in the Desert” – definitely fits that description.
Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez has called this “the most important game on our schedule” and ASU head coach Todd Graham voiced similar thoughts. “This game is the single-most important game of the year for us and for our fans,” said Graham in his weekly press conference on Monday. “Obviously, it has a lot more meaning; (since) both teams are going for their tenth win and the Pac-12 Championship is on the line, there is definitely a little extra importance added to this game.”
Both teams are 9-2 overall and 6-2 in conference. They couldn’t be any closer in rankings, with the Wildcats coming in at No. 12 and the Sun Devils at No. 13. And if UCLA should get beat by Stanford in another afternoon game Friday, the winner of the Territorial Cup will also take home the crown as the Pac-12 South Division champ and move on to play Oregon for the conference title.
A win over Oregon could even lead to an outside chance for a berth in the College Football Playoff, depending on what happens on the rankings ladder above them – and Arizona has already beaten the Ducks once this year.
How’s that for being significant… and relevant?
But there’s yet another important aspect of this upcoming game. This new angle to the rivalry has been developing over the last few years and holds great promise for college football fans in Arizona.
Graham and Rodriguez both took over their respective programs about the same time and are now in their third year in charge. During that time, they have helped breathe some new life into an old rivalry that had been failing into a bit of complacency since it usually pitted two teams that weren’t evenly matched each year. If one program was having a good year, the other probably was struggling with a period of mediocrity.
The new coaches in town have changed that. Yes, last year’s result was a lopsided 58-21 ASU victory, but Arizona was a better team than the numbers indicated. Just ask the Oregon Ducks; they were the No. 5 team in the country when the Wildcats beat them. The Cats went on to a second straight 8-5 season and a bowl win over Boston College.
The first meeting of the two head coaches in 2012 also resulted in an ASU win, but it was a game decided by just seven points.
Now this year we may have the start of something big. OK, not a Michigan – Ohio State type of rivalry, but something exciting nonetheless.
Since my wife graduated from University of Michigan and both of my daughters went to school there, I was pulled into the era often referred to by sports writers as “The 10-Year War” when Bo Schembechler at Michigan and Woody Hayes at OSU took the art of rivalry to a new level during the decade of the ’70s.
During the 10 years that Bo and Woody were on the sidelines at the same time, their teams dominated the Big Ten Conference, winning or sharing the title every season. And, with the exception of one year, they also came into each season-ending encounter nationally ranked. The anticipation for Wolverine and Buckeye fans built all season and that final game of the season was the most-anticipated, probably even more so than the Michigan – Michigan State game.
Adding fuel to the fire, each coach hated not only the other school, but the other coach as well. There’s also no love lost between the Arizona head coaches.
But you don’t see that side of the Arizona rivalry in public. When Graham was asked at the presser to differentiate between his program and the one down in Tucson, it was a softball lob that he could have hit out of the park. Instead, he responded thusly: “I don’t really spend much time thinking about other programs. I spend all my time thinking about who we are and really defining who we are as a program.”
Excuse me while I stifle a yawn.
Schembechler once famously said that, if his car ran out of gas in Ohio, he would push it across the state line rather than spend a dime of his money in the Buckeye State.
Now that’s the one element this rivalry still needs. Glitzy stats and national rankings are important, but there needs to be some good old-fashioned, in-your-face jaw boning.
I assure you, back in the day, Glenn Schembechler, Jr. wouldn’t have been so politically correct. Nor would Wayne Woodrow Hayes. That’s how it became one of the game’s most celebrated rivalries.
Friday’s match-up between two ranked teams is a good start. But somebody’s got to stoke the fire a little.