Monday, April 29, 2013
Most important game: Arizona State
By Kevin Gemmell
Every game counts. But some games count more. Or tell us more.
We're going through the Pac-12 and picking out one game that seems most important -- or potentially most revealing -- for each team from our vantage point today.
And then we'll let you vote from a list of potential options.
We're going in reverse alphabetical order.
Most important game: Nov. 30 vs. Arizona
Why it's important: This time last year, Arizona State fans were simply wondering what they were going to get with Todd Graham as their head coach and how quickly it would take for Michael Eubank to win the starting quarterback spot. There was also a consensus that no matter what happens, just beat Arizona.
But an eight-win season and a bunch of talent returning on both sides of the ball -- including quarterback Taylor Kelly and Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton -- means the Sun Devils can raise the expectation bar higher than it was last year. Their hopes for 2013 should include roses. Whether the Sun Devils are actually good enough to turn those hopes into reality depends on how they navigate a very demanding 2013 slate.
No matter how high the hopes get, however, there is and always will be one constant. Beat Arizona.
But before things get all territorial, the Sun Devils have to go through a gauntlet as tough as any team in the league.
Last year Arizona State faced seven teams that finished the year with winning records. One of those was an FCS team, meaning the Sun Devils faced six sub-.500 opponents. And they did what they were supposed to do in those games -- going 5-1 with the only loss coming on the road to Missouri. But when the schedule ramped up, they lost four in a row to Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC before rebounding nicely to close the year with wins over Washington State, Arizona and Navy. The combined record of ASU's 2012 opponents was 80-82 (.493) and if you only count the FBS schools, it was 72-79 (.476).
The 2013 season promises to be tougher. Then again, so do the Sun Devils. The combined 2012 record of this year's opponents is 87-67 (.564). And if you take out FCS Sacramento State, the combined FBS teams were 81-62 (.566). It features both Rose Bowl participants in Wisconsin and Stanford and the national runner up in Notre Dame. All three of those games will be huge toward building ASU's national credibility.
But they aren't as important as Arizona.
Right now ASU and UCLA are perceived as the frontrunners in the South -- and USC isn't too far behind. Last year's showdown with the Bruins was epic -- with both teams scoring late before a game-winning UCLA field goal sealed it for the Bruins. It's a budding new rivalry and it could again determine the 2013 South champion.
But it's not as important as Arizona.
The way ASU's schedule sets up is interesting. It's frontloaded with four tough, consecutive games against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame. That's as tough a stretch as any team in the country. And it closes against Oregon State, at UCLA and home to Arizona. How ASU negotiates the schedule early will go a long way toward how the rest of the country feels about them.
But, all together now, it's not as important as beating Arizona.
The home team has lost the last four meetings between the schools. Last year's score, 41-34, is considered a blowout by recent historical standards. The teams played to 31-27 in '11, 30-29 (2OT) in '10 and 20-17 in '09. The average margin of victory has been less than a field goal.
It's as fierce a rivalry as there is in the nation and in a recruiting destination-state like Arizona, bragging rights mean everything. The addition of Graham and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez has also added a new and exciting element to the showdown. And as the old adage goes, anything can happen in a rivalry game.
Suppose ASU isn't as good as advertised and it goes 1-4 to start the season and one of the LA schools takes the South. Nothing would rectify a disappointing year like beating your rival. Suppose ASU is as good as advertised and they are in the looking at 10-11 wins heading into the Arizona game. Nothing puts a stamp on a year like heading to the postseason at your rival's expense.
So while ASU certainly has plenty of important games that carry national significance -- it's still hard to imagine anything ever trumping the Territorial Cup as most important.