(Photo: Gabrielle Mercer/WCSN)
For the first time since 2003, neither Arizona State nor Arizona will enter the Territorial Cup with a winning record. In fact, in terms of both teams’ combined record, seven total wins between both programs is the second-lowest mark in the history of the series since Arizona State became an accredited institution in 1958.
So why does ASU head coach Todd Graham continue to approach this game like it still carries as much as weight as it has in the past?
Coming into Friday, the Sun Devils boast just five wins following the team’s sixth loss of the season to No. 6 Washington in Seattle. In the conference, ASU has bested two of its seven Pac-12 opponents. If math is your thing, you probably would’ve come to the conclusion that Arizona has contributed just two of those seven combined wins, and neither of those wins has come in the conference.
It’s a legitimate possibility that the Territorial Cup will take on the role of a bowl game for each team. However, given the situation for Arizona State, it’s still a win-and-in scenario for bowl eligibility.
Still, the objective remains winning a game that has become nothing more than an indication of which Arizona school is less mediocre only to continue a season that has been filled with disappointment.
In Monday’s press conference, Graham continued to talk about how much is on the line when his team takes on the Wildcats.
“This is always an exciting week for us and the most important week that we emphasize with our players,” Graham said. “Our total focus is on keeping that cup here in Tempe. Obviously to our guys and our fans we understand how important this game is.”
Aside from this week being THE most important week, Arizona State has lost five straight games, the worst losing streak of the Graham era. After a disappointing 2015 campaign, the Sun Devils boast an 11-13 record over the past two seasons and have lost 10 of their last 16 conference games.
But at least they have the Territorial Cup.
Despite the recent struggles, Sun Devils’ Vice President for University Athletics Ray Anderson has committed to Graham for the future, based seemingly off of Graham’s overall 39-25 record and the impact he has made on his players from an off-the-field standpoint.
“There should be no question in anyone’s mind as far as I’m concerned,” Anderson said. “He’s brought stability here and discipline and accountability. He’s brought an academic upgrade to this football program that no one can deny, and everyone should appreciate tremendously where we’ve come from in that regard. I have great appreciation for that, as does Dr. Crow, as does our Board of Regents. You put his cumulative body of work together and it certainly translates for me that he will continue to be our coach.”
If ASU should beat Arizona on Friday, it will be the second straight season in which the Sun Devils have finished at .500 – if the Sun Devils should lose the game, 5-7 would mark the second-worst record of Graham’s coaching career.
Still, for whatever reason, people think this year’s Territorial Cup actually carries some sort of weight.
Overall success needs to become a bigger priority for Graham. Bowl berths – or six-win seasons – are not a means to measure production from a coaching standpoint.
To his credit, Graham has lofty aspirations for his program year after year – never once has Graham opened a season with the hopes of just clinching a bowl berth. Since 2012, however, the Sun Devils have been to the Pac-12 Championship just once – in 2013 when they were dismantled 38-14 by Stanford at Sun Devil Stadium.
That being said, why has Graham’s success been measured by bowl visits rather than achieving the performance-based goals he sets for his teams and plasters all over the stadium?
Again, you could attribute this second consecutive down season to injuries, or youth, or any number of other reasons. At the forefront, however, remains a defense that has underwhelmed and currently ranks 125th in total defense after finishing 121st last season, alongside a scheme that seems to lack the necessary personnel – even when healthy – to be effective. It should go without saying, but all of Graham’s effort needs to be focused on fixing those problems because they don’t seem to be going anywhere.
Graham has proven that he has what it takes to be a successful coach with a 28-12 record in his first three seasons at the helm. Now, his ability to adapt and respond in the face of adversity will be tested.
Arizona State could very well beat an Arizona team that hasn’t led in a game since its October 8 matchup against Utah, sure, but would that really be an accomplishment at this point?
This year’s Territorial Cup has become a symbol of mediocrity – and until each program can flip its respective downward trends, it shouldn’t be viewed as anything more.