TEMPE, Ariz. – Arizona State took an important step last week by beating Washington State, earning its first road win of the season while avoiding a slip-up against a team it should have beaten.
The stakes get even higher Saturday against Utah.
Yes, it's another game the Sun Devils should win and one they'll likely need if they want to win the Pac-12 South.
But by no means is it going to be easy. The Utes may have just one win in four conference games, but they're big, physical and have proven to be a tough team to play at home.
"This is going to be a very tough road game, a lot tougher than the one we just had," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said during his weekly news conference Monday.
Arizona State (6-2, 4-1 Pac-12) cleared a big hurdle last week, winning its first game away from Sun Devil Stadium — in three tries — by rolling over Washington State 55-21 in Pullman.
It was the Sun Devils' third straight lopsided conference win and kept them in control of the Pac-12 South, a game ahead of UCLA, Arizona and Southern California.
The victory moved Arizona State up two spots in The Associated Press poll to 23rd and into the BCS rankings for the first time under Graham at No. 22.
Nice achievements, but not what Graham is looking for at this point in the season. He wants those high rankings later in the season, something the Sun Devils haven't had in quite a while.
"I'm only concerned about one ranking and that's the one at the end of the season," Graham said. "Our goal is to be Pac-12 champions, to be Rose Bowl champions, to be a top-5 team every year. That's what we aspire to. We have a long way to go and a lot of work to get there. I guess it's nice to be in the BCS ranking, but it doesn't mean anything right now."
The Sun Devils are in a good spot now, but still face a tough road toward reaching their goals.
The first is Utah. The Utes have been solid at home, knocking off No. 5 Stanford for their biggest upset victory at home as a program on Oct. 12, while losing to Oregon State and UCLA by a combined 10 points.
Utah is a physical team — something Arizona State has had trouble with at times in the past — and managed to push around the Cardinal in Stanford's only loss.
"I told our players this is a very, very good team," Graham said. "They're a play or two away from being in this Pac-12 race and beat one of the best teams in the Pac-12 Conference. They're very tough, very disciplined, get after you, very well-coached."
The schedule only gets tougher from there.
After Utah, Arizona State faces Oregon State at home on Nov. 16, No. 16 UCLA in Southern California and closes with rival Arizona at home.
Win all four, the Sun Devils will be in the Pac-12 Championship game. Lose one or more and they'll have to get some help to get there.
"We've four games to get a fifth win," Graham said. "We win those, we will be ranked pretty well."