TEMPE, Ariz. – When Arizona State coach Todd Graham first arrived in the desert before last season, he went around the state talking to former players, boosters, fans, alumni, current players and students to get a gauge for what was important to them.
Wherever he went and whomever he talked to, the top priority was always the same: Beat Arizona.
About 90 minutes down Interstate 10, Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez heard a similar mantra from Wildcats fans. No matter what you do, you have to beat Arizona State, they said.
On Saturday, the two second-year coaches get a chance to fill their directives in a Territorial Cup game with more significance than it has in recent years.
"Is this game more important than any other game that we play? Yes, it is," Graham said. "We tell our players that. There's only one game we put a sign up in the weight room when we play. It's the most important game because it's the most important game to our fans, to the heritage of our program, the history of our program."
This year's game has added significance because of what's at stake.
No. 13 Arizona State (9-2, 7-1 Pac-12) knows it will face Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship on Dec. 7 after wrapping up the conference's South Division.
Where the game will be played will be determined by whether the Sun Devils can beat their in-state rivals. Win and the game will be at Sun Devil Stadium. Lose and Arizona State will have to play at Stanford to earn a spot in the Rose Bowl.
The Wildcats (7-4, 4-4) know what's at stake for the Sun Devils and are still stinging from losing last year's game in Tucson.
"You'd have to be living under a rock if you play for Arizona and don't realize how important the ASU rivalry is," Rodriguez said.
Here's five things to watch when Arizona plays Arizona State for the Territorial Cup:
RIDING MOMENTUM: Both teams enter the game coming off momentum-building victories. Arizona State won its biggest game in years by knocking off UCLA in the Rose Bowl last Saturday. The Sun Devils had to hang on after blowing most of a 22-point halftime lead, but they pulled it out, giving them a chance to reach their goal of winning the Pac-12 championship. Arizona was reeling after consecutive home losses to UCLA and Washington State, but erased those disappointments by rolling over then-No. 5 Oregon 42-16 for its first win over a top-5 opponent in six years.
STOPPING CAREY: Arizona State struggled to stop the run under Graham last season and the early part of schedule front-loaded with power teams this year. The Sun Devils have been much better at defending the run over the past month, though, allowing less than 70 yards the past four games. But ASU will face its toughest challenge this week against Arizona's Ka'Deem Carey. An All-American last season, he's second nationally with 155 yards per game and hasn't had less than 119 in a game, stretching his school-record streak of 100-yard games to 14 with 206 against Oregon last week.
CONTAINING KELLY: Similar to Arizona State's dilemma with Carey, Arizona faces a similar challenge trying to stop Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly. The junior has developed into one of the country's best dual-threat quarterbacks, a big, athletic player who can keep plays alive with his legs. Kelly is 16th nationally with 315 total yards per game and has accounted for 18 touchdowns. The Wildcats have had some trouble with mobile quarterbacks this season, but were able to keep Oregon's Marcus Mariota mostly under wraps last weekend.
GRICE'S STATUS: Arizona State could be without its top running back for the biggest game of the season. Marion Grice injured his leg against UCLA last week and left the stadium on crutches. The Sun Devils have been quiet about Grice's status and practices have been closed, so it's unclear if he'll be able to play. The senior has been Arizona State's closer, ranking among the national leaders in scoring with 20 touchdowns. If Grice can't play, versatile D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis will have to take on bigger roles.
THE RIVALRY: The Territorial Cup is the oldest rivalry trophy awarded in college football — it started in 1899 — and has been filled with some close games, not to mention wild finishes. Arizona State won last year's game 41-34 after scoring 24 points in the fourth quarter, the fourth straight visiting team to win in the series. The will be the 87th meeting, with Arizona leading the series 47-38-1.