Since the end of last season, Todd Graham has made it clear that his goal is to guide Arizona State to the Pac-12 Championship game and give the Sun Devils a shot to play in the Rose Bowl. After this weekend, Graham's vision has a chance to take on a life of its own, as his team should gain firm control of its own destiny in the Pac-12 South.
At 5-2 overall and 3-1 in conference play, the Sun Devils sit alone in first place in the Pac-12 South by percentage points over a UCLA squad that boast a 2-1 record through three conference games. Both the Sun Devils and the Bruins have losses against Stanford, but UCLA faces an extraordinarily tough test this Saturday.
The Bruins travel North into Eugene, Oregon to take on the No. 3 Oregon Ducks in what is shaping up to be college football's premier game of the week. But make no mistake. The Ducks opened as 22-point favorites and that number has since climbed according to some sports books.
Oregon is widely considered the West Coast's top national title contender, and it's hard to foresee Marcus Mariota getting out-dueled by Brett Hundley on his own turf. To make matters worse for the Bruins, injuries could force them to start three freshmen offensive linemen against one of the nation's top ranked defenses.
If the Bruins lose, the Sun Devils will own a full one-game advantage over each of their Pac-12 South foes. That means Arizona State will have to cough up one of its conference games, and even then, the Sun Devils will still have a better chance at winning the South than most of its divisional rivals.
UCLA has yet to play Washington, and the Huskies won't be coming off consecutive games against Stanford and Oregon when they travel to Pasadena in mid-November. The Bruins' matchup with the Sun Devils is sandwiched between the Washington visit and a battle in the Coliseum with the USC Trojans, who will be looking to end their season on a high note. When it comes to the schedule, UCLA simply has it tougher than Arizona State.
Aside from the Bruins, the Sun Devils next closest challenger in the South might actually be the Arizona Wildcats. Rich Rod's boys beat a tough Utah team to avoid an 0-3 conference start, and they avoid Stanford out of the North. If Arizona can upset UCLA (I'm sorry, the Wildcats won't beat Oregon), the Wildcats could come into Tempe with the ability to keep their Territorial Cup road-winning streak alive and gain a tiebreaker in the South standings.
After Arizona, USC and Utah are long shots to dethrone Arizona State or UCLA (although the Utes will give the Sun Devils a run for their money in Salt Lake City). USC still has to face Oregon, and even if the Trojans upset UCLA, they'll have three conference losses and they won't have a tiebreaker against the Sun Devils.
The moral of the story? All the Sun Devils have to do is keep on winning. Easier said than done.
Arizona State will travel for its next two games and in recent history, the Sun Devils have been an abysmal road team. The Thursday night game in Pullman against Washington State shouldn't be reason to worry, but Graham is lucky he has a bye week to prepare his squad. Then, the Sun Devils need to get right back into the film room because Utah is one of the most difficult places to win in the Pac-12.
The final three games of the season are no cakewalk, but if the Sun Devils have to lose one of them, they would rather drop a game against Oregon State or Arizona (God forbid I write that ASU fans) than fall against UCLA. The Sun Devils need to hold the tiebreaker against the Bruins if they want a shot at representing the Pac-12 South in the conference title game.
It's a messy picture right now, but everything will begin to take shape in the coming weeks. Following the UCLA-Oregon game, we'll know for sure if the road to South title runs through Tempe.