To be the best, you have to beat the best and that's exactly what Arizona State will try to do when it travels to UCLA on Saturday.
The No. 14 Bruins are the defending Pac-12 South champions, a title that Todd Graham has had his eye on since he arrived at Arizona State in Dec. of 2011. Graham has preached about the importance of bringing a championship back to Tempe and the Sun Devils will have the opportunity to earn the South Division crown with a win in Pasadena.
Many coaches talk about the one-game at a time mentality and speak as if every game is just as important as the rest, but not Graham. The Sun Devils' head coach says this week is the game he's been waiting to coach in for the better part of two seasons.
"It's hard for me not to point to the game because we've been talking about winning a championship for two years," Graham said at his Monday press conference.
Graham was candid in admitting that while he knew the Sun Devils needed a win last week at Oregon State, he couldn't help but look forward to the chance to unseat the defending champions.
"I wanted to just get that game won so we could play this one," Graham said about the Oregon State contest. "I was really concerned and I was really focused on Oregon State, it doesn't mean I was looking ahead. That's probably not the right answer, but that's a fact."
This week, focus won't be an issue for the Sun Devils. The Arizona State coaching staff has been rebuilding the foundation of this program for two years, and if the Sun Devils beat UCLA, they'll get one step closer to achieving an even loftier goal of taking home the Pac-12 title.
"It's just going out and playing," Graham said. "This is a big game, I can't say that it's not a big game. This is a game that we've pointed to all year long."
At the beginning of the year, Graham laid out four games for his players that he believed were more important the the other eight on the regular season schedule. He said he touted the Stanford game, the USC game, the UCLA game and the Arizona game as "must-win" games for the Sun Devils to realize their goals.
With an even split of the first two "must-win" games, Graham is ready to ride the success the program has had this season to a few more victories.
The team standing in the way, of course, won't be a pushover. The Bruins are 8-2 and own one of the nation's best defensive players in Anthony Barr. Barr plays outside linebacker for the Bruins and has 14.5 tackles for loss this season, but it's the play of UCLA's other outside backer that has Graham concerned.
True freshman Myles Jack is one of UCLA's leading tacklers, but in the past two weeks, he's played on both sides of the ball as the Bruins' coaching staff has inserted Jack into the game as a tailback. In 19 carries, Jack has already amassed five touchdowns.
"I haven't, in awhilem seen a freshman come in and be able to play like he's played," Graham said of Jack. "Tremendous athleticism on both sides of the football. And I mean, impressive as a tailback."
While Jack is just getting started on offense, the Bruins have one leader who's engineered the attack since Jim Mora Jr. took over at UCLA. Quarterback Brett Hundley is among the nation's rising stars and the Chandler, Ariz. native is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-12 conference.
Hundley has thrown for 20 touchdowns this season and rushed for more than 500 yards and seven scores, and Graham says the Sun Devils will need to adjust their game plan accordingly.
"He's (Hundley) got a big arm, can throw the ball," Graham said. "He throws a very, very accurate deep ball, does a great job throwing the ball down the field, extending plays is a major deal with him."
Last season, Hundley was sacked 52 times. This year, he's only been corralled 22 times in 10 games while adjusting to an offensive line that has featured three freshmen starters at times. Hundley's athleticism can cause nightmares for opposing defenses, and it's a major reason why the Bruins have thrived this season.
There's no doubt that UCLA presents incredible challenges for Arizona State. The Sun Devils haven't played their best football in the past two games, but they also haven't had the trademark focus we've become accustomed to seeing. This week, all of that changes. This is the type of game the Sun Devils have been waiting to play in all season, and now, the fun begins.