No. 14 UCLA last played in the Rose Bowl 15 years ago. For No. 17 Arizona State, it's been 17 years. But this Saturday at the same venue that hosts the Granddaddy of 'Em All, the Bruins and Sun Devils are jockeying for a one-game shot at the most sought-after postseason invitation in the Pac-12.
Arizona State is alone in first place, and it's the latest the Sun Devils have been in the conference championship conversation since Thanksgiving weekend 2007. A UCLA win puts the Bruins in pole position heading into their rivalry game at USC, which would make for the most important Crosstown Showdown since the two were ranked in the Top 11 in 2005.
That so much rides on Saturday's outcome isn't surprising. The two were picked first and second in the division in the preseason media poll, with the Bruins edging the Sun Devils by two first-place votes.
A win sews up the South for Arizona State, regardless of outcome in its rivalry game against Arizona the following week. That's because the Sun Devils already locked up the tiebreaker over the division's other contender, USC, by virtue of a 62-41 win on Sept. 28.
Needless to say, the stakes are high—so much so that the build-up is bereft of the dismissive coach-speak prevalent before most important games.
"This is a big game. I can't say it's not a big game. This is a game we've pointed to all year long," Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said in his weekly press conference Monday, per TheSunDevils.com.
Graham referred to a board in the Sun Devil defensive coaches' office with four games on the 2013 schedule highlighted with a helmet marker.
Who Will Win The Pac-12 South?
"Stanford had one by it. USC had one by it. UCLA had one by it. And obviously, Arizona has a big one by it, [but] that's every year" he said. "Not to diminish anyone else in the South, but that's what we really, really focused how we developed our schematics and adapting to our players.
"Those are the games we know are must-win for us to reach our goals," Graham added.
Arizona State lost at Stanford in the conference opener, but has been perfect since. That includes its rout of USC. UCLA looms as the gatekeeper, and deservedly so. The Bruins are defending division champions and the No. 14-ranked team in the BCS standings.
UCLA needs to win its final two games to earn a third consecutive berth in the Pac-12 Championship. It's nothing but single elimination left for the Bruins.
Beyond the conference championship implications at stake, Saturday is a milestone for the winning team to hold up its program. Both the Bruins and Sun Devils have made tremendous strides immediately under their respective, second-year head coaches.
UCLA's Jim Mora won nine games and the division in his first season leading the Bruins. Among those victories was a 45-43 instant classic that powered the Bruins into a division-clinching stretch.
The two teams look just as evenly matched this time around as last year. UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley is a dynamic, dual-threat playmaker—as is Arizona State's Taylor Kelly. Both Hundley and Kelly spread the ball among a talented corps of receivers, led by Shaq Evans (UCLA) and Jaelen Strong (Arizona State).
Some of the nation's, let alone conference's, premier defensive talent takes center stage. Arizona State has tackle Will Sutton, end Davon Coleman and linebacker Carl Bradford powering the nation's No. 27 ranked sacking defense.
In UCLA's front seven are veteran linebackers Eric Kendricks, Jordan Zumwalt and All-American Anthony Barr, who join the kiddie corps of linebacker Myles Jack and defensive linemen Eddie Vanderdoes and Kenny Clark to give a top 40 scoring defense its foundation.
And, oh yeah, there are four former Sun Devil assistant coaches now on Mora's UCLA staff.
The similar looks promise a game worthy of its top 20 billing and a fitting next step in the ongoing build-up of each program.
"It's hard for me not to point to the game because we've talked about winning the championship for two years," Graham said.