Why Arizona vs. Arizona State Is the Most Important Duel in the Desert in Years

Kyle KensingContributor INovember 25, 2013

TUCSON, AZ - NOVEMBER 23:  Defensive tackle Will Sutton #90 of the Arizona State Sun Devils celebrates with the Territorial Cup after defeating the Arizona Wildcats 41-34 in the college football game at Arizona Stadium on November 23, 2012 in Tucson, Arizona.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Christian Petersen/Getty Images

Home-field advantage in the Pac-12 Championship Game and thus the inside track on the Rose Bowl is on the line for Arizona State Saturday against rival Arizona. The Wildcats come to Tempe, Ariz., with a Heisman Trophy contender in running back Ka'Deem Carey, and he needs one more star performance to potentially earn an invitation to the award's presentation. 

Needless to say, the stakes are especially high for both participants in the 87th installment of the Duel in the Desert—something of a rarity for the in-state series that began in 1899. 

Shane Dale, author of the book Territorial: The History of the Duel in the Desertsaid this year's Duel is the most meaningful in almost 30 years.  

"[Arizona State] needed to beat [Arizona] to get to its first-ever Rose Bowl," he said. "The Wildcats came back from 10 points down in the second half to edge the Devils, 16-13. It was the second time in four years that [Arizona] prevented [Arizona State] from going to Pasadena."

The Wildcats won't have a direct say in the Sun Devils' pursuit of Pasadena, Calif., for their first Rose Bowl since the 1996 season, but they can make Arizona State's path more difficult. A win means Arizona State hosts the conference title game against Stanford, by virtue of a better conference win-loss record.

A loss sends the Sun Devils to Stanford, where they dropped a 42-28 contest in September that was more lopsided than the final score indicates. 

Spoiling Arizona State's postseason plans might motivate the Wildcats Saturday, but Arizona has its own goals to pursue. A more prominent bowl bid is at stake—SI.com's Stewart Mandel projects the Wildcats to play in the AdvoCare V100 (formerly Independence) Bowl—and central to that effort is Carey.

Coming off his 206-yard, four-touchdown performance against fifth-ranked Oregon, Carey is the Duel's first viable Heisman contender since Arizona State quarterback Jake Plummer in 1996. Much like Arizona is looking to detour Arizona State's Rose Bowl road, the Sun Devils will strive to silence Carey's remarkable season.     

Dale said one must go back even further, almost four decades, to a showdown between No. 8 Arizona State and No. 12 Arizona, for a Duel of such lofty national implications. 

"There were only a handful of bowl games available back then, so only the winner of that year's game in Tempe was likely to get an invite," he said. "Of course, that was the year of 'The Catch'—John Jefferson's incredible grab in the end zone for [Arizona State]."  

As in any rivalry, winning the Territorial Cup is a top priority every season for both participants.   

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham said in his Nov. 18 press conference via TheSunDevils.com that Arizona is one of four key games designated on a calendar in the defensive coaches' office with a helmet marker, designating the most important dates on the team's schedule. 

"But that's every year," Graham added.  

When Rich Rodriguez was introduced as Arizona's head coach in November of 2011, he too said daily reminders of the Territorial Cup's significance are part of the season at Arizona.   

"It will be emphasized every day how important that rivalry game is with [Arizona State]," he said.

The Sun Devils and Wildcats have had their ups and downs. Lately when one is up, the other is down, but last year's edition marked an important point in the series. With both programs introducing first-year head coaches in Rodriguez and Graham, the 2012 Duel in the Desert marked the first in which both were bowl-bound since 1997. 

Each is headed to the postseason again this year.

"This is THE game, the most important things for us," Graham told his team following last year's 41-34 Arizona State win, per the Associated Press

The Duel in the Desert is taking on a new significance that transcends the borders of the Grand Canyon State, and gives it importance worthy of its history. A Rose Bowl berth and Heisman chase are the exception now, but both programs are working to making it the rule in the years to come.