Rivalry games are special, or at least they are supposed to be.
They are the one game a year that can make the rest of the season moot. A loss in the matchup can leave a sour taste in one’s mouth even after a good season. Conversely, a victory over your rival can bring about a joy that few other games can.
The feelings last an entire offseason, with even a low-level bowl game doing little to placate the loser or tarnish things for the winner.
Sometimes there are even significant postseason implications, though in the case of Arizona and Arizona State that has rarely been the case.
At any rate, the point is that rivalry games are to be cherished.
What the Pac-12 did Friday, when it announced a new schedule that saw Arizona hosting Arizona State in the first game of the season, was a disservice to one of the most intense rivalry games in the country.
As the Athletic’s Doug Haller pointed out, the last time the two schools opened their seasons against one another was in 1937. Since then they have not always finished their slates against each other, but regardless their battle comes late in the season.
At that time we know who each team is. We’ve watched them deal with the rest of the conference and seen them battle injury and other issues. We know if either one of them needs a win for something special, such as a division title or bowl seeding/eligibility.
The drama is real.
Unfortunately the Pac-12, in all its wisdom, chose to rob us all of that. Sure, when (or if) the Wildcats host the Sun Devils on September 26 in Arizona Stadium the game will matter. Whoever wins the game will have bragging rights as well as a victory in a season that may not even last 10 games.
For the Sun Devils, it’s a chance to win a fourth consecutive game in the series and get a season with high expectations off on the right foot. For the Wildcats, of course, it’s a chance to beat their rivals for the first time since 2016, give the embattled coaching staff its first win against Arizona State and perhaps send a message that this season’s team is better than most think.
And that’s it.
The game will not directly lead to anything else of note, save for perhaps nearly two full seasons of bragging rights?
As it turns out Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott, who is widely known for his sound decision making, said part of the reason for the game being schedule in Week 1 was because if Arizona, currently a Covid-19 hotspot, is not safe enough to play the game could then be moved to an open week later in the season.
That makes sense, but if the fear — justifiable it may be — is that Arizona and/or California, which has UCLA and USC facing off in Week 1, will not be able to host a game in late September then why schedule the games then in the first place?
Naturally as this pandemic continues none of us know what things will be like when, so trying to schedule things, let alone predict them, is somewhat of a fool’s errand.
Scheduling a rivalry game early under the premise that it can be made up later if it must be postponed wreaks of desperation. The Pac-12 is rushing to squeeze it into a schedule that may not be completed, if it is played at all, in what could be viewed as a money grab if fans were expected to even be in attendance.
If the game is played in September, it will certainly be unlike any other we have ever seen. Both have new coordinators on defense, while the Sun Devils have a fresh face for offense, too. They each have young QBs — ASU’s has more game experience than Arizona’s — and despite their vastly different expectations, each team could likely have used a softer non-conference start to the season.
To say either team has an advantage, other than the talent gap that favors ASU, would be misguided. In theory the Wildcats should be healthier than they have been for a game against the Sun Devils in a long time, and their new-look defense may be a bit tougher to prepare for given the lack of film on it.
An offense led by Grant Gunnell will likely have a different look than the one we say with Khalil Tate at the helm, and there will not be a full season of that on film, either.
On the flip side, Arizona’s abbreviated spring practice likely inhibited that unit’s growth, which would seem to aid Arizona State. On offense, while Jayden Daniels is young he did start 12 games for ASU last season, so he brings some experience to the field.
It’s difficult to imagine either team firing on anything close to all cylinders after a disjointed offseason that, even with workouts and practices getting going, will be nothing close to normal. This is a strange time for everyone, and finding out a game will be played less than two months before kickoff is certainly a shock to the system.
Maybe we’ll get through August and then most of September with Covid-19 subsiding and the game will go on as scheduled. Even if it does, however, the 94th Territorial Cup will have an odd feel, with players who will be rushing to get ready and few, if any, fans in the stands.
We all want the game to happen, of course.
Yet, the Duel in the Desert deserves better than it is scheduled to get.