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What a difference a year makes for Todd Graham and Rich Rodriguez

Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez, right, talks with Arizona State head coach Todd Graham before an NCAA college football game, Friday, Nov. 28, 2014, in Tucson, Ariz. (AP Photo/Rick Scuteri)

TEMPE, Ariz. — As Arizona State’s players and coaches celebrated last Saturday’s win over Washington at Sun Devil Stadium, a few alumni approached stoic athletic director Ray Anderson in the south end zone and patted him on the shoulder.

“Beat Arizona next week and it’s all good,” one man said.

The message appeared to be a year late.

Last season, Arizona State entered the Territorial Cup game ranked No. 13 while Arizona was No. 11. It was the first time since 1986 that both Arizona schools entered the game ranked in the Top 25. Adding to the significance of the game was the fact that Stanford had defeated UCLA earlier in the day, turning the game in Tucson into a battle for the Pac-12 South title that Arizona won, 42-35.

What a difference a year makes for ASU coach Todd Graham and Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez. After back-to-back 10-win seasons, Graham is being criticized for over-hyping this season’s 5-5 team that is still battling for bowl eligibility. One year after guiding the Cats to their first season with at least 10 wins since 1998, Rodriguez’s name is continually being mentioned in connection with other programs.

While Graham said Tuesday that the Territorial Cup showdown is always worth five wins, and while both sides are attaching enormous significance to a victory over their rival this weekend, a win on Saturday would be little more than a consolation prize for the Wildcats (6-5) and Sun Devils this season.

“It doesn’t matter if you go 11-1, you’ve got to win this game,” ASU senior D.J. Foster said. “It’s important to our team and our community.”

Rivalry games are always meaningful to coaches, players and alumni, but the outcome of this game won’t change the fact that it’s been a disappointing season for the Wildcats and Sun Devils.

Arizona entered this season coming off its first Pac-12 South title. While expectations weren’t quite as high in a deeper division, Arizona’s three-game conference losing streak late in the season ensured the Cats would finish with a losing conference record. A win over Utah with its backup quarterback last week only served to exacerbate the what-might-have-been questions for Arizona.

“I’ve tried everything,” said Rodriguez, whose team has been decimated by injuries, particularly at the linebacker spot. “I’ve said for a couple years now we’re not deep enough or good enough to play poorly and win. The margin for error has always been pretty close, but with the situation we have this year the margin for error is even thinner.”

ASU’s star fell even farther. The Sun Devils were ranked No. 15 in the AP preseason poll, ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit tabbed the Devils for the four-team college football playoff and Graham never shied away from the national championship talk, calling this the best team he has coached in his four seasons in Tempe.

Instead, the Sun Devils dropped their season opener to Texas A&M in Houston, got blown out by USC at home and dropped a series of close games to Utah, Washington State and Oregon in which they held leads in the fourth quarter.

“It’s been a head scratcher,” Graham said. “The difference between 7-2 and in first place and 4-5 and out of the race has been a very, very, small thin line.”

In some respects, the Wildcats and Sun Devils are victims of a brutal, top-to-bottom conference, which is one of two Power 5 conferences (Big 12) to require its teams to play each other nine times.

“As coaches, most of us thought we’d cannibalize ourselves and maybe cost ourselves a playoff spot,” Rodriguez said. “I think it’s something we should talk about at the league meetings.”

When Stanford and Utah lost last weekend, the Pac-12 became the first Power 5 conference to essentially bow out of the College Football Playoff picture. The painful truth, however, is that Sun Devils and Wildcats bowed out of the race long ago, turning this game into a largely meaningless affair to anyone outside the state or these programs.

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