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Dan Bickley

Early Territorial Cup matchup brings uncharted waters for fans, teams

Arizona State's Dohnovan West (61) pretends to drink out of the Territorial Cup after their 24-14 win over Arizona during their NCAA college football game Saturday, Nov. 30, 2019, in Tempe, Ariz. (AP Photo/Darryl Webb)

A pandemic has disrupted American sports. On Friday, it became personal.

The Pac-12 announced its revamped conference-only football schedule for 2020, an amazing leap of faith for a sport that might never get off the runway.

It also unveiled an Opening Night showdown between Arizona State and Arizona in Tucson on Sept. 26. In the first week of the season. Without context or mulligans or time to properly ferment. Steak at the front of the buffet. Go!

You could almost hear the Valley gasp.

This tweak of the calendar makes dollars and sense, and it’s a surprising show of competence from the Pac-12. Put the most important games upfront, giving them maneuverability to be played at a different time, if necessary. In this case, ASU and Arizona each have a bye in Week 4, should the season not start on time. Also:

Attendance at Pac-12 games will depend on the respective universities and their local county/state health mandates. In-state college football games will have a much cleaner path to playing before reduced audiences, crossing fewer political hurdles along the way.

Have you seen Gov. Doug Ducey’s television ad featuring a hot dog floating on a mask parachute? Encouraging Arizona to save live sports by covering your face at all times? There is no accident that it’s coming on the eve of football season in the Valley, where the Cardinals, ASU, Arizona and the Fiesta Bowl annually generate millions of dollars.

The Cardinals surely want some fans in Glendale. And the timing and flexibility of the Territorial Cup arguably give the schools the best chance at playing before a live crowd.

Still, there was plenty of resistance to the Pac-12 schedule, the first and last time ASU will play Arizona in Week 1 of a college football season. Many fans are beyond angry. This tweak of the calendar violates tradition, and how our state loves to spice up Thanksgiving weekend with a blood-feud, backyard brawl on full stomachs. Because this game has always been a reprieve for the schools involved, a way to justify even the most miserable seasons.

There is great comfort in the Territorial Cup. It’s the way to make a good season great or a bad season good. It’s the guarantee that no matter what happens in the first three months of the season, there will always be a de facto Super Bowl at the end of the road. Redemption always awaits at the end of every football season.

It’s powerful propaganda. Many ASU fans truly believe a victory over Arizona is the crown jewel of any football season. The Sun Devils have won three consecutive rivalry games. ASU is surging ahead in recruiting, tilting the playing field, changing the narrative. When the teams meet in 2020, the Territorial Cup will have been in ASU’s possession for 1,037 days. There are goosebumps on the arms of ASU fans who just read the previous sentence.

For years, I struggled to understand the pathos and surface heat of this rivalry. Now that I’m part of it, I understand the social dynamics. It’s the illogical and the nonsensical that make the Territorial Cup so special. It’s a chalice always overflowing with knee-jerk taunts and reflexive hate. A game that is ours alone, pure Arizona culture, like the perfect sunset or perfect salsa. Something outsiders would never understand.

Only this time, it’s the first game of the season. Maybe the only game of the season. In a year when the heat and the hate comes early in the Pac-12.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

Reach Bickley at Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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Dan Bickley bio
Dan Bickley is the most influential sports media member in Arizona sports history, having spent over 20 years as the award-winning lead sports columnist for The Arizona Republic and and almost two decades as a Valley sports radio talk show host. In spring 2018, Bickley made the decision to leave the newspaper to join the Arizona Sports team as host of the entertaining and informative midday show Bickley and Marotta, as well as bring his opinionated and provocative column exclusively to
Bickley’s journalism career began in his hometown of Chicago, where he was part of a star-studded staff at the Chicago Sun-Times. He chronicled Michael Jordan’s six NBA championships; covered the Olympics in eight different countries and attended 14 Super Bowls; spent three weeks in an Indianapolis courthouse writing about Mike Tyson’s rape trial; and once left his laptop in an Edmonton bar after the Blackhawks reached the Stanley Cup Finals.
He has won multiple awards, written two books, formed a rock band, fathered three children, and once turned down an offer to work at the New York Times.  His passions include sports, music, the alphabet, good beer and great radio. After joining Arizona Sports 98.7 FM, he couldn’t be happier