If Arizona State is to have any chance at playing in the Rose Bowl on New Year's Day, it will likely need to win in Pasadena this weekend.
The 19th-ranked Sun Devils can clinch the Pac-12 South Division with a victory over No. 14 UCLA on Saturday.
Arizona State (8-2, 6-1) has a one-game lead over UCLA and USC, and having already defeated the Trojans, the only thing standing in the Sun Devils' way from earning a spot in the conference title game on Dec. 7 is a victory over the Bruins (8-2, 5-2).
"We've been talking about winning a championship here for two years," Arizona State coach Todd Graham said. "I know our guys are focused. It's a body of work at this point, there's not a lot of surprises between one team and another team.
"This is a big game, I can't say that it's not a big game. It's one we've been pointing to all year long."
A loss would mean Arizona State would need to beat Arizona in its regular-season finale and have USC defeat UCLA next week to earn the South crown.
The Sun Devils have won six straight conference games, with five consecutive victories overall -- the program's longest win streak since 2007. Since losing to Notre Dame on Oct. 5, Arizona State's defense has really locked down. Opponents are averaging 18.8 points in the past five games, while the Sun Devils have recorded 18 sacks and picked off 10 passes.
Cornerback Robert Nelson has been the leader of the defense all year, and has five interceptions during the winning streak. In last Saturday's 30-17 victory over Oregon State, Nelson had five tackles, two picks and a fumble recovery. His second interception was returned 23 yards for a touchdown in the fourth quarter, essentially icing the game for the Sun Devils.
For his performance, Nelson was named Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.
"All the credit goes to the defense," Nelson said. "I just read the quarterback and made a break on the ball. We were just doing what coach told us to do all week. We stayed disciplined and stayed in our assignments."
While the defense has been great, Arizona State will need a better performance from its offense if it is to knock off the Bruins. Sun Devils quarterback Taylor Kelly threw for 183 yards against Oregon State, with no touchdowns and two interceptions. Kelly has also been sacked eight times in the past two games, a concern versus a Bruins defense led by pass-rush specialist Anthony Barr, who has seven sacks this season.
The Sun Devils' run game has been a bit more efficient, thanks in large part to running back Marion Grice. A dynamic runner, as well as being a good receiver out of the backfield, Grice has 20 total touchdowns to rank second in the FBS.
"(Arizona State) is a heck of a football team," Bruins coach Jim Mora said. "They play hard, and they play fast, and they play physical. They've got a lot of confidence right now."
UCLA has won three in a row since dropping back-to-back games to Stanford and Oregon. The Bruins, who have scored 30 or more points in each of their last three, defeated Washington 41-31 last Friday.
Quarterback Brett Hundley didn't have his greatest game, throwing for 159 yards and two TDs, but linebacker Myles Jack picked up the slack, rushing for four touchdowns. Jack followed up his 120-yard debut at running back against Arizona in the previous week by becoming the 13th player in UCLA history to score four touchdowns in a game.
"Myles is a weapon," Mora said. "Like I said last week, you just can't go crazy with it. This guy is an outstanding linebacker, and he's as good as you'll find in America, especially for a freshman. That's where he loves to play and that's where we want to play him. But we are going to continue to use him (at running back).
Mora did imply the team may add some wrinkles to the playbook with their two-way weapon, saying, "If (Jack) is just out there every time we hand him the ball, Arizona State is going to be zeroed in on him. We will keep using him over there."
The Bruins have won three of the past four meetings with the Sun Devils, including the past two. UCLA won 45-43 at Arizona State last season on a 33-yard field goal from kicker Ka'imi Fairbairn as time expired.
Top 25 Overview
If the Sun Devils win, they lock up the South Division. If UCLA wins, it holds a critical tiebreaker over ASU, but still would need to win the following week against USC. Coach Jim Mora is perfect in his career against Pac-12 South teams (8-0). ASU's defense boasts a higher three-and-out percentage than any team in the country (47.2 percent).