Three 2012 BCS bowl qualifiers and a program Arizona State has beaten just once in the last 13 years await Arizona State in the next four weeks. At July's Pac-12 media day, head coach Todd Graham called the Sun Devils' stretch from Weeks 3 through 6 the toughest any team in college football faces.
ASU embarks on the first leg Saturday when Wisconsin visits Tempe. The three-time defending Big Ten Conference champions and No. 20 Badgers are the first real measuring stick for a Sun Devil team with aspirations of reaching the program's first Rose Bowl Game since 1996.
Graham emphasized the magnitude of Saturday's matchup during Tuesday's Pac-12 coaches teleconference call.
"No doubt, we’re going to know exactly where we are," he said.
Anyone and everyone involved in the program realizes the importance of this stretch beginning with Wisconsin, and to that end, everyone is pulling out all the stops.
The university athletic marketing department began the push to "#BlackoutBucky" in the summer, launching a social media campaign to whip Sun Devil Stadium's already-raucous student section into a frenzy by Saturday.
Not that anyone needs any additional motivation, whether it's the Sun Devil fans, the players or Graham and his staff.
"The players are excited about it. The fans are excited about it. We're close to a sellout crowd," Graham said. "This is what college football is all about."
A high-profile matchup between two very good teams is indeed the stuff of football dreams, but such a contest is also a high hurdle between a program and a BCS bowl game.
The Sun Devils have never played in one of the top-tier bowls since the system's inception in 1998, and they'll end the BCS era without reaching one if it doesn't happen this year. This Sun Devil team is the most well-equipped to do so. Its schedule is conducive to an at-large bid—but only if ASU wins the big games, like Saturday's.
Pasadena, site of both the Rose Bowl Game and BCS Championship Game, is the preferred destination, which Graham reiterated.
"Our first goal is to be Pac-12 champion. We look at conference as most significant," he said.
And indeed, ASU has two such marquee pairings amid this daunting stretch. A trip to defending conference champion Stanford looms in Week 4, and USC visits Tempe in Week 5. The Trojans have struggled initially this season, but they also have the Sun Devils' number like no other team in the conference.
ASU's 43-22 defeat of USC in September 2011 snapped an 11-game losing streak in the series, dating back to 1999.
Those two conference clashes, with Saturday and a neutral field contest against Notre Dame as bookends, will shape the entire outlook for the remainder of the season.
Graham said improvement is the team's week-to-week goal, but recent Sun Devil teams have struggled as seasons progressed. Their combined post-October regular-season record is 4-12 since 2009. Last year, ASU lost four straight Weeks 8 through 11.
With a tendency of wilting down the stretch still lingering, a poor showing in this early stretch is a recipe for disaster.
The flip side is that no team will enter mid-October and the back-end of its schedule with a stronger résumé than ASU.
"We want to be champions," Graham said plainly.
If the Sun Devils reach that goal, no one can say they didn't earn it.
Kyle Kensing is the Pac-12 Lead Writer. All quotes were obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted. Follow Kyle on Twitter @kensing45.
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