Coming off a 5-7 season that included a six-game losing streak, Dennis Erickson and his Sun Devils have something to prove in 2009; specifically that their 10—win 2007 season was no fluke.
A big problem in 2008 was the Devils' inability to win their positional and one-on-one matchups.
Here is a few of the matchups the maroon and gold will need to overcome to change their fortunes in 2009.
In their meeting last season, the Sun Devils' offense struggled to put points on the board in a 27-10 loss in Tempe. For its first real test of 2009, ASU travels to Athens for a rematch.
Georgia's run defense is a major strength with defensive tackles Geno Atkins, Jeff Owens and Keno Weston all possessing pro—quality talent. It will be very difficult for the Devils to run the ball effectively.
But Georgia does not have a shut down corner or effective rushing defensive end, so they will be expected to pin their ears back and blitz much of the game. This will test ASU's young and unproven offensive line, but will free up the strength of their offense: the wide receivers.
If the line can hold up and give quarterback Danny Sullivan time and allow Kyle Williams and Chris McGaha to make plays, the Devils could give the Bulldogs a run for their money in Athens.
Running back Jacquizz Rodgers was a breakout star for the Beavers in 2008 and he lit up the ASU defense for 198 yards of total offense in Oregon State's 27—25 win in Corvallis, the Devils' sixth straight defeat.
ASU's front seven will be looking to stifle the speedy back in ASU's Pac—10 opener in Tempe. This will not be easy with Rodgers running behind the Beavers' talented interior line, lead by guard Gregg Peat and center Alex Linnenkohl.
So what is different this time around? The addition of blue chip linebacker Vontaze Burficit and tackle Corey Adams, who are expected to be difference makers right away.
Coupled with talented tackle Lawrence Guy and an experienced linebacking corps, the Devils' fast front seven will need to contain Rodgers to open their conference season with a win.
ASU's defense faces their most talented running attack in a Halloween night matchup with the Cal Golden Bears.
Jeff Tedford's squad boasts two high-quality backs in Jahvid Best and Shane Vareen, who are expected to carry a majority of the load on offense. The Bears are thin in the receiving corps and have no alternative to Kevin Riley under center, making the running attack the focal point for opposing defenses.
Freshman linebacker Vontaze Burficit will need to employ his "seek-and-destroy" skills and tackle Lawrence Guy will need to fill up the gaps to ensure Cal's backs will have nowhere to go.
As the saying goes, USC does not recruit—they reload. That is especially true for their defense, where the Trojans lost each their starting linebackers to the NFL.
But the Trojans are still expected to be strong with the highly touted Chris Galippo, Malcolm Smith and Michael Morgan stepping in to the lineup. Combined with rush end Everson Griffin and safeties Taylor Mays and Josh Pinkard, USC's defense is expected to be one of the best in the nation.
This will be a tall order for ASU's offensive line, with just one senior and a ton of unknowns that provided almost no running holes and little throwing time in 2008.
To be successful, or even put points on the board this time around, the maroon and gold will need to spread out the Trojans with the new zone-read formations Erickson has put into the playbook.
They should also run some misdirection or trick plays to keep the defense on
its heels and take pressure off the line.
Even with a coaching change, personnel moves and several new faces on offense, Oregon's offense remains one of the top in the Pac-10 and should continue to thrive under new head coach Chip Kelly.
Oregon's triple option requires certain personnel to run, but is extremely effective in putting a defense out of position and using speed and misdirection. This was successful to the tune of 40 points per game in 2008.
Stopping it requires each defensive player to know their assignments, make plays and not overpursue. Discipline is the key word and it must be instilled by defensive coordinator Craig Bray if ASU wants to beat the Ducks for the first time since 2003.
"New look on offense" doesn't just describe Oregon's personnel in this case. QB Jeremiah Masoli is the sole man under center and LeGarrette Blount will be expected to carry the load at running back.
With Oregon's somewhat inexperienced and thin backfield, ASU will have a chance in Eugene if they can stay in their gaps and not let the Ducks' explosive offense control the game.
There is no doubt this is a young team, coming off a subpar season. On the other hand, this is a relatively weak conference, where an upstart team can rise up and challenge the "big dogs."
ASU's defense is a strength, specifically the front seven, and they will be pushed to the limit several times this season, but it may be up to them to win some games (see vs. UCLA last season).
With several question marks on offense from the offensive line to the running game to who is even going to be the quarterback, several individuals will have to step up if this team will find any success.
But Dennis Erickson is a quality coach and he knows what it takes to win. He now has primarily "his guys" in place and has improved recruiting and players' attitudes with regard to the program.
He took a step back last season, but a baptism by fire for several young players may have been what was needed for the maroon and gold to find success.
The 2009 season will be a huge test, but also an excellent gauge of where the program is headed.