Entering the 2010 season, the Arizona State Sun Devils were voted the ninth-best team in the Pac-10 Conference. Thanks to Washington State completely flat-lining recently, the Sun Devils had some company.
Once again the season began with question marks in crucial areas of the field: quarterback, wide receiver, offensive line and secondary.
Even the head coach, who brought success to the ASU Sun Devils for the first time in nearly 10 years, was under some heat.
College football is a "what have you done for me lately" profession, and the Sun Devils entered the season determined.
But would the results prove that on the field?
Deantre Lewis exploded onto the college football scene against Portland State.
Dennis Erickson, his staff, the fans at Frank Kush Field, observers watching on television and those listening on the radio all wanted to find out how this Sun Devils team could do under the lights. Although the competition might have seemed like a scrimmage, this was not.
The 54-9 final score proved one thing: ASU is far better than Portland State. However, most of us already knew that.
On the other hand, fans were pleasantly surprised with the production of newly named starting quarterback Steven Threet. The Michigan transfer completed 14-of-21 passes for 239 yards with two touchdowns and an interception. Not a spectacular stat line, but compared to 2009 with Danny Sullivan under center, Threet's talents were far superior.
A lot of other question marks were answered. Threet solidified himself as the offensive leader under center. The offensive line anchored a running game that totaled 242 yards and 553 yards of total offense.
New stars like Deantre Lewis and Eddie Elder, coupled with Cameron Marhall's three-TD performance, electrified Sun Devil Stadium with game-changing plays.
So far so good for Sun Devil fans, but Northern Arizona would pose a bigger threat.
But the question was, how big?
Steven Threet took charge of the quarterback battle with great showings early in 2010.
Arizona State looked to improve upon its dominating season-opening victory against Portland State with a similar performance against Northern Arizona.
Dennis Erickson and his Sun Devils did not dismantle the Lumberjacks in an overpowering fashion like the Portland State Vikings, but when it mattered most, ASU came out on top.
The score at halftime was 17-10, and from that point on, ASU's talent, athletic ability and depth came to fruition and ultimately were the deciding factors in the win.
Noel Mazzone's no-huddle offense once again put up staggering numbers. Behind Threet's 391-yard passing performance, the Sun Devils looked like a surefire passing attack that fans have been missing in years past.
The defense was not spectacular, yet still had the attitude of a top-notch unit. That sentiment might have been true, but everyone around the ASU program knew the true test would be at Camp Randall Stadium against the Wisconsin Badgers.
Omar Bolden returned a kickoff 97 yards for a touchdown against Wisconsin that sparked the upset bid.
Not many fans, media pundits or national panel members expected the Arizona State Sun Devils to beat Wisconsin. Neither team really played "top-tier" competition entering the contest, yet the consensus pick was that Wisconsin would overpower the athletic Sun Devils.
Not to mention, ASU would be playing in front of 80,000 screaming Badgers fans. Not exactly an easy win for a young squad that tuned up for this showdown against NAU and Portland State.
All the questions coming into this season that were not answered in the first two games would be answered following the Wisconsin game. In some cases, ASU realized some strengths they may not have envisioned (i.e. outstanding return game and special teams), and a dominant running game that went toe-to-toe with one of the best and strongest "front sevens" in the Big Ten, if not the country.
However, the outstanding defense that fans in the "Valley of the Sun" believed was present on the 2010 squad was still extremely vulnerable to the big play.
Wisconsin actually passed for more yards than they totaled on the ground.
Heading into this contest, John Clay, Wisconsin's Heisman hopeful, was the focal point of the ASU defense.
But in the end, it was John Tolzien and Lance Kendricks who were the stars of the show. The quarterback to tight end chemistry totaled 131 yards and one touchdown to go along with John Clay's powerful attack in the second half.
And yes, a blocked extra point was the difference in the game continuing into overtime, and the reality of the situation was realized when Wisconsin QB Scott Tolzien slowly genuflected near midfield as time expired.
However, a 2-1 record heading into conference play was not bad at all.
Unfortunately, the high-flying No. 5 Oregon Ducks were next up on the schedule.
Arizona State had its chances to beat the highly touted Oregon Ducks, but mistakes, unforced turnovers and head-scratching penalties ended any shot of an upset.
Did I mention the turnovers? It is pretty hard to overlook a number seven in the turnover category, but that was the case on September 25.
Maybe an even more interesting fact about this game was that Oregon punted 11 times. Yes, 11 times!
ASU held a 24-14 lead late in the second quarter, but the score at halftime was 28-24, Ducks.
Oregon was averaging over a point a minute in its previous three games.
However, the moral victories and "oh so close" finishes left the Sun Devils with a 2-2 record after the Ducks escaped from Tempe.
Chip Kelly said it best following Oregon’s 42-31 win, “we are lucky to get out of here alive.”
Erickson and the maroon and gold would try to notch their first conference victory against the Ducks' rival, Oregon State the following Saturday.
Arizona State traveled to Corvallis to take on the Beavers. The Sun Devils were trying to avoid a three-game losing streak for the third time in as many years.
However, once again, Oregon State looked poised to rebound from a slow start in 2010 with a catalyst victory against the Sun Devils.
OSU running back Jacquizz Rodgers had a big game at first glance at the box score, but the difference between an average game rushing, and the Beavers winning was one 74-yard touchdown run in the fourth quarter.
Rodgers was not the only star for Oregon State in the win. Sophomore quarterback Ryan Katz struggled in the early going against top-tier competition on the road, but against ASU, Katz made a complete 180-degree change.
Katz went 19-for-29 for 260 yards and two touchdowns.
Comparably, ASU's explosive offense found out a glaring weakness: red zone efficiency.
Sun Devil quarterback Steven Threet did not help out the cause by throwing three interceptions, just one week after a four-interception meltdown against Oregon.
However, the road woes were not just limited to the offense. ASU's defense gave up 416 yards and once again seemed extremely vulnerable to giving up big play after big play.
That would not sit well on the flight back to Tempe, especially when the Sun Devils found out their next opponent, Washington, just got finished beating USC for the second straight year.
Everything seemed to shape up in the Washington Huskies' favor. Entering the game in Seattle, ASU lost three straight games. Dennis Erickson was nearly witnessing the 2010 season end before Halloween.
The rain was coming down the entire game, which certainly did not bode well for a team from the desert that already committed 10 turnovers in two previous games.
However, the Sun Devils never skipped a beat. The Huskies were tabbed as the confident team at kickoff due to a narrow victory on the road the previous week.
But one man had a lot to prove following two weeks of inefficiency, and did so when it mattered most. The Sun Devils game in Seattle was a must-win scenario, and behind their leader Steven Threet, the job seemed easy.
Threet passed for nearly 300 yards (288 to be exact) and two touchdowns with a rain-soaked football. The Sun Devils quarterback even snuck in from a yard out with a second left in the first quarter.
ASU's offense looked precise and sharp, and on the other side of the ball, the Sun Devil displayed a bend but don't break style. When it mattered most on third and fourth down, the Huskies converted 7-of-19 opportunities. They converted only five third downs the entire game.
And how about this? In a game where Erickson benched quite possibly his best defender for a good portion of the game, ASU's defense played up to par and tapped in for a few birdies as well.
Finally, when the clock wound down to zero on the rain-soaked turf in Seattle, Dennis Erickson led the Sun Devil celebration all the way back to Tempe.
The next few weeks will be crucial in determining the final Pac-10 standings. Arizona State will play California in its next game in Berkeley. With a week to prepare, ASU will have an opportunity to kick its feet up and watch its next opponent do battle against a reeling USC team.
California will pose a threat, especially in Strawberry Canyon, but once again ASU is in virtual must-win mode.
The Bears have been a Jekyll and Hyde team thus far, winning their first two games against Colorado and UC Davis by a combined 104-10 score. However, the next two games might have been more revealing as Nevada rolled up 52 points on what appeared to be a poor Cal defense. Then, the Bears nearly pulled off an upset in Tucson, losing 10-9 in the last minute.
Just like ASU did against Washington, Cal regained its form last week with a big win over UCLA, recording a 35-7 home win.
The Sun Devils should feel confident going into the game in Berkeley next Saturday. Cal has struggled through the air this season with Kevin Riley at quarterback, and last week was no different.
Riley passed for 83 yards and one touchdown from 16 attempts. Not exactly Heisman trophy numbers, but Cal running back Shane Vereen just might be the best back no one has heard of.
Vareen carried the ball 25 times for 151 yards and two touchdowns. The elusive Bears' running back also hauled in 3 catches for 51 yards. No doubt about it, Vareen is a stud, and will be the focus of the Sun Devil defense.
This game will be very even, much like the Oregon State-Arizona State game a few weeks back. The Sun Devils have matured since then, and more importantly, tasted victory again.
With a one-dimensional offense, ASU's defense might be ready for a feast and dominate the game, although none of that will matter if the Sun Devils turn the ball over. In the last two trips to Memorial Stadium, ASU has turned the ball over eight times.
Maybe if it rains in Berkeley, the Sun Devils will be more conscious of ball security and run away with this one.
Look for ASU to continue its run, and earn its second straight conference victory.
Looking even further, the Sun Devils will host Washington State the following week, so a win in gorgeous Strawberry Canyon might just set ASU up with a few consecutive wins.
If Dennis Erickson's Sun Devils notch a victory against California, which I think they will and should, ASU can roll off a few victories in a row. A bowl game no longer seems out of reach.
Take a look with me.
Washington State: Although the Cougars are improved, if ASU drops a home game to Wazzou, the sun might fall from the sky. Not necessarily, but it would certainly be a heartbreaking defeat.
So, let's predict a victory, okay?
Great. So, ASU could have a 4-2 record heading to the L.A. Coliseum.
This is not the same USC football team that the Sun Devils struggled against for years and years. Pete Carroll is gone. Reggie Bush is not going to score highlight-reel touchdowns. Rey Maualuga will not be lighting up Steven Threet.
All very good things for ASU.
Last year in Tempe, ASU had another token near upset. A 14-9 score was the result, and a Danny Sullivan "pick six" was the difference.
The Sun Devils totaled 347 yards to USC's 258. Four turnovers were the factor in the USC victory.
This is the year ASU can take down USC. It might not mean a whole lot to the national media, but in Tempe, a win over the Trojans is huge.
5-2? That would be nice. In my opinion, that is a BIG possibility.
After that the Sun Devils finish up with Stanford and UCLA at home. A split between these two California schools is not crazy to imagine.
Could you imagine the atmosphere in Tucson with a bowl berth and a decent season on the line for ASU?
Don't tune out the Sun Devils while they are on their bye. The rest of the season will be an entertaining roller coaster ride.