For the Arizona State Sun Devil football team, the 2011 season presents the most important crossroads the program has faced in quite some time.
If they take the all-too-familiar "fail to meet expectations" route, then their place as perhaps the preeminent example of a big school with wasted powerhouse potential will be further cemented.
However, if they decide to rise up and meet the challenge of title contending hopes, then this team can begin the long overdue process of laying the foundation for ASU's ascent to a true football power, not simply one that has the occasional great season floating in a sea of mediocrity.
There are many things working in the Sun Devils favor, as well as many obstacles and question marks in their way to a BCS game. Those factors will come into play this fall when the team opens their season on September 1st against UC Davis, the first of twelve program-defining games.
Not all NCAA football games are created equal. Some will have a major impact on the team's season, while others will be far less profound.
Let's take an in-depth at the 2011 Arizona State schedule and work our way up to the season's defining game.
Like most seasons, ASU opens up with a FCS opponent. Thankfully, after last year's scheduling fiasco resulted in ASU playing two such opponents, the UC-Davis Aggies are the only de facto tune-up game on the schedule.
While ASU usually does to their FCS opponents what any self-respecting FBS team should, they need to avoid letting the game be too close, as has been an occasional occurrence in the past. Teams with conference-title-contending aspirations need to set the tone early in their season with a crushing win.
ASU should, and likely will, dominate the Aggies, a middling FCS school coming off a 6-5 season. It's the kind of game that sets the Devils up for ironing out any kinks and getting the starters out before halftime.
ASU's third game of the season will be their second against a BCS conference school and their first road game when they travel to Champaign. After going nearly a calendar year winless on the road, ASU finally snapped that streak with a win at Washington and then capped their season with the thrilling double-overtime win in Tucson against Arizona.
Coming off a 7-6 season and a Texas Bowl victory, the Illini lost their best player in running back Mikel Leshoure, but still return the components to be a capable team in 2011.
Sophomore Nathan Scheelhaase has potential to be a dangerous dual-threat quarterback and will be protected by three returning starters on the offensive line. Key losses on the defensive side will be the Illini's greatest question this season.
After ASU's game against Missouri the week before, this will be a key game.
If the Devils suffer a loss against the Tigers, this will be a statement game showing that the previous week was merely a non-conference setback. More importantly, if ASU is coming off a win, it will close out the non-conference schedule at a perfect 3-0 heading into the critical USC game.
Both Illinois' questions on defense and relative one-dimensional rushing attack on offense play perfectly into ASU's strengths and this should be a Sun Devil win.
For as bad as some Pac-10 teams have been over the years, there is always one comforting thought: at least you're not Washington State.
The Cougars have perennially been the conference doormat, having won a mere five games over the past three seasons. Included in that span is a 0-3 record against ASU, with WSU having been outscored by a combined 100-14 margin.
The 2011 season brings about a degree of hope for Washington State in the form of standout quarterback Jeff Tuel, but no one in Pullman is expecting a drastic turnaround.
ASU travels to Washington State as the third and final of a series of very winnable games before the season-ending two game homestand.
With the conference realignment as part of the evolution to the Pac-12, ASU and WSU are now in opposite divisions within the conference. Nevertheless, this is a must win game for any team, let alone a hopeful conference contender.
A win in Pullman is expected as ASU closes out their road schedule. This should amount to a tune-up game in advance of their Territorial Cup matchup against Arizona the next week.
The Sun Devils close out the regular season the day after Thanksgiving when they host Cal.
The Golden Bears struggled mightily in 2010, missing a bowl game for the first time under head coach Jeff Tedford. Their chances of returning to post-season play are very much in question, with several key departures.
For ASU, the challenge in this game may be more mental than any physicality the Bears present on the field.
The Sun Devils will be coming off their always ferocious rivalry game against the Arizona Wildcats just six days prior, a contest that is sure to be rife with Pac-12 South implications.
Regardless of that outcome, ASU must be wary to avoid any letdown in a game they should win—against a clearly inferior opponent at home—as they close out the regular season with hopeful eyes to postseason play.
The Sun Devils will finally take on a new Pac-12 North division opponent on October 1st when they tangle with the Beavers.
This game shares many similarities to the Cal game discussed in the previous slide.
Both the Beavers and Bears are coming off disappointing 5-7 seasons. Both games are inter-divisional games that will be played at home. Most importantly, they are potential letdown games that follow South division games against a tough opponent, in this case USC.
Another similarity to the Cal game is that this is a game that the Sun Devils should win.
The Beavers lost seven starters on defense, including All-American tackle Stephen Paea, as well as their most explosive playmaker in running back Jacquizz Rodgers. The Devils should have Oregon State outclassed in most areas on both sides of the ball.
It is critical that ASU notches a victory at home before they head to their most important road game of the season the following week.
Both of the new additions to the conference—Colorado and Utah—now reside in the Pac-12 South division along with ASU.
Colorado's first taste of ASU as a conference rival comes on October 29th. ASU will be coming off their bye week, which follows their road game against Oregon, clearly their most difficult game of the year.
Colorado continues to be mired in a prolonged stretch of mediocrity. They are coming off a 5-7 season, but one in which they found a star in running back Rodney Stewart, who rushed for 1,318 yards and ten touchdowns. Overall, they return sixteen starters.
Despite their experience, they should provide nothing more than a mild-to-moderate challenge for the Sun Devils.
This is the one home date surrounded on each side by two road games, so it's critical that ASU capitalizes and gets the victory to keep their momentum building as they prepare for the season's home stretch.
The first stop on that home stretch takes the Devils to Pasadena to take on the UCLA Bruins.
Last season, it was the UCLA game that served as ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler's coming out party. After starter Steven Threet had his career ended with another concussion, Osweiler came in and accounted for five touchdowns in the Sun Devils' 55-34 win.
After their 4-8 season, UCLA doesn't seem to be in much better shape in 2011. They still have major questions at quarterback, lost their entire offensive line and their top player in linebacker Akeem Ayers. They do however have running back Johnathan Franklin, a second team All-Pac-10 selection last season.
However, ASU's greatest defensive strength on an already formidable defense is stopping the run, so this is a game that plays greatly into the Sun Devils' favor.
This game marks the first of must win back-to-back games for ASU, with the Washington State trip coming the following week.
The Devils will be large favorites in both games and must avoid playing down to the level of the competition that has occurred in recent seasons. If they can avoid that pitfall, they should win each easily.
In most every season preview and game-by-game breakdown published so far, this is universally forecast as an ASU loss.
When you are facing arguably the No. 1 team in the nation who just played in the national championship game and returns the core of their team and plays in one of the most hostile environments for a visiting team, then finding yourself as an underdog is a given.
However, ASU does have several things in their favor in this game.
First, Oregon is in the North division, so a loss here wouldn't necessarily derail the team's hopes for winning the South.
Secondly, since most everyone expects this to be among the few—if not the only—ASU regular season loss, ASU is free to play without the pressure that they'll have as the favored team throughout most of the season.
This is a game that Oregon should win, so the pressure is on them to do so to keep their national title hopes alive, a heavy factor that ASU won't have to deal with.
Most importantly, ASU knows they can play with the Ducks. Until Steven Threet tossed three backbreaking interceptions in the fourth quarter in last season's 42-31 Oregon win, ASU was in tremendous position to pull off the upset.
Breaking through and toppling the Ducks will be a more difficult task with the game in Autzen Stadium, but should ASU again give the Ducks all they can handle or even score the win, they would immediately be legitimized as a Pac-12 power. In a sense, ASU is playing with house money. Even if they lose, as long as they are competitive, they will retain their status as a young contending team on the rise.
Now the stakes are beginning to hit a new level.
Give ASU credit for foregoing the practice that many BCS schools favor in having their non-conference schedule comprised entirely of lower tier teams. After the UC Davis "scrimmage", they ramp right up to a school coming off 39 wins over the last four seasons in the ultra-competitive Big-12.
Even without recent top-10 NFL Draft pick Blaine Gabbert at quarterback, Missouri is formidable.
They return 15 starters (nine on offense) and turn over their high-octane attack to promising sophomore James Franklin.
This game is huge for ASU. It will serve as the first major test as to whether the hype and expectations that have surrounded the program all off-season are warranted. To further ramp up the importance, the game was moved to Friday so as to allow it to be nationally televised by ESPN.
Thankfully, ASU gets this game at home, and there is already talk of using the ESPN broadcast as the debut of the new black uniforms.
If ASU can win the game over a tough Tiger team in front of a national audience, those preseason claims of title contention take on immediate validity.
Should they lose, however, those same hopes take a major, but not critical, blow.
The game is a non-conference game and with 10 more games following it, there will be plenty of time to make up the lost ground against other good teams.
Coming off last season's epic double-overtime Duel in the Desert, it's hard to imagine that this year's clash between Arizona and Arizona State could be any better.
While it may be impossible to be a "better" game, it will certainly be more important.
For the first time since 2001, the Sun Devils will not end their regular season against the Wildcats. Despite that scheduling quirk, the rivalry will be as intense as ever.
Arizona should be an above-average team again despite losing ten starters (including their entire starting offensive line) and returns touted quarterback Nick Foles.
The Wildcats figure to be one of the teams capable of challenging the Sun Devils for the South division crown. This game will be the final divisional game for both teams (ASU finishes against Cal, while Arizona hosts Louisiana-Lafayette), placing greater importance should one - or likely both - team be in the title hunt.
As added motivation, the Wildcats will be looking for revenge after last season's thriller, when they had not one but two extra points blocked in their 30-29 defeat at home to ASU. As is the case in rivalry games, records can always be thrown out the window.
This game could very well determine who represents the Pac-12 South in December 3rd's inaugural conference championship game.
That is ASU's record against USC in their last eleven meetings, dating back to 1999.
If there was ever a time to break that streak, it is now.
Despite nine losses over the past two seasons, the stain of NCAA sanctions and post-season bans and the continued presence of Lane Kiffin, the Trojans remain the crown jewel of the new Pac-12 South division. In this inaugural year of the divisional alignment, the road to the conference title game will go through USC.
ASU won't have to wait too long to get their chance to topple the Trojans. The game marks the Devils' first venture into conference play on September 24th.
While the aura that surrounded the Trojan program under Pete Carroll is gone, it would be immensely foolish to write off USC. They are a talented team led by one of the premiere quarterbacks in the nation in Matt Barkley. Their primary question marks reside on the defensive side of the ball, but seven returning starters who are in their second season in defensive coordinator Monte Kiffin's system could show marked improvement.
While the Missouri game should provide a stern test of ASU's title contending mettle, this game could remove any lingering doubt.
Why then is this not then the Devils' most critical game? ASU benefits greatly from this game being at Sun Devil Stadium, where they have played there best football under Dennis Erickson. Furthermore, while still potent, the Trojans may not be the strongest South division challenge they Devils will face this season.
A win gets their conference schedule off to a rousing start, while a loss will immediately bring back the "same old Devils" sentiments of the last decade.
Is this the highest profile game on ASU's 2011 schedule? Certainly not.
Will this be the Devils' toughest game? Unlikely.
Is it their most critical game? Absolutely.
By the time ASU heads up to Salt Lake City to take on the Utes, they will have played five games, including their tough contests against Missouri and USC. However, only one of those games will have occurred away from Sun Devil Stadium.
ASU's road struggles have been well documented. Before they beat Washington last season in Seattle, the Sun Devils had gone nearly a full year (364 days, to be precise) without notching a win on the road. In fact, over the last three seasons, their road record is a paltry 4-12. Good teams, let alone title teams, win on the road.
The Utes come to the Pac-12 having been a force in the Mountain West Conference. In the same span in which ASU was posting a .250 winning percentage, Utah was compiling a 33-6 record, including a perfect 13-0 2008 season capped by a Sugar Bowl win over Alabama. They are certainly a daunting opponent.
This year the Utes will return 12 starters from last season's 10-win team, including quarterback Jordan Wynn, although they have question marks at running back and wide receiver as they move into the first season in coordinator Norm Chow's offense.
So why is this the make-or-break game on the schedule?
ASU was a young and inexperienced team in 2010, greatly contributing to their struggles, especially on the road. They now fancy themselves as experienced and ready for contention. This is a showdown with arguably their toughest competition in the South division on the road.
Simply put, if the Sun Devils have matured to the point where they are to win the South, they will win on October 8th.
Follow me on Twitter @ASU_Examiner for the latest updates and analysis on ASU football