Arizona State is in a new situation. The Sun Devils are tabbed as preseason favorites in the Pac-12 South, with that carries a burden of expectations. There are certain Pacific 10, now Pac-12 conference teams that have performed well under great expectations.
Of course, the USC Trojans come to mind on more than one occasion, as well as the great Washington Husky squads of the early 90s under Don James, and even the UCLA Bruins' brief stint of optimism following the 1997 postseason Cotton Bowl victory, while contending for a national championship the following year.
Each team lived up to heightened expectations for their upcoming season, after triumphant previous seasons.
Arizona State is in a completely different scenario than a typical “rise to power” plot line.
The Sun Devils did not win a hotly contested bowl game, nor share the conference title crown with another program. Dennis Erickson’s squad was not permitted to play in a postseason bowl because ASU beat four, only four, bowl-subdivision teams.
Yet, ESPN, Fox Sports, and virtually every preseason magazine or online publication, has the Sun Devils in the top 25. Recently, this is a foreign territory for the Devils.
Playing as the favorite is normally reserved for early-season games vs. San Jose State, Louisiana-Monroe, Washington State and Nevada-Las Vegas, and the latter ASU managed to choke away in overtime.
Even just last fall, the Sun Devils hoped to come away with victories on the road at Wisconsin, against Oregon, and at the L.A. Coliseum vs. USC. That is hoped, not a “take it to the bank guarantee.”
After all, it has been a while since good old Sparky has been ranked. In fact, since the debacle that the UNLV Runnin’ Rebels laid on ASU in 2008, Erickson’s men have yet to sniff the polls.
But that was back then. Now, everyone is taking note of the Sun Devils, without a touchdown to be made, or a game to be decided.
Moreover, digital gaming kingpin Electronic Arts NCAA Football 12 rates ASU in the top 25. Credibility in the digital age matters, and the Sun Devils are accepting of the gracious “preseason honors.”
Fans in the desert can now play the game with their beloved Sun Devils as they always envisioned, an elite top 25 program.
The end result on the field is what counts, and the results last fall were encouraging, but still far from desirable. A 6-6 record is never ideal, especially when the previous two seasons ended with losing records.
Still, the aspirations of reaching a BCS bowl game emerge from the players. Before any plans are made for a Pac-12 championship game in the Valley of the Sun, fans must recognize that ASU still needs to learn how to win.
Sure, the Sun Devils ended the 2010 season in style with two wins against UCLA and hated rival Arizona, but those two contests are a small sample size of ASU’s success.
Those two wins were carried over through winter workouts and spring ball, and built a sense of confidence within the locker room. How much confidence is yet to be seen.
Playing with confidence helps, but if the players are thinking about all the kudos and preseason predictions on the field, another pedestrian performance will be scripted in 2011. Never has a team won a championship in a preseason magazine.
On the other hand, the desire to live up to expectations, and in a sense, prove the critics wrong is a motivating tactic. Long has Arizona State been considered a “sleeping giant” for more reasons than one, but has never sustained the fully-functioning, albeit frightening giant of the college football world.
Sure, the Frank Kush days in Tempe were nothing but sunshine, conference titles, and beating the best from the Midwest every chance he got, but no one then knew what an iPod was, or ever would be, let alone an iPhone.
The times have changed, and so too has the philosophy at Arizona State. The old guard, or at the very least the old garb, has been tossed aside for a new style.
This fall, ASU will don new home and away uniforms, complete with a new helmet logo.
With the new uniforms, a new identity can be born. The past is the past, and will always be remembered. In the world of athletics, it is all about “what have you done for me lately?”
Lately, the Sun Devils have been all the talk. The only problem is, the score will not count until September. By then, all these preseason rankings and predictions will hold the weight of a penny.
Arizona State’s mentality in the 2011 season opener will be very telling. Sure, the opponent is only UC-Davis, but the Sun Devils should not worry about the opponent. After all, Sun Devil nation witnessed far too many games fumbled away by “user error” on the part of the maroon and gold.
The losses were not in dominating fashion, as the constant reminder of four losses by 10 points, and a fifth loss by 11 points to national runner-up Oregon, complete with seven Sun Devil giveaways.
The look might have changed at Arizona State, but that can only fool a few. The rankings certainly have respect for the Sun Devils, but has it been earned yet? No matter what, come Sept. 1, respect will be earned, not handed out.
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