ASU Football: The 7 Greatest Villains Facing the Sun Devils' 2011 Pac-12 Quest
Every compelling narrative has a antagonistic force that the hero must overcome.
Whether it's a evil lord tormenting a boy wizard, a galaxy-spanning empire being the target of a band of freedom-loving rebels or man's personal struggle with his blind vengeance towards a white whale, such conflict is a ever present part of life.
The Arizona State Sun Devils' 2011 season is no exception.
Lying between them and their goal of winning a Pac-12 South championship are many opposing forces. These take many forms, both external and internal, from opposing star players to crippling habits that must be broken.
Here now are the Sun Devils' seven most daunting villains for 2011.
The Missouri Pass Rush
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Given the talent level that the Tiger pass rush, it could very well be that ASU quarterback Brock Osweiler will be adding an unhealthy amount of blue to his black.
Despite the lost of defensive end Aldon Smith—the seventh overall pick in this year's NFL draft—the Tigers are loaded with talent at defensive end.
Both of their projected starters, Jacquies Smith and Brad Madison, are coming off seasons in which they were named to the All-Big 12 second team.
Madison wasn't even a full-time starter, yet lead Missouri in both sacks (7.5) and tackles-for-loss (11). Smith finished behind him in both categories, with 5.5 sacks and 10 tackles-for-loss.
Their performances landed each a spot on the Lombardi Award watch list, which is given each year to the top down lineman in the nation. Madison was also named to the Nagurski Award watch list, which is given to the nation's best defensive player.
Osweiler showed an excellent ability to avoid the pass rush in his limited time last season. With the Missouri game being his fourth career start, he'll have to continue his excellence in that area for ASU to win.
And for his own survival.
It wouldn't be USC without a glamorous quarterback and junior Matt Barkley is the latest torchbearer of that tradition.
A starter since setting foot on campus, Barkley took great strides last season as a sophomore, throwing for 2,791 yards and 26 touchdowns and only 12 interceptions.
With a bevy of explosive weapons at his disposal, Barkley should continue his ascension into the elite class of quarterbacks in the nation, and he's currently projected to be a top pick when he enters the NFL Draft. A prototypical pocket passer, Barkley's chief concern in 2011 will be a rebuilding offensive line.
Last season, he tossed three touchdowns in the Trojans' 34-33 victory over Arizona State. Given ASU's now suspect secondary with the loss of Omar Bolden, Barkley could very well equal or surpass those numbers when these two teams meet on September 24th.
The key to stopping Barkley throwing to ultra-talented wide receiver Robert Woods will be for ASU's pass rush to exploit the Trojan offensive line and disrupt Barkley's rhythm. This task was made much more difficult as starting defensive end James Brooks left the team this week for personal reasons.
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What? Isn't LaMichael James—the nation's leading rusher—a greater threat?
In the Devils' 42-31 loss last season, it was Darron Thomas, not James, that was the most damaging Duck.
The ASU defense held James to 94 yards and a 3.4 yards-per-carry average, both figures coming as his second lowest totals of the regular season. Meanwhile, Thomas threw for 260 yards and two touchdowns and added a rushing touchdown.
The strengths of the 2011 Sun Devil defense are better suited, as they were last season, to stopping the run. With a strong linebacking corps featuring Vontaze Burfict behind a talented—if unproven—defensive line, it should be difficult for opposing running backs to have banner days.
The same can't be said of the Devil pass defense.
Losing All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden to a torn ACL created a major void in the secondary, and the recent departure of projected starting defensive end James Brooks weakens an already suspect pass defense.
Thomas proved last season that he's as capable a passer as he is a runner. Assuming the Devil defense can keep James relatively in check, they still have the daunting task of limiting the damage that Thomas can do them and their bid for a season-defining upset.
For the Sun Devils, there's no place like home.
Over the last three seasons, ASU's road record stands at a miserable 4-12. Bowl teams, let alone those with championship aspirations, simply can not afford a mark so ultimately dreadful.
ASU went 2-4 on the road last season, a bad mark indeed but they did end the season with a gritty and hard fought double-overtime win against archrival Arizona in Tucson. Could that be the moment they turn the corner on their road game woes?
It better be.
The season's first half has a trio of difficult road games. The Devils will face an upstart Illinois team in between headlining home games against Missouri and USC, and ASU must be very cognizant of avoiding a let down in Champaign.
October possesses ASU's most challenging game of the schedule when they visit the mighty Oregon Ducks. However, their most critical game will be the previous week, when they travel to Utah to face off against their most likely Pac-12 South competition.
Anything less than a 2-1 record in those games will severely hamper ASU's hopes over the season's second half.
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Given the state of ASU's secondary, it's no surprise that a third quarterback appears on this list. Given the talent of Nick Foles, it would have been criminal for him to be excluded.
He built upon a strong sophomore season with an excellent junior campaign, throwing for 3,191 yards and 20 touchdowns despite missing two games. Foles was excellent against the Devils in their epic showdown last season, throwing for 262 yards and three touchdowns and wasn't intercepted.
Entering his senior season, he is one of the nation's top quarterbacks and comes in with a chip on his shoulder. The Wildcats started the season 7-1 but dropped their final five games. With a 1-1 record against ASU, he looks to go out with a series win as a senior.
Arizona's other major offensive star, All-Pac-10 wide receiver Juron Criner, may now miss the season due to undisclosed reasons, which places further importance on the play of Foles.
As the world witnessed last season, in a rivalry as intense as this, anything is possible. The Devils better be prepared for a talented and motivated Foles.
The Pressure of Expectations
The pressure is on in Tempe.
In what seems like an annual tradition, the Devils seemingly face lofty hopes each season, only to underachieve and remain in the "sleeping giant" category of the college football scene.
However, with a bevy of experienced talent, this year's edition of the Sun Devil hype seems to be carrying a lot more validity than usual. Add to it Kerry Taylor's recent vitriolic comments and the hot seat upon which head coach Dennis Erickson is currently sitting, and the need to win gets all the more imperative.
For all their experience, ASU is still a very young team. Last season they carried no expectations (the conference media voted them to finish ninth) and that can be a very freeing situation.
The burden of expectations can be very heavy.
How will they handle being the favorite? Can they handle wearing a bulls eye on the back of their slick new uniforms?
Will they rise up to the challenge or crumble into the familiar territory of mediocrity?
The story has been told so many times by now that it is in danger of becoming a cliche.
ASU's greatest enemy is themselves.
On the penalty front, Arizona State ranked 114th out of the 120 FBS teams in both penalties (8.0) and penalty yards (69.6) per game, with many of the penalties being inexplicably moronic personal foul calls. Quality teams simply do not have problems like that.
They also were heavily prone to costly turnovers, especially former quarterback Steven Threet. His five fourth quarter interceptions against Oregon and Oregon State cost ASU two very winnable games and his 16 interceptions were only two off the national lead. Their minus-4 turnover margin wasn't overwhelmingly awful, but as is frequently the case, it's not how many turnovers a team commits, but when they occur that truly matters.
The Sun Devils even were devastated by their inability to execute the sport's easiest play, the extra point. Blocked extra points cost them huge road wins against Wisconsin and USC.
ASU was a very young team in 2010, so a certain degree of these errors can be forgiven, even expected. However, that grace period is over.
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