The 2011 season is bringing with it the kind of lofty expectations that the Sun Devils have not seen in some time.
It will not take very long to find out whether that hype is warranted.
The Sun Devils' schedule has the makings of two distinct halves, with the October 22 bye week separating a difficult first seven games from a homestretch that should play to ASU's favor. How ASU handles the first six weeks in particular will firmly place either the "contender" or "pretender" label upon the team.
After ASU opens their season with what should amount to a tune-up scrimmage against FCS opponent UC Davis, they face their first true test when they host No. 21 Missouri on September 9. As if facing a tough Big 12 team that features one of the top defensive lines in the country wasn't hard enough, the bout against the Tigers will be televised nationally on ESPN and serve as the debut of the Devils' new black uniforms, making this a crossroad game for ASU. A victory in that atmosphere gives legitimate hope, while a loss would surely bring about the familiar groans of "same old Devils".
It won't get much easier the following week when ASU travels to Champaign to face Illinois. The road has been ASU's downfall of late, as the Devils are a paltry 4-12 over the past three seasons away from Tempe. A win there could help exorcise those demons, a necessity in order for ASU to meet their championship expectations.
Along with their road woes, another longtime antagonist has been the USC Trojans, a team that ASU has not beaten since 1999. Despite their NCAA sanctions, the No. 25 Trojans are still a talented team led by quarterback Matt Barkley and will provide the Devils a major challenge as they open conference play.
The Sun Devils should be able to handle Oregon State a week later at home before embarking on a brutal two-game road trip.
Their first stop may very well be the most important game on their schedule, as they battle new Pac-12 South division rival Utah. Given USC's postseason ban, the Utes should serve as the Devils' primary rival for the division title. Star quarterback Jordan Wynn leads 12 returning starters from last season's 10-win team, and the Utes have consistently proven to be able to battle BCS conference competition during their time in the Mountain West Conference. Now in their first season in the Pac-12, this game will have massive implications for the South division race.
The road trip continues a week later as the team heads to battle No. 3 Oregon. Had it not been for three fourth quarter interceptions in last season's meeting, ASU could have defeated last season's BCS title game participants, but this year the game will be in the always raucous Autzen Stadium. This is a game ASU doesn't need to win, but a strong showing is critical for a team continuing their quest for legitimacy.
The bye week will allow ASU to rest up for a homestretch that should be much more favorable. Their first three games are against teams--home against Colorado and on the road to UCLA and Washington State--that won a combined 11 games last season and don't figure to be much better in 2011.
While they shouldn't provide a serious challenge to the Devils, but ASU must not allow themselves to look past them with the Duel on the Desert against Arizona on the horizon. After last season's epic double-overtime game in Tucson, this season's Duel will be held this year in the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium. In a rivalry this intense, records and momentum can and will be thrown out the window. This will be a vicious battle, and one that should be wrought with South division title implications.
The season comes to a close with a home date against the rebuilding Cal Bears. Jeff Tedford's squad is coming off an uncharacteristic 5-7 season, but is talented enough to knock off the Devils, especially after their emotional war with the Wildcats a week earlier.
If ASU is able to push through the early challenges, the relative ease of their schedule's second half should put the Sun Devils in prime position to play in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game on December 3.