August 30, 2008

Analysis: Threats to a successful ASU season

Arizona State will face several tough opponents and some unique challenges in the 2008 season. The season figures to be a key point in the Dennis Erickson era in Tempe. Will the Sun Devils continue to build on the10-win season of 2007 or will they take a step back and fail to live up to expectations? In this preview we highlight several of the biggest threats to Arizona State having a good season.

The Cardinal: Despite facing the preseason top ranked Georgia Bulldogs in the first month of the season, the most important game in September is really ASU's match-up with the Cardinal. Stanford is not a powerhouse like Georgia. It is, however, a Pac-10 team and the game is at home. Arizona State needs to be ready to for the Cardinal for a few reasons. First off, the Sun Devils come into the game after facing the other in-state team, Northern Arizona. The Lumberjacks provided an unexpected test in 2006 but more than likely will not provide the test that Stanford faced when it played and beat Oregon State this week. Arizona State will need to raise its level of play more than Stanford will from week one to week two.

The other reason why this game should present a challenge is the result of the 2007 game played between the two teams. Arizona State blew out Stanford 41-3 in Palo Alto. Typically you don't beat a well coached team that badly one year and get another easy victory the next. Jim Harbaugh, by all indications, appears to be a good coach. After their win over Oregon State he also seems to have the Cardinal headed in the right direction. Arizona State will be favored when they meet but this game could be much tougher than most were expecting just a week ago. Anything less than a victory will put the Sun Devils in a tough spot when they face off versus Georgia two weeks later and when they go into the meat of the Pac-10 schedule in the weeks that follow.

Inexperience: Whenever a new coach takes over a program you can usually expect him to want to get his own recruits out on the field sooner rather than later. The 2008 recruiting class was the highest rated at ASU in the "internet era" and it has provided Dennis Erickson with upgrades to the speed, athleticism and overall depth on defense. The offensive line was upgraded by both the 2007 and 2008 classes. With so many new players comes inexperience in a number of areas.

The unit undergoing the most upheaval is the offensive line. Jon Hargis, Adam Tello and Thomas Altieri are all slated to be first-year starters and the top reserves are almost all first-year players. The unit as whole is more athletic than the 2007 group but at the moment does not posses a player of the caliber of a Mike Pollak. This is definitely a rebuild year for the offensive line. The 1997 season also was for the Sun Devils and that team was able to win nine games.
Erickson acknowledges there are trade offs by having so many first-year players and true freshmen playing, but he also must believe, on balance, the team will be better for having them on the field.

"We plan on playing eight or nine true freshman in this game and for the year," Erickson said. "Starting on defense with Josh (Jordan), Clint Floyd, two linebackers: (Shelly) Lyons and (Brandon) Magee, Lawrence Guy. Offensively, we'll have (Zach) Schlink Ryan Bass and Gerell Robinson.

"It's just kind of how it shook out," Erickson said. "You never know until they get here and see how they adjust. It's hard and we had some depth problems. Our offensive front is missing a class or two that we have to fill with freshmen. The linebacker situation, they came in and played well and they can help us on special teams."

How quickly these players can equip themselves will determine how strong of a team Arizona State will be in 2008. Yes, at the moment most of these players are going to be second-teamers and special team players, but injuries will happen and when they do the first-year players will have to step in and grow up quickly.

It's probably not a pure coincidence that in the program's best two seasons of the last 25 years, the Rose Bowl seasons of 1986 and 1996, ASU played zero and two true freshmen, respectively.

Bears: Yes, of all the opponents the Sun Devils face this season the Cal Bears are probably the one that brings the greatest threat to the season being considered a success. I

In 2007 the Cal-Arizona State match-up was a turning point for both teams. Arizona State earned a lot of respect nationally and conversely Cal, once ranked in the top five, went on finish 7-6.

When the two programs meet this season it will be a key game for the Sun Devils. Arizona State travels to Berkeley for its next game after it faces off with Georgia and the following week it visits USC at the Coliseum. For Arizona State to finish its schedule as well as it did in 2007, it needs to win at least one of these three games. With Cal more than likely being the lesser of the three opponents, how the Sun Devils fair in this game will matter greatly in the overall scope of the 2008 season.

Cal lost a lot of proven talent from its 2007 team but after several strong recruiting classes the Bears have what appears to be a talented if somewhat experience team. Many observers believe that less might actually be more this season for the Bears. Cal seems to have more of a team atmosphere than it did last season. Arizona State can take losses to two top five teams and not lose much respect nationally. Things will likely look much different if it also loses to Cal. With the quirk of a 'bye' week prior to the Cal game and another 'bye' week following the USC game, three straight loses to Georgia, Cal and USC could leave ASU without a win for nearly six weeks.

Expectations: Arizona State could very well be a better all-around football team in 2008 than it was in 2007 and still end up with a worse record. With tougher opponents on the road and at home the schedule is more difficult. So much so that Dennis Erickson can only joke about it.

"When I signed a contract two years ago, they didn't show me this year's schedule," Erickson said. "They showed me last year's, when we played all of those games at home. I thought that was pretty good. I saw this year's schedule, and it's a little different than last year's. We played those games at home that got us off to a good start. This year, we play Stanford in the second game, and Georgia, and USC and California on the road. It's different than I anticipated, but that's how it is."

Arizona State's local and national media coverage, ticket sales and donations to the program are the highest they have been since at least 1998. That season the Sun Devils were coming off a Sun Bowl victory on the heals of their Rose Bowl appearance. Arizona State laid an egg that season, finishing with a 5-6 record. That season seemingly took the wind out of the sales of the Bruce Snyder era.

Erickson and his players are not shying away from the expectations and seem to be embracing them more than other recent Sun Devil teams. It's very unlikely that Arizona State would finish under .500 this season, and if you combine the track record of Dennis Erickson-coached teams in their second season with the recent history of Pac-10-tested senior quarterbacks one can see why expectations are what they are.

Another factor to this equation is the dreaded rival to the South. Arizona State has had the upper hand in recent years but you only need to look to the 2004 season to see how this game can turn the overall feeling of a season around. Arizona's upset that year made its losing season appear much better to recruits and fans while the Sun Devils' loss took a lot of luster off what had been a solid season in Tempe.

After the LVSC Oddsmaker Top-30 College Football Poll came out earlier this month with Arizona ranked above ASU, pundits have seemingly been coming out of the woodwork touting the Wildcats. Despite the mild but growing support for the Wildcats, one would assume the Sun Devils would be confident and favored when they meet in November -- even with the game being played in Tucson -- baring a real collapse from the Sun Devils through the heart of the schedule.

As long as Arizona State can win eight or more games and beat Arizona there should be little momentum loss for this program on the rise. Anything less than that would bring back the all too familiar underachiever label. Tough schedules and high expectations are challenges great coaches and teams rise to meet. Arizona State definitely has a great coach, what kind of team they have is the question to be answered.

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