August 29, 2008

ASU poised to build on last year's success

The opening kickoff of the Arizona State Sun Devils' 2008 college football season is just a day away and I thought it time to drag out some thoughts and ask some questions in advance of the opener.

WHERE WE ARE

I think it helps to take a look at things the way they are at the moment, then reflect on how those things came to be. The Sun Devils enter the 2008 campaign as defending co-champions of the Pac-10 conference, with current perennial power Southern California as the other co-champion.

Preseason rankings of the Sun Devils run in the 15-16 range, probably reasonable due to past results and future expectations. The rankings leave plenty of wiggle room - win a few big games and it will be easy to move up, lose a few and it will be easy to move out.

Arguably the most important position on the field is manned by an incumbent who will not be unseated by anything other than injury. Senior QB Rudy Carpenter has the chance to leave his name littered all over the Sun Devil record books in many of the most important categories. His backup, Danny Sullivan, hasn't even hinted at wanting to transfer to another program.

Preseason workouts have left the impression that the Sun Devil defense will be at least solid, if not occasionally spectacular.

The team features a major post-season award winner in Thomas Weber, the Sun Devils' ultra-reliable placekicker who won the Lou Groza Award.

Finally, offseason workouts and preseason camp have shown the coaching staff's ability to recognize freshman and transfer talent as a number of the 2008 recruiting class and invited walk-ons have shown the ability to play Bowl Series Subdivision-level football for the Maroon and Gold.

Overall, the program shows signs of possibly playing a relevant role in the national championship picture either now or in the near future. It is, frankly, a significant difference from the past four or five seasons.

HOW WE GOT HERE

December 11, 2006 is, without question, the date on which the history of the Arizona State Sun Devil football program turned. On that date, ASU's Vice President for University Athletics, Lisa Love, introduced Dennis Erickson as the twenty-second head football coach at Arizona State University.

Erickson's hiring created ripples throughout the Pac-10 in particular and college football in general. Erickson, after all, has had a long and largely successful college coaching career, producing winners everywhere he's been. He has his share of detractors; I'm not here to discuss his prior career. Frankly, in some respects, I'm not interested in his past prior to arriving in Tempe. I am very interested in his present and the future. A future, I should reveal, I believe we will find to be, at a minimum, very, very interesting.

Prior to Erickson's appointment at Arizona State, observers around the country and within the State of Arizona wondered when, if ever, the "sleeping giant" that is the country's largest public university might awake. Those of you reading this know the history and it's unnecessary to repeat it here. As Erickson's predecessor in the position departed, he cast doubt on whether the infrastructure or culture at Arizona State was conducive to building a winning program.

Fan and booster support was lagging and there were those, including me, who asked ourselves why and how could Arizona State NOT produce a consistently successful program. I have to admit, I found myself wondering if there was, as Dirk Koetter suggested, something imbedded in the infrastructure, or the culture of the ASU Athletics Department, which was holding the program back from success.

On December 11, 2006 Dennis Erickson arrived and the answers to that question and others have begun to be answered. From my perspective the single most important answer was that indeed, for Arizona State athletics, there really are no impediments other than those in our own collective minds and in truth, the sky's the limit.

There were growth pains along the way and there will continue to be those as the program progresses. Last season saw the Sun Devils lose games to Oregon and Southern California in the conference portion of the season and be humiliated by Texas in the Holiday Bowl. The Oregon game was a winnable contest which featured a certain level of self-destruction by the Devils. The USC and Texas games winnable? Well, not so much.

There were contests early on which the Sun Devils nearly found ways to lose before finding ways to storm back to win. There was the oft-mentioned sacks-allowed total, a statistic which cannot be ignored if you care about the long-term health of your starting quarterback. However, you must also stand in awe regarding that statistic. After all, despite having Rudy spend as much time on the ground as in the huddle, the Sun Devils won ten of the thirteen games they played.

WHERE ARE WE GOING?

While the sky's the limit for this program, and while the pieces are starting to fall into place to reach those lofty goals, the truth is that the Sun Devils are probably not there yet. The sleeping giant may have been roused, but he's not fully awake and effective. There remain potential flaws, chinks in the armor if you will. There are still questions about the offensive line, the interior of the defensive line, the health of the receiving corps. This year's edition of special teams has yet to show anything, having not run a significant kickoff, punt or field goal.

We have yet to see what a full year in the system has done to the offensive and defensive strategies to be employed and the play-not-think capabilities of those deployed to execute those strategies. We have yet to see how effective the coaching staff's game-planning proves to be under the circumstances in which they find themselves in 2008.

And while we think we know something about the twelve teams the Sun Devils will face in the regular season, in reality, those teams open with many of the same questions and uncertainties as everyone else. Some of those teams will not be as good as expected and some will not be nearly as bad.

It will be fun to watch. Here's what the Swami thinks.

Our freezer at home always has a couple gallons of a particular kind of ice cream - Dreyer's Grand Vanilla Bean. Vanilla bean is a tasty ice cream and sometimes there's nothing more satisfying on a warm summer evening than a bowl of vanilla bean ice cream. All by itself. In addition to being a pretty refreshing ice cream on its own, we find vanilla bean ice cream to be a terrific base upon which to build more interesting desserts. Use it as a topping on deep-dish apple pie. Place a dollop next to a slice of fresh German Chocolate Cake. Add some crumbled Oreo cookies, or a crumbled peanut butter cup and maybe some chocolate or hot caramel syrup to a bowl of vanilla bean ice cream and, well, you're getting the picture. Or just getting a sweet tooth.

Simply put, the 2007 Sun Devils were vanilla ice cream. Vince Lombardi's Packers were the epitome of the notion of practicing simple but effective plays to perfection - to the point where even if a defense knows what's coming, that defense will be nearly powerless to stop it.

Given the coaching change, and the timing of that change, the 2007 Devils were left with being fairly conservative and simple in their approach. Rather than attempt a wholesale change in the first spring and fall camps with the program and invite chaos and won-loss disaster, Coach Erickson and his staff chose to incorporate some fairly basic concepts, concepts which would be the building blocks upon which to install their style of football on both sides of the ball and do the best they could.

At times, the results weren't pretty; need I mention the number 55? The emergence of a smash-mouth running back who refused to take no for an answer and skill position offensive players and defensive players, not to mention a certain spirited character to the 2007 squad all lead to a better-than-dreamed-of ten win season.

The losses to Oregon, Southern California and Texas, though, showed what the Sun Devils had left to correct. Too often last season, receivers and quarterback weren't on the same page, with either the quarterback or the receivers misreading coverages or not executing with enough precision. Too often, the quarterback was left on an island with nowhere to go other than to take a sack or scramble for dear life.

By the midpoint of last season opposing defenses were certain enough of what the Devils were running that they could blitz at will with confidence that nothing the Devils could do, even knowing the blitz was coming, would really hurt them. It was only that character which the 2007 Devils showed which permitted them to have the success that they ended up having.

In the long run, the 2008 Sun Devils will be a little more like the Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream used as the basis for something really tasty and much less predictable. The 2008 season I see as a stepping stone to that future.

So how many games will the Sun Devils win? Will the Sun Devils play on a grander stage than the Holiday Bowl?

I think the Georgia Bulldogs will be ripe for the picking when they stagger into Tempe on September 20. Assuming the Devils have taken care of business to that point, and that's a major assumption given that I think Stanford has the makings of a potential trouble spot on the road for every Pac-10 team, the game in the late afternoon desert sun will be a prime candidate for an upset. Should the Devils leave September 20th 4-0 they will likely be ranked in the top 10 in every major poll and have a bulls-eye painted squarely on their backs. October will feature a difficult pair of road games in California, with the USC game, of course, looming as the biggest challenge of the two. Beat Cal, as the Devils should, given Cal's problems on offense, beat USC which would surprise most of the country, and a top-5 ranking is virtually assured. What would remain would be the challenge of maintaining the level (Oregon, and Arizona) and not falling in trap games (Oregon State, Washington) and taking care of obvious business (UCLA and WSU).

All that would be left would be for Dennis Erickson to take the kids on a tour of his old Miami stomping grounds and win another national championship.

Likely won't happen, though. I predict a 10-2 regular season (losses to USC and Oregon State), followed by another trip to the Holiday Bowl or perhaps an invitation to the Fiesta Bowl (as a change of pace for the Glendalians who are tired of hosting the Sooners). Why not the Rose Bowl? I don't think, with USC's inexperience at quarterback, the Trojans will be playing for the national championship. Yeah, they're good, but they're not good enough.

So what I've set up here is very high expectations. Very high. In my scenario the USC game could very well be the swing game. And that game might very well come down to a swing of Thomas Weber's right leg If the Devils beat USC then we get to bask in the sun in the Rose Bowl, or even…put the icing on our Vanilla Bean Ice Cream Cake.


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