The Arizona Wildcats have been the Pac-10′s dark horse contender the past two seasons and at one point late in 2009 even held control of their own destiny as far as winning the conference. Consecutive losses to Cal and Oregon dashed the Wildcats’ Rose Bowl dreams in ’09, and after a 7-1 start in 2010, the Pac-10 schedule caught up to them with consecutive losses to Stanford, USC, Oregon and Arizona State to close out the year.
This year, as the hated Wildcats were the past couple of seasons, Arizona State is the dark horse in the Pac-12 title race, and is perhaps the favorites in the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils finished 6-6 last season, but did not qualify for a bowl game with two of their wins coming against non-FBS opponents (only one of the six wins necessary to qualify for a bowl game may come against a non-FBS opponent). They’re hoping for more success with plenty of talent returning on both sides of the ball.
They’ll have their mettle tested early with September matchups against Missouri and USC before facing Utah and Oregon in October. They get a break in that they won’t play Stanford in the regular season, but there’s a good chance the Cardinal will be waiting for them in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game if the Sun Devils—new look and all—hold up their end of the bargain.
It’s been a while since ASU recorded more wins than losses; the last time came in 2007 in head coach Dennis Erickson’s first year with the Sun Devils when they finished 10-3, losing in the Holiday Bowl against Texas. The pieces are in place to really surprise some people this year, though.
The offensive line will return all five starters, their top rushers and plenty of talented receivers—although T.J. Simpson tore his ACL and will miss most, if not all, of the season. That’s not even mentioning quarterback Brock Osweiler, who came on strong at the end of the year after taking over for Steven Threet to pass for nearly 650 yards with five touchdowns in the last two games. Osweiler played very well in the spring game, completing 17 of his 22 pass attempts for 237 yards and five touchdowns. The offense as a whole gained 601 yards.
The defense needs to replace first-team All-Pac-10 cornerback Omar Bolden—who also went down with a torn ACL—and shore up the rest of the secondary after the unit ranked 101st in pass defense a year ago. The defense overall should be very good, but it’ll be tested plenty in an offense-happy Pac-12 against USC, Utah, Oregon and Arizona—and perhaps Stanford if they meet in the title game.
The Sun Devils would be best served to ignore the preseason hype. They may be the early favorites in their division and high-praise has been steeped upon them with lofty expectations, but there are plenty of teams that appear ready to compete for the South title. Don’t count out USC (who cannot play in a Pac-12 title game due to the restrictions placed upon the program), Arizona or Utah—who each return very good quarterbacks in Matt Barkley, Nick Foles and Jordan Wynn. Colorado may not be the doormat people expect them to be, and UCLA has come up with a big win here in there in their down years. The schedule is a minefield of potential slip-ups; and any team hoping to compete with Oregon and Stanford needs to win the big games and close battles.