By Juan Roque for DieHardDevil.com
With all the excitement that exists in anticipation of the Arizona State Sun Devils’ 2011 football season, one fact that is frequently overlooked is the toughness of the schedule; especially during the first six weeks of the campaign. ASU is going to have to come out of the gates fast if they hope to contend for the Pacific 12 Conference Southern Division crown. With four games slated for what will be a very hot and energetic Sun Devil Stadium one would think that the team and the fans would breathe a little easier. However, when you look at the teams that are coming to Tempe and where the Sun Devils will be going the tension and anticipation return in full force.
In looking at the first half of the schedule it’s fairly easy to tab the most difficult opponents the Sun Devils will face. Surprisingly, Oregon State did not make the list. Although the Beavers have had the Sun Devils’ number the past two years, they did not make the “most difficult game” cut, so it’s evident the first half of the season is not going to be a stroll through the park. The Sun Devils’ character, toughness, resilience and grit will be tested early and often; it will be a baptism by fire. At the same time the schedule has the makings of what could be a magical season if all goes well for ASU.
WELCOME TO THE JUNGLE
The most difficult game for ASU in the first half of the season without question will be against the AP #19 Missouri Tigers on September 9th at home. Mizzou, under head coach Gary Pinkel, has established itself as one of the better programs of the Big XII in recent seasons. The Tigers, who were a perennial door mat in the old Big 8 conference, have re-invented themselves and have enjoyed recent success. While the Sun Devils have struggled the past three seasons the Tigers have been rolling. They have a 28-12 record in that three year span with three bowl appearances and two divisional titles. Two of those years, 2008 and 2010, the Tigers won ten games in a conference that included teams such as Oklahoma State, Texas Tech, Texas and Texas A&M.
This game, so early in the season, already has the makings of a classic. It is a nationally televised ESPN Friday night game and the comparisons are already being made to the 1996 Nebraska game. Although not ranked at the top of any polls nor coming in with a 30+ game winning streak, the Tigers pose a formidable challenge for the upstart Sun Devils. There has also been a lot of hype and emphasis put on this game by not only the program but the fans. This is the game where ASU will take the field in their new look all black uniforms. How will the Sun Devils respond to the pressure in the first ever “Black Out” game? Which ASU team will show up? Will it be the relentless team that beat favored Arizona or the one that couldn’t finish against Stanford, USC, Oregon and Wisconsin? This is the question Sun Devil fans, and the entire country for that matter, will have answered on what will be a very exciting night in Tempe.
A victory in this game will be a big, defining moment and will hush many of the doubters. The euphoria and confidence of a huge win like this will also give the Sun Devils much needed momentum heading into their first road game against the Fighting Illini on September 17th. But be prepared for the Tigers to not be in awe or intimidated by the atmosphere in Tempe. This is a team that is accustomed to playing in places like Oklahoma and Nebraska. It should also be noted that Mizzou has also been on the winning end of a Nebraska game in which no one expected them to win. Sound familiar? Mizzou will come to play, bank on it. How the Sun Devils respond will speak volumes as to what they’re made of and what direction they’re going.
The next great challenge a mere two weeks after their most difficult game is USC. The Trojans have, for lack of a better phrase, owned ASU in the last decade. The last time the Sun Devils beat USC Bill Clinton was still president, computers were equipped with Windows 98 and the internet was accessed through a 56k modem. While in recent seasons the margin has been narrowed the Trojans have been able to pull off very close wins against the Sun Devils. This game is a problem for one big reason; history. That alone can be a huge mental obstacle for ASU. The players on the team were part of those two close heart breaking losses to the talented bunch from Los Angeles.
But this can also be an advantage. It can be a motivating factor that ASU has hung in there with the supposed invincible Trojans and is now looking to finally finish them off. If there is a year ASU can break the Trojan Hex it’s 2011. USC, still on probation for the Reggie Bush debacle, is playing for pride due to the fact they cannot compete for the Pac-12 South title. Another reason for optimism is USC no longer has the talent it once flaunted now that Oregon has emerged as the darling of the conference. This is an even bigger game than Mizzou in terms of conference standings. ASU has been favored by many to win the South and in other polls they are seen as the #2 team with USC being #1. It makes for a heck of a game early in the season. One big advantage the Sun Devils have in this contest is they play at home.
A win here will be huge for ASU but a loss…
THE UTES ARE PAC-12 LEGIT
The Utah Utes have had a lot more success recently with their program than their former Western Athletic Conference rivals of Tempe. Utah has not skipped a beat in the first decade of the new millennium. With seven consecutive bowl appearances the Utes are used to the spotlight. Utah is not afraid of anyone and they can play with anyone in the country under the right circumstances. The Utes have tasted the sweet nectar of BCS success with legendary wins against Alabama in the 2009 Sugar Bowl and Pittsburgh in the 2005 Fiesta Bowl. The Utes are now looking for national respect now that they no longer have the “small conference” stigma attached to them. Utah will have their sights set on making a statement in their first season in the new Pac-12.
Utah presents a tough challenge not only because they are an established winner but because of when they host the Sun Devils. ASU will have had four games in a row, two against teams that have beaten them recently, before hopping on the plane north. The emotional state of the Sun Devils at this stage of the season is what makes this a tough game. What kind of mind set will Sun Devils have when they arrive in Salt Lake City? That’s the big question. For the Utes this will be a huge home game as it renews the days of old when the two schools would battle every year in the old WAC. Anticipate a sellout crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium given the history, renewed rivalry and the new conference set up. The challenge will be how the Sun Devils respond to what is sure to be a lively yet hostile crowd after what would be an exhausting and emotional four game stretch.
There is no doubt that the first half of the ASU season will be one of huge fortune should the Sun Devils launch out of the gate with speed and ferocity. Success in the first six weeks is what builds the foundation for legends, champions and All-Americans. Success is what creates the great lore and mystique that surrounds those teams in the past that fans talk about with excitement. Success will lend credibility to the 2011 team and will legitimize a veteran coach looking to put together a formidable program. It will energize the community to get behind the Sun Devils and fill the stadium for the rest of the season. Success will also ignite conversations in which the terms “Rose Bowl”, “Pac-12 Champions” and “BCS” without any credibility questions from opposing fans and local media. A fast start in the first half of the season will create a Sun Devil frenzy not seen since the thrilling 19-0 win against Nebraska in 1996.
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