With the recent announcement by the Pac-12 Network of their early season broadcast schedule, Arizona State finally had the date of their season opener against NAU set for August 30th. While some game times are still "TBD", the 2012 Sun Devil schedule is largely finalized.
The twelve games on the upcoming slate serve a purpose greater than just comprising another regular season schedule. They mark the beginning of Todd Graham tenure in Tempe. That has come to represent a growing hope and belief as a from the ASU community as a new era for the program after two coaching regimes largely characterized by disappointment and frustration.
As with any schedule, some games mean more than others, providing us a great entry into our 5-Pack series. While the No. 1 spot should come as no surprise, here now in ascending order are the Sun Devils' five most crucial games this fall.
5) home vs. UCLA, October 22nd
ASU was 6-2 and destined for a Pac-12 South title on November 5th. Then they faced UCLA and the season went to hell. The time for payback comes this October 22nd.
Preceded by a major test the week before against Oregon and followed by tough road games against Oregon State and USC, the game against the defending South champions carries with it more significance than just being the Homecoming game.
Like ASU, UCLA comes into the season with a new head coach and no expectations of challenging for the division crown. Both teams will be fighting to establish their new programs as a future force in the Pac-12, and for the Devils, it's a chance to do just that at home. A loss to the Bruins, given the surrounding schedule, could make for a very dreary finish to 2012.
4) home vs. Utah, September 22nd
Like UCLA, Utah is in the mix with ASU to jockey for position behind USC in the Pac-12 South. The Sun Devils pulled off a rare road win in Salt Lake City a year ago, and now host the Utes, who are being discussed as a dakhorse in the conference, look to exact revenge.
Sandwiched between difficult road games against Missouri and Cal, the battle against Utah could serve as either a confidence building bright spot in the regime's early weeks, or a crushing loss in a very long opening month.
3) at Cal, September 29th
As we covered earlier this week, ASU has been awful on the road over the last four years. Putrid. Simply horrendous.
One of the key component's of Graham's regime has been a return to disciplined football, a trait that helps greatly in producing road victories.
The trip to Berkeley will be the second road game of the year for ASU, following their visit to new SEC country in Missouri. The Tigers are expected to be a very good team, and the early point spread isn't giving ASU much of a chance.
But the game against Cal will be much more important. For starters, ASU's failures in the state of California have been tragically well-documented. Secondly, it's a conference game, and lastly, it's the first of a two-game stretch of winnable contests on the road. The game will come before a bye week and the schedule after the road games will be tough. A strong showing there could have a positive ripple effect over the entire middle of the schedule.
2) home vs. Illinois, September 8th
Even with all the question marks surrounding the team, ASU should handily crush NAU in the season opener. That sets up a key litmus test game in Week 2 against Illinois.
This will be a nationally televised game on ESPN against a quality opponent from a BCS conference. The entire nation will have an HD view as to the early progress Graham has made. While the Illini are going to present a challenge, this is a game ASU can win.
A loss will elicit some "same ol' Sun Devils" from critics and "it's early" from fans. But a win here would help to provide validation, confidence and valuable momentum heading into Week 3's road battle at Missouri.
1) at Arizona, November 23rd
I'll give you a moment to recover from the surprise.
As is the case in most every season in which the school fields a football team, the match-up against the University of Arizona is the most important on the schedule. This year, the stakes are raised a bit.
After ASU's thrilling double-overtime win in Tucson in 2010, the Sun Devils were riding high coming into last season. However, that unraveled in November, and the Wildcats win in Tempe to reclaim the Territorial Cup was a crushing blow to the Sun Devil program on several levels.
Now, each team has a new head coach and low expectations. While neither team may be going bowling, the inaugural battle over these coaches over the Cup should serve as each team's defining moment in 2012.
Previous season preview entries in our 5-Pack series are here