Following their glorified scrimmage against an overmatched NAU team, the Arizona State Sun Devils are 1-0 and filled with confidence heading into Saturday's battle against Illinois.
The game against the Fighting Illini carries with it significance on a few fronts.
First, it's a revenge game. The Illini handed ASU their first loss and held the Sun Devils to a season-low 14 points in their Week 3 battle.
Second, it serves as the first true test of the Todd Graham era. NAU was Devil fodder, but Illinois is a tough Big Ten team that brings an elite defense to Tempe.
Finally, beating Illinois may very well be the difference between a December spent preparing for a bowl game or an early start to the recruiting trail and Valley golf courses.
Let's take a look at Arizona State's remaining schedule. To me, it breaks down neatly into five distinct categories.
Nearly Guaranteed Wins: Colorado
Nearly Guaranteed Losses: at USC, Oregon
Probable Wins: at Oregon State
Probable Losses: at Missouri, Utah
Toss Up: at Cal, UCLA, Washington State, at Arizona
I'm certain many ardent fans will comment bitterly on the classification of any game as having any potential for a loss, but let's be realistic here. Well, as much as can be with the teams currently as they are (we're just a Matt Barkley ACL away from re-categorizing USC).
So, counting NAU and the probable-or-better wins, ASU will be standing at 3-4. For the "Toss Up" games, victory and defeat seem to be equal possibilities, so I factor in a 2-2 split.
That's 5-6, with the Illinois game hanging in the balance and standing in the way of another bowl berth.
Before the season in the House of Sparky staff predictions, I put down a final ASU record of 5-7. That included a loss on Saturday against the Illini. However, after seeing how ASU looked on Saturday, I've now had to rethink my stance.
In the past, those "shoulds" have most often resulted in disheartening defeats. Now under Graham, the team has a chance to prove that the new era is fully in effect with a marquee victory that legitimizes the new regime.
Should it eventually prove to help secure a bowl berth this season, well...that's mighty fine too.