The crux of the season is upon us. On Thanksgiving Day the Arizona State Sun Devils are on top of the Pac-12 football world with a 9-2 record, a South Division Championship, the inside track to host the conference championship game, and are very much alive for the Rose Bowl. This season ASU has displayed so many traits that have eluded previous Sun Devil teams: the ability to win on the road, the mental fortitude to win close games, and the poise to win when the spotlight shines brightly. This season, however, is far from over.
I'll just come out and say it right now: If ASU loses the next two games, this season is a failure.
Earlier in the week I made this statement to a neutral observer and he asked me to measure the team's success by the goals that were listed in August, before my judgements were clouded by the current circumstances. For me, the goals were to eclipse 2012's win total, win the South Division, and retain the Territorial Cup. The Sun Devils have already taken care of two out of three but that simply won't cut it.
I don't need to explain to this forum the euphoria involved with winning the Territorial Cup. It puts a pep in my step for the following 365 days and the bragging rights speak for themselves. This year there are ancillary benefits, most importantly hosting the Pac-12 Championship Game and bolstering our bowl selection resume a great deal. Even if a second loss to Stanford follows hoisting the Cup, winning the division, and landing a trip to the Alamo/Holiday Bowl, 2013 is a win for this program right now.
As awful as a loss to the rival would be, especially on our home field, AGAIN, a win at Stanford and a Rose Bowl appearance would quickly heal the pain. I don't think anyone looks back at the 1986 season with great regret, although there are countless "if only we'd beaten them..." statements. Still, no season that ends with Roses can ever be called a failure (looking at you, Oregon).
Most importantly, losing the final two games after starting 9-2 would erase all of the progress that has already been made. It would bring back the notion that we're still the same old Sun Devils that seemingly wait to have the stars aligned before they self-destruct in front of the world. Perception is reality, and the outside perception is that this is a lucky team that "lost" to Wisconsin, choked against Notre Dame, and got throttled by Stanford. True or not, two straight losses drops our team in the polls like a stone, kills offseason momentum, and puts a damper on a very promising recruiting season. The Devils lose a lot of senior leadership next season and many expect the team to regress. That regression gets chalked up to graduation if we win one or both of the final two games. If not, then we were never that good anyway.
Despite all of the magic of the 1996 season, ASU failed to capitalize on the momentum created by that success and came crashing back to earth, firing coach Bruce Snyder just four years later. In case you don't remember, our 1997 Devils lost at home to a confident yet inferior rival and that kept us from a second consecutive conference championship. The 1998 squad was preseason #8 nationally, finished 5-6, and 1996 was already a distant memory. The program has been locked in a cycle of mediocrity ever since and if ASU football is to become what we all want it to be, the team cannot falter now. The next two weeks are absolutely critical, not just for the success of this team but for the future of the program.