It has been a very difficult offseason for Arizona State fans, who have had to deal with a litany of significant injuries, retirements and bold assault accusations. Even after losing several key contributors from the 2010 season, there is plenty of reason for optimism heading into 2011.
Lets take a look at a few of the key points:
1. The Sun Devils are confident and very experienced.
ASU returns nine starting offensive players, including all five offensive linemen. On defense, an experienced linebacker corps is hurt by the loss of Brandon Magee, but Vontaze Burfict and Shelly Lyons will help to quickly integrate whoever steps onto the field in Magee's absence.
Moreover, the team is aiming for the BCS National Championship Game. Not just the Pac-12 South crown or a spot in the Rose Bowl -- they want to play for all the marbles. While being overconfident is oftentimes the liquor of the fool, these Devils have been around the block enough to know that they have the talent to compete with anyone in the nation.
2. Stanford is not on the regular season schedule.
While ASU has a difficult OOC schedule (Missouri, @ Illinois) and several huge matchups in conference play (USC, @ Oregon, @ Utah), avoiding Stanford is a blessing for the Sun Devils. Andrew Luck is largely considered the finest quarterback prospect in the 2012 class and will be aiming for the Heisman Trophy.
Instead of Stanford and Washington, the Sun Devils get games against Colorado and Utah. That's a trade I'd make as an ASU fan any day of the week.
3. USC is ineligible for the postseason.
It goes without saying that the Trojans are a big player in the Pac-12. After running amok over the conference in the past decade, they have regressed in the light of NCAA sanctions and Pete Carroll escaping to coach the Seattle Seahawks.
Don't be surprised if they are one of the top teams in the conference in 2011, however. A tough team with a good quarterback in Matt Barkley, USC has the horses to win the Pac-12 South, even though the second place finisher would play in the Pac-12 Championship Game.
Dennis Erickson said earlier in the offseason that he'd take a bid to the Pac-12 CG any way he could, including a second place finish behind the Trojans. Hey, they are being punished for a reason, right?
4. Utah has to adjust to playing an AQ conference schedule.
This one is a little more difficult to quantify. The Utes have run a very sound football program under Kyle Whittingham. Over the last three years, they have only lost six games, and only to BCS conference teams (unless you consider TCU a non-AQ, which is debatable at this point).
Flat out, Utah doesn't lose to lesser opponents. They make the most of their opportunities and are well coached. They still have to adjust to the Pac-12 slate, which is much more challenging than the Mountain West schedule could ever dream of being.
The Sun Devils will be the fourth tough test for Utah in 2011 (after USC, BYU and Washington). ASU might be coming to Salt Lake City at just the right time for a big road win.
5. Colorado just isn't ready for the big time
While Utah has only lost six games in the past three years, Colorado has dropped 23 decisions. Pretty incredible for a program that was so prestigious in the 1990s, but right now they have a difficult task of rebuilding in the new-look Pac-12.
The Sun Devils welcome them to town for Halloween Weekend, the first of a four game stretch against (slightly) easier competition for ASU. Either the Devils will look to unload some frustration on the Buffaloes, or they will be pushing forward in their pursuit of their destiny. One way or another, Colorado has an uphill battle in store in Tempe.
As you can see, we're well on our way to having an excellent 2011 campaign, even though there has been so much adversity in the offseason. ASU can take it one game at a time and hopefully give the long-hurting fans something big to cheer about.
What's your take? Do any of these reasons give you optimism for the upcoming season?