Arizona State is entering the homestretch of the 2012 season, and have to be feeling pretty good at where they currently sit.
At 5-2 and with a share of the Pac-12 South lead with just one conference loss, the Sun Devils have already exceeded most everyone's preseason expectations by the midway mark of Todd Graham's debut campaign.
Yet, the biggest challenges for ASU lay ahead. A brutal schedule, injury concerns and many other factors could derail a promising season. Here are some of the major obstacles in the way over the season's homestretch.
Will Sutton's Injury
It was years in the making, but the emergence of Will Sutton was the first half highlight for ASU. The junior defensive tackle found his way onto numerous midseason All-American teams thanks for a surge of dominance that left 8.5 sacks and 13 tackles-for-loss in his wake.
That's great news for the team, but also leaves a very vague timetable as to his return. The team's lack of depth at the position was brutally exposed against Oregon, and given the strength of the opposition coming up, starting with UCLA this week, any prolonged absence or rust from Sutton will be costly.
Noel Mazzone's Revenge
In 2009, ASU had the nation's 90th best offense. Noel Mazzone then took over the offensive coordinator duties and the Sun Devils then ranked 29th and 25th in the next two years.
Mazzone was one of the victims of the postseason fallout, and ending up with the offensive coordinator job at UCLA, where he has worked similar magic. The Bruins were 62nd in 2011, but so far have been explosive, ranking 16th.
This Saturday, the Sun Devil defense will need to contain Mazzone's dynamic unit, featuring running back Johnathan Franklin and mobile quarterback Brett Hundley. They have more than enough talent to make a difficult stretch for the ASU defense even worse.
The Corvallis Trip
After hosting UCLA, ASU will once embark on a road trip to face the Pac-12's biggest surprise, Oregon State. The beavers were thought to be one of the conference's worst teams, yet here they are, ranked No. 6 and an perfect 6-0 after their 21-7 win over Utah.
Even if quarterback Sean Mannion misses the game, the Beavers boast a very good defense to give ASU's offense fits, and Corvallis is a very tough place to play, especially for ASU who hasn't won there since 2005.
While the USC Trojans may need be the juggernaut many thought they would be, their passing game can be as good as any in the nation.
Matt Barkley may not be handed the Heisman, but he's still an elite quarterback, and has the country's best wide receiver in Marquis Lee, and arguably the No. 2 guy at the position in Robert Woods. ASU's pass defense has been very good against limited competition, but this game on November 10th will be far and away their greatest challenge.
Adding even more pressure is the fact that the South division title may very well be riding on the outcome of this game.
Todd Graham has won a ton of support over the last ten months. From changing the culture of the program, to securing big time recruits to, most importantly, winning games, Graham has the Valley speaking victory.
However, a lot of that can be swiftly undone if he fails to beat UofA in the season finale on November 23rd.
Both Graham and Arizona's new coach Rich Rodriguez know that their No. 1 job responsibility is to beat their Territorial Cup rival, and with both teams likely bowl-bound, there will be much at stake in this game beyond an antique jug.
The Wildcats will bring their own "high octane" passing offense into the game down in Tucson, and will surely be capable of holding onto the Cup for another year.
TK Coming Back to Earth
The first half of the season could not have gone too much better for ASU's new starting quarterback Taylor Kelly. A 5-1 record while posting the nation's third-best passer rating helped instill major confidence in the Idaho-bred playmaker.
Kelly hit a major wall on Thursday in the form of the Oregon defense. Facing their intense pressure, Kelly had his worst game of the season, throwing for just 93 yards and tossing two costly interceptions.
Was this just a case of a young quarterback experiencing the inevitable growing pains, or a reason for growing concerned about a player viewed by many as "limited" heading into the year not being able to hang with the big boys just yet?