Cory Williams: 7-1 record. Ninth overall in the College Football Playoff rankings. A huge showdown with Notre Dame on Saturday afternoon in sunny Tempe, Arizona.
The cards are all aligned for the Sun Devils to make a push for a spot in the College Football Playoff. Beat the Irish, finish the season 11-1, and then beat the Oregon Ducks in the Pac-12 championship game. At 12-1, they'd be basically guaranteed a spot in the playoff.
Is that a realistic goal? Are we past the point of worrying about what is and isn't realistic?
When judging the season, what do we want out of it? A conference championship? A New Years bowl? A Rose Bowl trip (in 2015, the Rose Bowl is a playoff semifinal)? To win the whole fucking thing?
Brad, go ahead.
Brad Denny: As Todd Graham has said constantly since he took over, the goal every year is to win the Pac-12 and get to the Rose Bowl. All throughout the halls of the football offices and with the signs at practice, this goal is everywhere.
Everything starts there. Win. The. Conference. If and when the Sun Devils can do that, then the larger goals can come into play, and largely will have already set themselves up in the process of winning the Pac-12.
I'm not saying that Saturday's game against the Irish is anything but massive. It's huge. A win can could get the Sun Devils at or near the Top 5 in the playoff rankings and get them some national notice.
But I'd much rather see them lose to the Irish than the Beavers in next week's trap game. From the ashes of 2011 to now, the progress ASU has made is nothing short of remarkable, but it is also incremental. Year 1: won a bowl. Year 2: won the division. Year 3: win the Pac-12. Don't lose focus on that goal.
Cory: Winning conference championships earns your football team a lot of things -- national respect, an excellent bowl bid, and a rock-solid recruiting pitch that allows you to build on the season's success. The 2014 campaign is unique for a few key reasons, however -- winning the Pac-12 does not guarantee you a spot in the Rose Bowl, and there is a fever pitch surrounding the first-ever College Football Playoff.
This year, the Rose Bowl is a semifinal game in the playoff, pitting the #2 and the #3 nationally-seed teams against each other. The only way the Sun Devils can reach their ultimate goal of playing in the Rose Bowl is if they run the table, including Saturday's epic tilt against Notre Dame. It is the first time in program history that ASU must defeat a non-conference foe in order to still be in Rose Bowl contention, and it is the most important game of the season for that reason alone.
Consider how rare it is for the Sun Devils to play a non-conference game in November, let alone one that pits two top ten teams against each other.
Far too often, fans look at a team's schedule and hope the players don't overlook their current opponent the week before a big game. In this case, Brad preaches that the game after our big challenge is the trap game, but in reality we are exactly where we want to be. Focus on the task at hand, and when the game is over, refocus on the Pac-12 championship hunt.
It is the perfect confluence of events for the Sun Devils. A victory over Notre Dame brings national respect, another big bump in the College Football Playoff rankings, and the opportunity to play their way into both the Rose Bowl and the College Football Playoff. A loss to Notre Dame ends our Rose Bowl dreams, drops us in the rankings, and gives the pundits yet another example of Arizona State failing to rise to the occasion on the national stage.
Notre Dame is the biggest game of the year.
Brad: It's the biggest game of the year. Right now. Until the next one.
I look at it like this. A loss to Notre Dame likely knocks the Devils out of the playoff race, but they are still right on target for their primary goal of winning the Pac-12. However, winning on Saturday but dropping to Oregon State, Washington State, or gods forbid, Arizona derails this special-in-the-making season. Sure, it'll be nice to have the win over ND on the resume, but without a South title—at a minimum—it's just another good-but-not-great year and trip to a second tier bowl (apologies, Holiday Bowl host committee). ASU's been there, done that.
Yes, I want ASU to win everything. Seven more and they are national champions. But right now, the most important game of the year is the next one. A week from now, the answer is "Oregon State". The next week, it's "Washington State".
In the grand scheme of this year, winning the conference is priority No. 1. The rest is just icing on a delicious victory cake.
What do you think? Is beating the Fighting Irish the MOST IMPORTANT game of the year? Post your take in the comments.