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Column: To get where ASU wants to go, it can't rely on bouncing back

The Sun Devils have a habit over the last three years of losing a conference game early in the season and bouncing back in a big way. Our columnist says if ASU wants to become an elite program, these early season lapses have to end.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Last Saturday was great. Seeing the Sun Devils storm into the Rose Bowl and push around UCLA for four quarters en route to a top-10 upset was a legitimate cathartic experience, having suffered through an underwhelming first four weeks of the season.

The defense was tenacious and the offense finally found a rhythm as Mike Bercovici spread the ball around to seven different receivers. The biggest takeaway from the win over UCLA was that when opposing teams stack the line and commit to stopping the run, Bercovici has shown an increased ability to take the right chances with the ball in his hands, and that led to a monumental score against the Bruins.

Headed into Saturday's blackout game against Colorado and the rest of ASU's conference schedule, the UCLA win looks like a turning point. After a miserable loss against USC where they were outclassed and ran out of their own building, Arizona State seems to have bounced back in a major way.

Where have we seen that before?

Since Todd Graham took over as head coach of the Sun Devils in 2012, his team's have shown a pattern of allowing one giant letdown performance early in the season before breaking off a streak of victories. In 2013, ASU followed a memorable victory over Wisconsin with a blowout loss at the hands of Stanford.

The Sun Devils ran off eight wins in their next nine games and won the Pac-12 South. In 2014, ASU's Thursday night matchup against UCLA ended with the Bruins running the Sun Devils off the field. ASU responded by rattling off four wins over ranked teams before the letdown in Corvallis.

Now, on one hand, expecting to beat every team they play isn't a realistic expectation to hold for ASU. The conference is too deep for one team to run through the gauntlet without a slip up along the way. Even Oregon and Stanford, the class of the conference over the past five years, have only put together one undefeated regular season between them since rising to the top of the conference stock pile.

But on the other hand, to become the quality of program that ASU strives to be, these lopsided lapses need to end. ASU had multiple prized recruits at this season's USC game and while a recruit is smart enough to not base his collegiate decision off of one performance, when those recruits looked up at the scoreboard and saw 35-0, they weren't getting any closer to wanting to be a Sun Devil.

And that's just the recruiting side of things. Say ASU runs the table, makes it to the conference title game and lose in a nail-biter. When it comes to bowl placement, the early losses to Texas A&M and USC will weigh large when bowl committees are choosing their participants. These early-season lapses are what land the Sun Devils in the Sun Bowl.

As great as it is to see that Arizona State is resilient and responds well following poor performances, to rise to the echelon of program that brings in five-star recruits every year and consistently earns top bowl bids even in otherwise down seasons, ASU needs to be more consistent from the upstart. You can only get so far when playing from behind.