It has been 25 years since an Arizona State football team was in Pasadena on New Year’s Day. At the beginning of the 1996 season, only the most optimistic, borderline delusional fans were expecting a team fresh off its third 6-5 season in four years to contend for the national championship.
That hallowed 1996 team was quarterbacked by Jake Plummer, a talented quarterback who had yet to truly touch his ceiling. It featured an experienced defense led by the venerable Pat Tillman. It was led by head coach Bruce Snyder, who had been consistent in his first four seasons but had yet to break through.
In 2021, Arizona State enters their season with the simmering feeling that this might be their best shot since 1996 for a return trip to a major bowl game.
Like it was 25 years ago, Arizona State did not set the world on fire last season, finishing with a 2-2 record. The similarities continue with Sun Devil quarterback Jayden Daniels, a dark-horse preseason Heisman candidate, the same as Plummer. A battle-tested defense is run through players like Evan Fields, Merlin Robertson, and Chase Lucas. Entering his fourth season in charge, Herm Edwards is a popular coach, but his popularity has not translated to prosperity in the win column just yet.
None of that guarantees the Sun Devils will reprise the 1996 season this year. The only thing predictable about college football is its unpredictability. Plenty of obstacles could derail the train to postseason notoriety. But as it stands now, this is one of the most promising Sun Devil football teams of the last quarter century.
Wherever the team ends up in December or January, one thing is certain, the first step toward that destination will come Thursday night against Southern Utah (0-1).
Southern Utah Thunderbirds
The Thunderbirds, as current members of the Western Athletic Conference, are not a Division-I school, and were rolled in their first game by defending Mountain West Conference champions San Jose State, 45-14.
The program has historical success with two conference titles in the past decade, but it didn’t come last season during a difficult 2020 season where the team finished 1-5.
Coach Demario Warren returns for his sixth season. His team returns 10 starters on each side of the ball. Sophomore quarterback Justin Miller played during his freshman year, but left room for improvement in his season debut with just 117 yards passing and a 51% completion percentage.
Miller did score a touchdown though, as a receiver. Take note of that. Southern Utah does not have the size of the athletes to beat Arizona State straight up, but if the Sun Devils come in with temerity and overlook their opponent, a few successful Southern Utah trick plays could make it uncomfortable for Arizona State.
A Sun Devil loss to an FCS team would be near-apocalyptic for the confidence of the program, and Herm Edwards has stressed the importance of not looking ahead to his players, because upsets of this magnitude have happened before (see: Appalachian State vs. Michigan, 2007).
On defense, the lineup is led by an NFL-caliber talent in junior linebacker La’akea Kaho’ohanohano-Davis. The Hawaiian dons the No. 8 jersey, and expect to see it flying all over the field Thursday night. He led the Thunderbirds with 57 total tackles in 2020, nine of which were for a loss, seven of which were sacks.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Southern Utah has very good players, but there is a reason the Sun Devils are over 45-point favorites, they have the vastly superior team. San Jose State quarterback Nick Starkel picked them apart last week on his way to 394 yards and four touchdowns on just 16 passes.
Expect more of the same early from Jayden Daniels, who, like Starkel, will not face much of a pass rush. The Sun Devils will want to make a point to throw early and often as the coaching staff works to break in an inexperienced receiving group.
If success comes through the air and the Sun Devils can build an early lead, the devastating rushing attack of DeaMonte Trayanum, Rachaad White, and Daniyel Ngata will pick up from there.
There is also the added factor of the return of fans to Sun Devil Stadium. It will be a party in Tempe on Thursday night. The number of underclassmen that attend the university who have seen the Sun Devils play in person at home can probably be counted on one hand. Who cares if it’s an FCS opponent? A lot of people will be excited for their first taste of the Division-I, Power Five football experience.
Wrap that all together, and barring anything unforeseen or unfortunate, Arizona State will put the outcome of this game to bed by halftime.