Dr. Saturday - NCAAF

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If there's any team whose presence really sticks out like a sore thumb in those knee-jerk, "pre-preseason" polls that immediately followed the end of the season, it has to be Arizona State, especially relative to the rest of the their new division mates in the Pac-12 South. Barely a month removed from their straight non-winning season – an unremarkable stagger to 6-6 that didn't qualify ASU for a bowl game or a single vote in any of the final polls – the Devils showed up near the bottom of virtually every early top-25 effort last month. In every one of those cases, ASU was the top-ranked team in the South Division, and usually the only ranked team in the South Division.

That says a lot about the competition. Utah is an uncertain newcomer, and has to replace most of its defense. Arizona is rebuilding both its offensive and defensive lines, nearly in their entirety. Colorado and UCLA have shown no sign of snapping out of their continuing strings of mediocrity going into transition years to new schemes. USC is nowhere to be found in the early polls for the first time in nearly a decade. And even it was, pending the results of its appeal to the NCAA to lift the second postseason year of a two-year postseason ban, the Trojans are still ineligible to represent the division in the inaugural Pac-12 Championship Game in December.

The only team in the division riding an unambiguously upward trajectory into 2011 is Arizona State. In the first place, the Devils were closer than their 6-6 finish suggests to a breakthrough last year, when four of their six losses came by four points or less. That included one-point losses to USC and Rose Bowl-bound Wisconsin – both involving a blocked extra point that supplied the final margin – and a 17-13 loss to Orange Bowl-bound Stanford, a game ASU led with six minutes to play. They were also one of only two teams in the regular season (along with Cal) to keep the damage against Pac-10 overlord Oregon within two touchdowns.

In terms of on-field experience, Arizona State stepped into that cauldron as the greenest outfit in the Pac-10 at the start of the season, and came out of it as one of the most battle-hardened lineups in the country: Twenty-four Devils are back this fall after starting at least five games in 2010, 18 of whom will be seniors or fourth-year juniors. (Among that group is the best player on the team, fifth-year senior Omar Bolden, a unanimous all-conference pick at cornerback and a second-teamer as a return man last year.) Two of the up-and-comers, head-hunting linebacker Vontaze Burfict and freshman defensive lineman Junior Onyeali, anchored the middle of the best run defense in the conference and were honored with an All-Pac-10 nod and the league's Defensive Freshman of the Year award, respectively.

Personnel-wise, the worst you can say about the Devils' prospects is their lack of a notable playmaker on offense, despite cobbling together the Pac-10's No. 3 scoring offense last year at 32 points per game. There's still the ongoing quarterback issue between interception-prone senior Steven Threet and relatively inexperienced junior-to-be Brock Osweiler, who only supplanted Threet last year for the last two games (both ASU wins). And there's the fact that it's, you know, Arizona State, home of a single conference championship in the last 25 years and only two top-20 finishes in the last thirteen. It was only a little over a year ago that coach Dennis Erickson sounded like he wanted to quit in the waning weeks of a 4-8 flop in 2009. His charges have turned in losing records against the nine-game conference slate three years in a row.

If the soon-to-be 64-year-old is going to take another team around the corner before he's eligible to begin drawing Social Security, this is obviously the one, with a lineup composed overwhelmingly by Erickson's first two recruiting classes to Tempe in 2007 and 2008. This time next year, the prevailing theme will be the mass exodus of those seniors. If this outfit can't push through to the championship game with experience and a middling lineup of division rivals, it might well be another decade before the next opportunity cycles back around.

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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.

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