Tigers-Devils contest will answer questions

Arizona State and Missouri come into Friday night's game with high expectations and a lot of question marks. The winner of the game will naturally feel much better about the season's prospects. The loser will be left with additional questions and a substantially reduced "buzz" for the rest of the 2011 campaign.

Arizona State University and the University of Missouri share many things in common when it comes to football and athletic history. They've had common coaches and administrators over the years, with Dan Devine being the most easily recognized Tiger-Sun Devil hybrid. This season, they also share an opportunity to make a statement in the first year of their new-look conferences.

Yet, there are also some important differences in what kind of "statement" can be made by each school.

The Sun Devils are looking to validate the "five year plan" Coach Dennis Erickson has spoke of since his arrival in Tempe. A nine plus win season and high quality bowl game would go a long way toward softening the tension ASU fans have about the program's first three-year consecutive bowl drought in the modern era.

Sun Devil fans are, understandably, frustrated by the recent stretch of undisciplined play, inexcusable mistakes, turnovers, and the resultant close losses. Anything less than eight or nine wins probably ends the Erickson era in Tempe, so there is a lot riding on this year.

A successful season, on the other hand, gives the program some stability. The heralded class of verbal commits for 2012 is more likely to stay mostly intact. ASU would also be in a great position to stake a claim for the program to benefit most from USC's recent NCAA issues and mortal-level play. Finally, when combined with the buzz built from the new logo and re-branding efforts, a very good season should be able to build some public relations and attention momentum heading into 2012.

The Tigers, on the other hand, are a few years ahead of the Sun Devils from a program building perspective. Winners of 40 games in the last four years and a five year string of bowl appearances, Mizzou has established itself as a team that wins consistently.

They've been able to sustain success for a full cycle of players within the program, which I believe is the key to sustaining success. They don't need to post a successful season to have their conference or the nation take notice. They've already done that (although they've missed the elusive BCS bowl bid for various reasons).

Missouri needs a successful season for purposes of place in college football, either to help buoy efforts by the remaining Big 12 members to recruit new programs and sustain the conference or to be attractive to other conferences after a Big 12 meltdown. It is no secret that football revenues drive college athletics, so sustaining a high level of success should allow the Tigers to be the displaced program with the best recent football history.

This on field success, when coupled with the St. Louis and Kansas City TV markets and strong academics (they are a member of the prestigious Association of American Universities), will make the Tigers very attractive to suitor conferences. To be fair, even a mediocre season on the gridiron wouldn't take too much of the shine off of MU's credentials for new conference affiliation, but a great season gives Mike Alden and the athletic department administration a few more bargaining chips to play in the game of high stakes poker that is conference consolidation.

Overall, I believe ASU has more to gain and more to lose on Friday night. A loss would halt any buzz and momentum the Sun Devils built around the football program over the offseason. The talk of uniforms, All-American candidate Vontaze Burfict, and winning the Pac 12 south would immediately shift to talk of Coach Dennis Erickson's future in Tempe, with the "fire the coach" bandwagon benefitting from the widespread panic and consternation caused by losing another big game (especially if personal fouls and dumb mistakes are a main reason for the loss).

Conversely, a win propels the Devils into the top 25, solidifies them as favorites to win the Pac 12 South (nobody else has looked very good so far), and gets the finicky Phoenix fan base to take notice of what's going on at Sun Devil Stadium.

Missouri, on the other hand, has mitigated the down side of a loss in Tempe with recent success. Averaging ten wins per season recently would better allow them to absorb a road loss in the desert without too much fallout.

Overall, a lot is at stake for both programs on Friday night. Who will capitalize on the opportunity, the more established program from an unstable conference looking to add to an already impressive resume of wins or the upstart hoping to bust into the national spotlight with a win over a respected opponent?

My gut says ASU is ready, finally, to embrace and grasp the opportunity. But as our friends from Missouri would say, it's time to "show me."

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