In one way of thought, the 2009 schedule can be broken down evenly in three categories or predicted degrees of difficulty: - Four games (Idaho State, Louisiana-Monroe, Washington and Washington State) will likely have ASU listed as the favorite by virtually all sources.
To the Sun Devils' benefit, the 2009 campaign will showcase five home games in Pac-10 play, compared to five road contests in league action last year, as well as two additional non-conference games at Sun Devil Stadium.
Sept. 5, 2009 Idaho State (Tempe, Ariz.) 7:00 p.m.
To say that the Bengals struggled in 2008 is quite an understatement, having lost their first 11 games, including losses to FBS members Boise State and Idaho, before Idaho State edged Sacramento State in overtime, 36-33, on Nov. 22, 2008.
A member of the Football Championship Subdivision's Big Sky Conference, Idaho State rated dead last in the league and next-to-last among all 118 FCS teams allowing 41.2 points-per-game, while finishing next-to-last in the league with a 21.3 points-per-game scoring average in 2008 while also placing 104th among FCS teams with a 87.75 rushing yards-per-game average. Idaho State quarterbacks also combined for 19 interceptions, 108th overall in the FCS.
The Bengals ranked last of 118 official FCS teams with an averaged of 480.3 yards of total offense allowed per game, while also rating last in the Big Sky with 232.0 rushing yards per game (113th of 118 official FCS teams), while also yielding more touchdown passes (26) than any Big Sky team last year. Additionally appealing to ASU is the Bengals' FCS nation-worst 161.75 pass efficiency defense, conference-low 18 sacks and total of seven interceptions achieved defensively in 2008.
Idaho State will be the first FCS team ASU has played since Eastern Washington in 2002, with three meetings with lower level in-state foe Northern Arizona since that season. Match-ups with FCS opponents often times provide minimal benefit in the grand scheme of things but are, in many ways, a necessary ‘evil'. Given the struggles the Bengals have had recently, while lacking the ‘younger brother' motivation that Northern Arizona brought to Sun Devil Stadium in 2003, '06 and '08, ASU's 2009 season opener should be a ‘no-contest' and a great opportunity for the youth and depth to gain field experience early in the season. However, if this game is in any way competitive, serious larger scale concerns will surface in droves.
Sept. 19, 2009 Louisiana-Monroe (Tempe, Ariz.) 7:00 p.m.
In place of a previously scheduled meeting between the Sun Devils and BYU, Louisiana-Monroe makes a near cross-country trip for the first matchup between the two schools. After a season-opening game with Idaho State and a week two bye, ASU gets its first taste of FBS action for 2009 with the Warhawks of the Sun Belt Conference, picked by at least one preseason publication to finish among the nation's bottom 10 overall teams this season.
The most prominent struggles for Louisiana-Monroe last year were found on the defensive side of the ball, as the Warhawks rated 109th of 119 FBS teams by allowing 212.67 rushing yards-per-game as well as 109th overall by allowing 444.67 total yards-per-game in 2008. Additionally, the Warhawks surrendered 31 quarterback sacks on offense and defensively yielded a per-game average of 31.2 points, while racking up only 13 total sacks on defense (108th overall) in 2008 against predominately lower-level FBS opponents, although they also battled three SEC teams in Auburn, Arkansas and Ole Miss.
Despite some struggles, Louisiana-Monroe hasn't always appeared star-struck when competing on the road against BCS Conference teams, having defeated Alabama in 2007 and suffered a mere one-point road loss at Arkansas last year. Also, the Warhawks have revamped their defensive scheme for 2009 in an effort to improve overall efficiency, shifting to a 3-3-5 setup.
With significant concerns regarding the running game and offensive line quality for ASU, the first two games of the year can provide ample opportunities to gain bits of stability and accomplishment in both areas, as both Idaho State and Louisiana-Monroe had significant challenges both in run defense and quarterback pressure in 2008.
All Sun Devil faithful hope that memories of last year's UNLV game will not surface this season against Louisiana-Monroe, as ASU is fully capable of making short work of the Warhawks if the Sun Devils approach this game with the ferocity and seriousness of a Pac-10 match-up. ASU's meeting with Louisiana-Monroe may require tremendous focus, with a meeting with Georgia, unlike last year; ASU can't afford to overlook Louisiana-Monroe – as the Sun Devils may have with the Rebels last year – despite a cross-country trip to Athens, Ga., the following game.
Sept. 26, 2009 Georgia (Athens, Ga.)
The competition for the Sun Devils figures to rise dramatically from the first two games to the third, as ASU makes its most distant road trip since playing at Miami (Fla.) in 1997.
Last September, the two schools met for the first time, with the Bulldogs defeating the Sun Devils with relative ease, 27-10. One of the most eagerly-anticipated non-conference games in the past decade, ASU suffered a thoroughly deflating, embarrassing loss in overtime to UNLV the prior week, providing a crushing blow that significantly damaged the 2008 season.
Georgia featured a well-balanced offensive attack against the Devils a year ago, with then-true freshman wide receiver A.J. Green dominating the ASU secondary for 159 receiving yards on eight catches, while first-round NFL Draft selections, quarterback Matthew Stafford and running back Knowshon Moreno, each proved his All-America worth in leading the Bulldogs to victory.
Defensively, Georgia's front seven thrashed the Sun Devil front line, limiting ASU to four net rushing yards on 19 carries and sacking ASU quarterback Rudy Carpenter four times.
Despite the losses of Stafford and Moreno, Georgia still figures to be a highly prominent figure in the Southeastern Conference as well as on a national level. ASU's trip ‘between the hedges' will be one of the most volatile environments the Sun Devil squad will experience in 2009 and will likely provide an early gut-check for ASU's effort to improve upon its highly disappointing 2008 season.
Oct. 3, 2009 Oregon State (Tempe, Ariz.)
Following a trip to the Southeast, ASU kicks off its conference slate at home against the Beavers, a team that ASU has historically dominated but has risen to among the Pac-10's premier programs as of late.
Amazingly, Oregon State hasn't beaten the Sun Devils in Tempe since 1969; however with 2008's Pac-10 Conference Offensive Player of the Year Jacquizz Rodgers and Coach of the Year Mike Riley, OSU is certainly much more stable now than 40 years ago.
Predicted by the Pac-10 media to finish fourth in the league, one spot above ASU, Oregon State boasts dynamic playmaking skills on offense but will need a significant defensive overhaul after losing seven defensive starters, including the entire secondary, as well as the graduation of meaningful offensive line starters.
Last season, a failed last-minute two-point conversion attempt prevented ASU from forcing overtime, but the overall effort from the Sun Devils was as inspired as was exhibited during last year's dreadful six-game midseason losing streak.
The 2009 meeting between the Beavers and Sun Devils will be of grave importance to ASU, as a victorious performance would provide a major boost before a three-game stretch against Washington State, Washington and Stanford, teams ASU has defeated each of the past three seasons. Alternatively, if the Devils fall on the road to Georgia and fail do defeat Oregon State, that combination could have a demoralizing effect that could potentially prompt ASU to lose focus among the winnable three-game stretch after the Sun Devils face the Beavers.
Oct. 10, 2009 Washington State (Pullman, Wash.)
Although Washington was the only winless BCS conference team in 2008 and lost to the Cougars, Washington State from 2008 likely will be remembered as one of the most incompetent teams in Pac-10 history.
WSU astonishingly allowed 58 or more points in six games last year and ultimately finished next-to-last in the nation with a dismal scoring defense of 43.9 points-per-game last year. The Cougars were also shut out three times over a four-game Pac-10 stretch last year, the final game of that span being ASU's 31-0 blanking of WSU, the Sun Devils' first defensive shut out since ASU's historic victory over Nebraska in 1996.
Offensively, the Cougars were equally putrid, finishing next-to-last in the FBS in both total offense (241.1 yards) and scoring offense (12.7 points), while losing more turnovers (38) than any FBS team and WSU quarterbacks combined for only six touchdown passes compared to 21 interceptions.
In addition to a collection of gridiron gaffes, the Cougars have had a number of serious issues off the field this offseason, whether disciplinary infractions or major health concerns, leading to the dismissal or unavailability of several scholarship players.
Picked by the media to finish last in the Pac-10, Washington State may improve within itself from 2008 thanks to a spirited approach by second-year head coach Paul Wulff, but the talent level remains far too below Pac-10 par for WSU to be any sort of contender in 2009.
ASU has won five consecutive games against Washington State, including road wins in 2005 and 2007. Anything shy of a convincing with for the Sun Devils would likely be means for concern.
Oct. 17, 2009 Washington (Tempe, Ariz.) 7:00 p.m.
The thoroughly disappointing Tyrone Willingham era in Seattle ended at the conclusion of last year in embarrassing fashion, as the Huskies fell to 0-12 on the year, the only BCS Conference team to not win a game in 2008.
Although the team as a whole was generally devoid of talent, losing do-it-all quarterback Jake Locker early in the season was a devastating blow that flattened UW's season to a terminal status.
Despite the horrendous season in 2008, spirits have raised in Seattle, thanks to the hire of new head coach Steve Sarkisian of the USC coaching lineage, who brings a competitive winning expectation to Washington.
Sarkisian has the moxie to redirect the program, but the hangover from the failed Willingham regime will greatly handicap the 2009 season for the Huskies.
In last year's meeting, which took place in Seattle, ASU actually trailed 19-16 late in the third quarter before a 23-point outburst catapulted the Sun Devils to a 39-19 victory. The Sun Devils rushed for a season-high 182 yards that night, while holding Washington to only 52 net rushing yards, the second-lowest rushing total ASU allowed on the year and the second-worst rushing effort by the Huskies in 2008, while ASU forced three Husky turnovers and committed zero.
It is feasible that Washington could enter the game with only one win, while ASU may be amid a winnable series of games when the Huskies visit Tempe – Washington's third road game in four weeks.
Oct. 24, 2009 Stanford (Palo Alto, Calif.) 7:15 p.m.
A challenging game and an equally challenging team to predict for 2009, the Cardinal are likely to provide a drastically improved product on the field from before the Jim Harbaugh era began in 2007, but it is challenging to envision to what exact extent Stanford will improve.
ASU has taken four of the past five meetings with Stanford, but has had relatively limited success in Palo Alto, losing three of the past four at Stanford Stadium, but were victorious in the most recent matchup, in 2007.
The Sun Devils pounded the Cardinal in last year's early-season matchup, 41-17, behind 472 yards of total offense by ASU, while the Devils limited Stanford to 120 passing yards, ASU's most stingy effort of the year in that category.
While Stanford may have postseason potential in 2009, ASU has the ability to continue its three-game win streak and use this game to inch closer to bowl eligibility.
Oct. 31, 2009. California (Tempe, Ariz.)
If history is any indicator, ASU's Halloween meeting with the Golden Bears may be a scary match-up for the Sun Devils.
Over the past 10 seasons among Pac-10 competition, only USC has more handily defeated the Sun Devils, with ASU only winning games in 2000 and 2007 against the Bears in that span, with an average margin of defeat of 22.5 points during a four-game losing streak for the Devils from 2002-06.
Although California has had inconsistency at quarterback the past couple seasons, running back Jahvid Best gives the Bears one of the most electric athletes in the nation and a bona fide Heisman Trophy candidate.
Cal enters 2009 with high expectations to compete with USC for top standing in the Pac-10 and will present a significant challenge for ASU on in their Halloween meeting.
Nov. 7, 2009 USC (Tempe, Ariz.) 6:00 p.m.
Sadly for Sun Devil fans, no team in the Pac-10 has had more distant success against the Trojans, as ASU hasn't beaten USC since 1999, the longest losing streak in the conference. Only ASU and Arizona have yet to defeat the Trojans under Pete Carroll, however the Wildcats last beat USC in 2000.
USC's strength in 2009 likely will shift from an elite defensive team to a standout offensive squad, as the Trojans will have to replace eight starters on defense but return nine offensive starters.
The Trojans blanked ASU, 28-0, in Los Angeles last year and are predicted to win the Pac-10 Championship for the eighth consecutive season.
Likely the most highly-ranked team on ASU's 2009 schedule, the Sun Devils will certainly have their work cut out for them when the Trojans enter the gates of Sun Devil Stadium.
Nov. 14, 2009 Oregon (Eugene, Ore.)
Other than a three-game win streak over the Ducks from 2002-04, Oregon has been on the top end of a handful of lopsided victories against ASU, most recently thrashing the Sun Devils, 54-20, last October, led by a punishing, 304-yard rushing outburst by the Ducks.
Oregon has seemingly been so close, yet so far from dethroning USC for Pac-10 glory, and in 2009 there is much to be excited about from a Duck fan's perspective but also cause for moderate concern.
Former junior college transfer Jeremiah Masoli emerged from a crowd last year to provide consistency to the quarterback position, while senior running back LeGarrette Blount, at roughly 240 pounds, will be one of the nation's premier ball carriers this year. However, major replacements must be made along the offensive line and among the defense, and most significantly, long-tenured head coach Mike Bellotti stepped down – or rather, stepped up – from coach to athletic director, and offensive coordinator Chip Kelly became new head coach.
Kelly's arrival to the head of the staff comes with some mixed reviews, as he has proven to be an offensive genius; however a group of players transferred out of the program in the offseason – including wide receiver Aaron Pflugrad who now calls ASU home – citing differences with the staff as the primary motivator for the departures.
A constant that is expected to remain with the Ducks is a tricky, unorthodox and potentially devastating offensive attack and the challenge will be magnified with ASU having to travel to Autzen Stadium in Eugene, perhaps the Pac-10's most challenging stadium environment.
Nov. 21, 2009 UCLA (Pasadena, Calif.)
In all likelihood, the question isn't ‘if' UCLA will return to prominence, but rather ‘when'. When Rick Neuheisel was brought on board as head coach prior to last season, the risk-reward factor was certainly evident, and although his first year on the field was tremendously rocky, his staff's recruiting efforts have been excellent both years, finishing with the top signing class in the Pac-10 last year and the nation's No. 5 overall class according to Scout.com.
However, it is challenging to demand that first and second-year players provide all the talent to a major college football team, and UCLA's deficiencies across the offense will keep the Bruins in muddy waters until their freshmen and sophomores develop.
Stabilizing the quarterback position has to be issue number one, as last year's starter, Kevin Craft, effectively lost the position by throwing 20 interceptions in 2008, the most in a single season by a quarterback in school history and the highest total by an individual in the Pac-10 last year. Redshirt freshman Kevin Prince is slated to take the reins, but his inexperience compounded with uncertainty and disorganization at running back as well as struggles along the offensive line will challenge Neuheisel and staff to provide any form of offensive potency.
In this specific matchup, UCLA will hope to utilize its home field advantage as much as possible, as prior to a close win at the Rose Bowl in 2007, ASU hadn't won in Pasadena since 1996. Having taken back-to-back victories in the past two meetings, the 2009 installment will be a pivotal game; sandwiched between a highly challenging three-game stretch among the Pac-10's elite and ASU's season-ending rivalry showdown against Arizona.
Nov. 28, 2009 Arizona (Tempe, Ariz.)
Many elements of the 2008 are classified as unacceptable by Sun Devil fans, players and coaches; and although a losing season, a six-game losing streak and an embarrassing loss to UNLV rank among the top regrets of last year, ASU's 31-10 loss in Tucson to Arizona and forfeiture of the Territorial Cup stained the year for we maroon and gold faithful as painfully as any occurrence during the 2008 season, making last year the first season since 2001 that ASU has both missed bowl eligibility and lost to the Wildcats.
Both teams will be out to prove themselves in 2009, as ASU looks to get back to its 10-win form of 2007, while Arizona hopes to prove that it's first winning season and bowl game appearance since the Clinton administration was not a fluke. Recently adding to the fire is UA's lowly eighth-place prediction in the Pac-10 media poll; however anyone involved is fully aware that this rivalry needs no synthetic fuel and is based in long-lived ill rapport between the schools, fans, students, alumni and general geographic areas.
The Wildcats return several starters, but the impact of the quality of players – including quarterback Willie Tuitama, wide receiver Mike Thomas and offensive tackle Eben Britton, among others – will still cause a significant impact. Additionally, Arizona plays the vaunted five road conference games and has a non-conference road trip to Iowa, making UA's attempts to earn a second straight bowl bid much more challenging than last year.
Also, there could be postseason implications for one or both teams in this year's meeting, an element that has been present recently and has provided additional spoils of victory, as ASU and Arizona have prevented one another from gaining bowl eligibility in recent years.
Sun Devil fans likely will learn long before this game, but the annual ‘Duel in the Desert' will symbolize the impact 2008 had on the Sun Devil staff in terms of intensity, preparation and pride, and regardless the two teams' schedules to start the game, ASU supporters expect absolutely nothing less than beating the Wildcats for the sixth time in the past eight seasons and returning the Territorial Cup to its rightful home on campus at Arizona State University.
Joe Healey is a 2006 graduate of Arizona State University and a guest contributor to Devils Digest. He is also a feature writer each month in Maroon and Gold Illustrated and has contributed to ASU media guides, press releases and other official athletic publications. He can be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.