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Sun Devils have chance to elevate their status in Berkeley

After watching Washington beat Stanford Thursday night, I am more convinced than ever that Arizona State has a great opportunity to break into the top four in the Pac-12 Conference this season — maybe even top three. And that would be quite an accomplishment for a team that went 4-5 in conference last season, got shellacked by Boise State 56-24 in the MAACO Bowl Las Vegas and lost several key players including its star quarterback, Brock Osweiler and star wide receivers Gerell Robinson and Aaron Pflugrad.

While winning the conference and heading to the Rose Bowl is still top priority (and by no means am I saying ASU shouldn’t shoot for those goals), I would like to think that taking baby steps prevails here. The Sun Devils have a chance to establish themselves as an upper echelon Pac-12 team. If ASU could settle in as a consistent top three team in this conference, they will sell a lot more tickets, play in much better bowl games, spend a lot of time in the national rankings and keep a lot more high school players home.

This year, more than any in recent memory, is wide open for the Devils to accomplish this. Oregon looks like the head of the class, but by no means are they unbeatable. Maybe they would have been had Darron Thomas stayed in school, but they aren’t with redshirt freshman Marcus Mariota behind center. USC is loaded with skill player talent, but as we have already seen in the loss to Stanford, they are vulnerable and because of the loss of scholarships in past years, they lack depth and have inexperienced backups.

If Oregon and USC are the top two teams in the conference, and Colorado and Washington State are the two bottom feeders, then there are eight teams vying to be in the upper half of the Pac-12.

Arizona State put Utah in the pretender category last week and can do the same to a very average Cal team this week. Even though Arizona State has historically struggled to win in California, they are facing a team that has already lost at home to Nevada, something they hadn’t done since 1903.

Washington took down Stanford and has some talent, but the Huskies are very young and couldn’t compete against LSU a few weeks ago, losing 41-3. Oregon State has been extremely impressive this season with wins over Wisconsin and UCLA and has done a great job of stopping the run in its first two games. Arizona has a great win (Oklahoma State) and a bad loss (Oregon), so the jury is still out on Rich Rod’s first Wildcat team. And UCLA, while notching a statement win over Nebraska, struggled to run the ball and played very little defense against the Beavers.

Todd Graham is getting more out of the Sun Devils than Dennis Erickson ever did. His offense is explosive and his defense, led by Will Sutton, has already punished both Illinois and Utah. The players have completely bought into what Graham is selling and it’s the way they have won that has made a statement. They clobbered Illinois 45-14 and destroyed Utah 31-7. Granted, both of those games were at home, and until the Sun Devils prove they can win on the road in a hostile environment they can not be considered a great team.

But a win at Memorial Stadium Saturday could be a springboard to a special season. And at the very least, it would move the Devils from a team mired in mediocrity under Erickson to a team on the rise under Graham.