DAN BICKLEY

Arizona State’s football season has high hopes, unpredictable forecast

Aug 25, 2021, 4:19 PM

Arizona State football is at yet another crossroads. They could win the Rose Bowl. They might end up in jail, sentenced to serious time in a NCAA cellblock.

The Sun Devils are choosing glory at all costs, hoping a spectacular season mitigates and mutes all the allegations, all the angry accusers and all the thorny ethical questions.

By now, top ASU administration must have a clear picture of who is complicit and who retains plausible deniability. They know what is in the damning dossier that showed up in various mailboxes during the offseason, including those of NCAA investigators. They have an idea of whether head coach Herm Edwards and top lieutenant Antonio Pierce were aware of and involved in illegal recruiting visits allegedly funded by the program in the midst of a pandemic.

For pre-emptive measures, ASU has sidelined three assistant coaches. Yet Pierce and Edwards remain on task, proceeding with business as usual. Both have sidestepped the allegations in recent media appearances. Edwards is stretching far enough to call the investigation a “review,” claiming all the distractions were no distraction at all.

That’s absurd. One ASU player even tweeted at Dr. Michael Crow to reinstate the missing coaches. But you can’t fire the head coach and top assistant at this point in the game, not without penalizing scores of innocent athletes. Clearly, there are no good options here.

Other than winning football games.

Keep in mind, the 2021 season was supposed to be the grand awakening of a sleeping giant in Tempe. This is the year when a recruiting juggernaut spearheaded by Pierce poached enough talent from California and beyond to blaze new trails for ASU football. The year when an underachieving college program trapped inside a saturated professional sports market declared a new beginning and a new ceiling.

At the very least, the threat of NCAA sanctions will marginalize future recruiting efforts. It will buoy the new head coach at Arizona, Jedd Fisch, who is effervescent, fully engaged and already making a strong impact. It could even derail ASU football entirely, just as it stands on the doorstep of relevancy.

Or maybe the abundance of chaos in college football will buy ASU some precious time. The NCAA is already dealing with multiple front-burner issues, including a hostile takeover from the SEC; the collapse of the Big 12; the effects of name, image and likeness payments furthering the gap between contenders and pretenders; and the existential threats to its own existence as a governing body. The NCAA is even conducting a constitutional convention to rewrite its bylaws. How can it possibly play judge and jury to the actions of a member school when its own rules are under comprehensive review?

If Pierce is smart enough to cover his tracks, Edwards is old enough to retire after the season. And if ASU’s football team captures the imagination, the long-term damage will be minimal. They will undoubtedly receive glowing praise from ESPN for all the quality television Edwards once provided, and for all the friends he made along the way. With a few breaks, ASU may never need to answer the ugly questions:

How could a program led by a saintly, virtuous head coach cheat during a pandemic, prioritizing recruiting efforts over public health and safety, at a precarious time when even the grimiest programs toed the line?

For ASU, the answer is to win 10 or more games, showcase an elite quarterback in Jayden Daniels and unleash a dominant defense full of malice and experience. Make a strong case for the College Football Playoff, which sorely needs some new blood.

Just know ASU football has a huge target on its back. Conference partners haven’t been this livid since Todd Graham was suspected of widespread thievery, allegedly using technology to steal signs from unknowing opponents.

That’s why every locker in Sun Devil Stadium should come with blinders and earplugs. ASU’s football team will need them in 2021.

Dan Bickley

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Arizona State’s football season has high hopes, unpredictable forecast