ASU facing series of heavy, existential questions entering 2022 slate

Aug 29, 2022, 7:20 PM | Updated: 7:26 pm
Head coach Herm Edwards of the Arizona State Sun Devils reacts after the loss to the Utah Utes at R...
Head coach Herm Edwards of the Arizona State Sun Devils reacts after the loss to the Utah Utes at Rice-Eccles Stadium on October 16, 2021 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)
(Photo by Chris Gardner/Getty Images)

Irrational exuberance emits from a small slice of ASU alumni. They are excited because they cannot be disappointed any more. They are freed from the fear of failure. They are relieved from the unbearable burden of expectations.

These are strange times in college football, and nowhere is stranger than Tempe, Arizona.

The Sun Devils face a series of heavy, existential questions entering the 2022 season, which begins Thursday against NAU at Sun Devil Stadium:

How low can they go? Is it only up from here? Where are they going in the long run? And will the Sleeping Giant ever awaken or was it just a myth all along?

To wit:

The football program is under NCAA investigation. And yet the NCAA may cease to exist in the not-so-distant future, maybe even before investigators get around to interviewing Herm Edwards.

The Pac-12 is hanging by fraying threads of solidarity, and one more key defection could send survivors scrambling for shelter, begging at the doorstep of the Big 12. Would ASU follow suit or would it prefer a leading role in a scaled-down, rebuilt Pac-12, just like the glory days when Frank Kush dominated the Western Athletic Conference?

The ramifications are enormous. There have been rumblings of a mutual interest between the University of Arizona and the Big 12, which seem to be a natural cultural fit on many levels. But can you imagine a world without feuding Sun Devils and Wildcats, where the Territorial Cup simply ceased to exist, an ancient relic buried in the ruins of progress?

Anything is possible in the fractured world of college football, where nothing matters but the gold rush destroying the sport.

Finally, there’s the sad juxtaposition of a thriving, bustling ASU campus that now boasts a record 140,759 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled for classes and a school that is woefully behind in the NIL movement to attract and pay the best football players. There is so much congestion and construction at ASU that driving through Tempe is now one of the worst things about living in Arizona, ranking only behind rattlesnakes and scorpions. Clearly, ASU has never been so profitable.

And yet its football team has rarely felt this insignificant, irrelevant, underfunded.

Obviously, the NCAA investigation has caused major turmoil and brand damage. One prominent college football writer predicts ASU will go 1-8 in the Pac-12. Once a media darling, Edwards is now a sad, shrunken figure riding out the storm.

Maybe Edwards will thrive in this next chapter. Maybe he’ll do better as head coach of an underdog than he was as CEO of a pro-style operation.

Or maybe this is a prelude to the end, a realization that the window has closed and that ASU will never be a major player in college football. The revenue disparities between the haves and have-nots will soon become untenable, and ASU is ill-prepared in this arena, inside a saturated professional sports town, in a market full of entertainment options and short on attention span/discretionary dollars.

Under Kush, ASU once posted five seasons with 10 or more victories in the span of six years. They’ve had only six such seasons since joining the Pac-10 in 1978, a span of 44 years. Maybe they’re better cast as Big Fish/Small Pond than they are Sleeping Giant.

Maybe the real issue is the persistent and flawed belief that ASU should be a football powerhouse based on its weather, campus scenery and its desirable location. Maybe the underlying issue has always been our expectations.

Fortunately for Edwards, that won’t be a problem in 2022.

Reach Bickley at dbickley@arizonasports.com. Listen to Bickley & Marotta weekdays from 6–10 a.m. on 98.7 FM Arizona’s Sports Station.

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ASU facing series of heavy, existential questions entering 2022 slate