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CHRIS DUFRESNE / ON COLLEGE FOOTBALL

The Times' preseason college football countdown: No. 22 Arizona State

The Sun Devils have the talent to compete for the first Pac-12 title and they'd better, because Coach Dennis Erickson is feeling the Tempe heat in more ways than one.

August 09, 2011|Chris Dufresne
  • Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson, left, and quarterback Brock Osweiler take part in Pac-12 media day on July 26. Are the Sun Devils legitimate Pac-12 Conference title contenders?
Arizona State Coach Dennis Erickson, left, and quarterback Brock Osweiler… (Reed Saxon / Associated…)

The Times' preseason college football countdown: No. 22 Arizona State

You know it's almost game time when linebacker/helmet case Vontaze Burfict punches someone. And he did, a teammate, last week.

Forget a long season … it might be a long August.

"Fear the Fork" is the new team motto, edging out Tucson's unsolicited entry: "Put a Fork In 'Em."

Dennis Erickson wasn't hired to go 25-24 in his first four years in Tempe. He was hired to push Arizona State to at least the precipice of Pasadena.

Sun-splashed Sun Devils yearn for 1996, when Jake Plummer and Pat Tillman stuffed Nebraska in the regular season and led the team to the brink of a national title.

Erickson won two national titles at Miami, is revered as an offensive innovator and is 173-89-1 in 22 seasons as a head coach.

But he's running out of Tempe time.

Erickson is 15-21 since going 10-3 in his first year. Last year's 6-6 record was an improvement on 4-8 and 5-7, but three straight years without a bowl berth is making Erickson's hair even whiter.

"It really doesn't affect me at all, to be honest with you," Erickson said of the whispers he's on the hot seat. "I have high expectations for our football team this year. We all do. And that's all I can worry about."

The bad news first: On defense, star tackle Lawrence Guy was lost to the NFL and star cornerback Omar Bolden was lost to a knee injury. On offense, quarterback Steven Threet had to quit because of post-concussion syndrome.

There is enough talent returning, though, to think Arizona State could/should make a run at the first Pac-12 title.

Because USC is on probation, the Sun Devils don't even have to finish first in the South Division to reach the championship game.

"If you get in the game, and win it, you're going to the Rose Bowl," quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "So whatever it takes to get there."

Osweiler, a 6-foot-8 junior, has enough experience to step in for Threet and will be playing behind a deep offensive line.

With 28 seniors on the roster, experience won't be a problem. Despite the losses of Guy and Bolden, defense should keep the Sun Devils in every game. The unit is led by the junior Burfict, a game-changer linebacker who sees his worst enemy every day in the mirror.

Erickson's teams, going back to Miami, have been heavily penalized and prone to personal-foul issues. Arizona State averaged eight penalties per game last year — only five major-college teams had a worse average.

Some of the penalties, led by Burfict, were boneheaded and costly. The Sun Devils lost five games last year by a total of 20 points. You think discipline doesn't matter?

Arizona State plays UC Davis, Missouri and Illinois before a huge Sept. 24 showdown with USC at Tempe.

chris.dufresne@latimes.com

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