TEMPE, Ariz. – After three seasons without a bowl game and plenty of speculation about the head coach's job, Arizona State faces something a little different this season: expectations.
Not the hope-we'll-be-good kind that every team has this time of the year. The Sun Devils have reason to aim high. And, being as deep, fast, athletic and experienced as it is, Arizona State can look at perhaps the Pac-12 Championship and the Rose Bowl, and even beyond, without generating too many guffaws.
"The only talk we've had is about working hard and getting to New Orleans," Arizona State receiver Gerell Robinson said. "As much as everybody wants to go to the Rose Bowl, I mean, I've been to California. I haven't been to New Orleans yet. That's our mindset, to be honest with you."
OK, so a lot will have to go right in Tempe for the Sun Devils to earn a trip to the Big Easy for January's BCS title game.
A team that hasn't won more than six games for three straight seasons doesn't just climb from the middle of the pack to national championship contention.
But the outlook — not to mention those intimidating black pitchforked uniforms — is much better than it has been, that's for sure.
Experience is part of it. The Sun Devils return nine starters from a stout defense and all 11 on offense, if you count quarterback Brock Osweiler, who finished off the last two games in 2010 after Steven Threet went down with a concussion.
Along with that experience is plenty of depth, a rarity for coach Dennis Erickson, who's had to rely on a few too many underclassmen the past couple of seasons.
Erickson also has arguably his fastest team in five seasons in the desert and maybe his most athletic, too.
With only a handful of question marks, the Sun Devils seem poised to be a force in the new-look conference.
"I like this football team a lot," Erickson said. "I feel like we can win a lot of football games, but we've got to go out and do it. Talk is cheap."
There's plenty to talk about with these Devils.
On offense, their talent level ranks among the tops in the Pac-12.
Arizona State returns its entire offensive line and has depth behind them.
Robinson, Mike Willie and Aaron Pflugrad make up one of the best, if not fastest receiving corps in the conference.
Cameron Marshall is a big-run-waiting-to-happen back and Deantre Lewis will provide a potent 1-2 punch if he's able recover from a leg injury suffered during a random shooting in February.
The key will be Osweiler.
The 6-foot-8 former Gonzaga basketball recruit lost a tight battle with Threet heading into last season and spent most of the first 10 games watching from the sideline.
Osweiler got his chance when Threet got injured in the penultimate game and played well, helping the Sun Devils rally from 17-0 down to beat UCLA handily then beat rival Arizona in a wild double-overtime finale.
Osweiler is the unquestioned starter this season and, if his attitude is any indication, is ready to carry the load on his own.
"It's my offense now," he said. "I need to be the leader of it, and I need to perform on a daily basis."
Arizona State's defense has been steady since Erickson arrived, leading the Pac-10 in rushing yards against the past two seasons.
It should be good again. The front line is solid, with Pac-10 defensive freshman of the year Junior Onyeali back and tackle Will Sutton back after being academically ineligible last season.
The backfield is the big question mark, thanks to the knee injury suffered by Omar Bolden, an All-Pac-10 selection last year who briefly considered declaring for the NFL.
But whatever the secondary may be lacking, the linebackers could possibly make up for.
The group, anchored by Vontaze Burfict and Brandon Magee, is among the best in the country, fierce, ferocious and fast.
The key will be Burfict, who at times last season let emotions get the best of him, leading to penalties.
Burfict has already gotten into an altercation with a teammate and the Sun Devils hopes he'll save his best hits for opponents — without drawing the flags.
"He's matured a heck of a lot, he really has," Erickson said. "I'm really proud of how he matured. I think you have to go out and watch him in practice to see how hard he works and what he does. Does he still have a lot of fire? Oh, yeah. Will he get a penalty or two this season? Probably. You can't control that, but if he gets them it's because he's playing hard."
Now it's time for the Sun Devils to live up to the hype.