Last year, the Pac-12 south was supposed to be all about USC coming back and taking their spot on the throne. But that didn't happen - surprise contenders UCLA and Arizona State had other plans.
This year, though, everybody's caught on to the Sun Devils, and they're being picked as one of the favorites to win the South.
That makes their week four battle with Stanford perhaps their most important game of the season. The Cardinal are the highest ranked team on the Sun Devils' schedule and come right in the middle of a stretch where ASU plays Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in four consecutive weeks. An upset win over the defending conference champions could propel ASU to the Pac-12 title game, but a loss could send the Devils spiraling into trouble.
Can they beat Stanford on the road and turn their season into something special? Maybe so. But one thing is for sure already - they won't be sneaking up on anyone this season.
2012 record: 8-5, 5-4 Pac-12. Finished the year with a win over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl.
What to expect from the Sun Devils in 2013: The Sun Devils' 45-43 loss to UCLA was the difference between ASU making the Pac-12 title game and the Fight Hunger Bowl, so there's reason to like ASU's prospects this season. They've got a favorable home schedule, and almost everyone, including Sports Illustrated and Athlon Sports, believes they'll finish the season 9-3 and win the Pac-12 South.
Best player: Defensive tackle Will Sutton. The best defensive lineman in America west of Jadeveon Clowney. Sutton, the 2012 Pac-12 defensive player of the year, racked up 13 sacks, 23.5 tackles for loss, and 63 total tackles last season. His presence alone is enough to disrupt an entire offensive gameplan, and he will provide an excellent test for Stanford's slighty revamped o-line. Stanford has had good success shutting down good d-tackles over the years (see the 2010 Cardinal neutralizing Stephen Paea), but Sutton will be a great litmus test for how good the Cardinal o-line (and offense) will be in 2013.
Prediction vs Stanford: There's nothing about Arizona State that screams "elite team," but they are a very capable squad with a balanced offense (14th in the nation in 2012) and defense (40th in the nation). That means they'll be an attractive "trap game upset" pick against Stanford in week four - especially if the Cardinal don't light the world on fire against SJSU and Army. Unfortunately for ASU, the fact that they play Stanford on the Farm does mitigate that "trap game" factor quite a bit. Ultimately, I think the Cardinal win this one by 10, with a score somewhere around 30-20.
Best random fact about Arizona State: Legendary broadcaster Al Michaels is a graduate of ASU. Also, Arizona State is the butt of one of my favorite Simpsons jokes of all time.