TEMPE, Ariz. -- One hundred and twenty FBS football teams will head into the summer claiming they're going to be good next year. Most will be wrong, despite their insistence on unparalleled locker room chemistry.
Arizona State is no exception to the universal spring optimism, but there's some momentum behind the good feeling after a strong finish in 2010. Expectations are high in Tempe. How high? Buckle up.
"A lot of people are talking about the Rose Bowl," quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "But we're talking about the Sugar Bowl. That's how much confidence we have as a team."
Osweiler isn't talking about the Allstate Sugar Bowl, though. He's talking about the BCS title game. Really.
Arizona State hasn't posted a winning season since 2007, when it went 10-3 in Dennis Erickson's debut and inspired false hope that things would be easy under a pedigreed coach. Not so. Over the past few seasons, the Sun Devils have found ways to lose, and they were typically creative in doing so. Missed field goals and extra points, turnovers on the goal line, turnovers in extraordinary bunches, missed tackles, missed throws, missed opportunities. It was sometimes great theater, though redundant tragedy from the Sun Devils perspective.
In 2009, they lost four games by five or fewer points. In 2010, they lost four games by four or fewer points, including squandered opportunities versus Wisconsin and Stanford. They somehow managed to stay within 11 points of Oregon -- one of three teams to do so -- despite seven (seven!) turnovers.
But from that manure pile sprouts the flower of hope. The Sun Devils welcome back 17 starters that includes depth on the offensive line and loads of speed and skill on both sides of the ball. They look like a slight favorite in the first year of the Pac-12 South Division, even though two returning starters, cornerback Omar Bolden and receiver T.J. Simpson, went down with knee injuries this spring.
"Everybody has to be optimistic before the season starts, but this year it's like everybody just knows," receiver Gerell Robinson said. "It's not like a hope or a feeling. Everybody just knows that if we do what we're supposed to do, we'll get to where we want to be."
That high expectations are the top story is good news for Erickson, who would be the subject of hotseat talk otherwise. His fast start hid some roster shortcomings -- most notably a dearth of offensive linemen -- and fans had started to turn away as the mediocrity piled up. In 2007, the average attendance in Sun Devil Stadium was 62,875. Last fall, it was 47,943.
The players are aware there's pressure to win in 2011.
"It's like some negative energy that we're turning into a positive on the field because nobody wants to see a coaching staff change," cornerback Deveron Carr said.
Beyond returning a majority of starters from 2010, the Sun Devils are a veteran team: They will feature a 30-man "senior" class (players in their final year of eligibility). The offensive line welcomes back all five starters and many of the backups even have starting experience. The top-six rushers from last fall are back, as are four of the top-six receivers. On defense, the top-three tacklers are back as are the three leaders in sacks and tackles for a loss.
And these aren't just hacks. The Sun Devils averaged 32.2 points per game in 2010, which ranked third in the Pac-10, and ranked fifth in total and scoring defense.
"We have some experience coming back and we have a lot of confidence in what we are doing," Erickson said. "Our players have been through a lot the last three years, lost some close games. Now it's their chance to step up and make some plays."
The biggest question: Is Osweiler up to the job? After starter Steven Threet went down with his third concussion against UCLA, Osweiler was brilliant coming off the bench and then overcame a bad first half to beat arch-rival Arizona. It was expected to be a tight quarterback competition this spring, but Osweiler won the job by default when the recurrent concussions forced Threet to retire.
The offense struggled early in spring practices, but Osweiler inspired confidence with five touchdown passes in the spring game as the offense dominated.
"He made some great throws that make you go, 'Wow, that was amazing,'" left tackle Evan Finkenberg said.
While losing Bolden and Simpson was a big blow -- both could return by mid-season -- the pieces still appear to be in place for a run at the first Pac-12 title game. And one of those pieces is confidence.
"I think this team knows it's our time now," Finkenberg said. "We have the pieces in place to have a big season and do the things we want to do."