Arizona State might be the best 6-6 team in the country. The Sun Devils didn't get a bowl game reward with that mark -- two wins over FCS teams meant they needed seven wins -- but the reward may be in 2011 when a young team blossoms.
In the season's third game, the Sun Devils lost by one point -- a blocked PAT -- at Wisconsin on an afternoon they looked every bit the Badgers' match. That would be the first of four losses by four or fewer points.
The Sun Devils challenged Oregon -- forcing 11 punts in an 11-point loss -- but were done in by seven turnovers. Then they suffered a third consecutive loss to Oregon State. After winning at Washington, they suffered an embarrassing 50-17 defeat at California, a game in which they didn't appear to show up. At 3-4, ASU looked unfocused, and coach Dennis Erickson's warm seat grew hotter.
The Sun Devils blew out Washington State -- the only team that wiped out the Cougars over the final four games -- then lost to USC and Stanford by a combined five points, which eliminated them from bowl contention (despite a long-shot attempt at a bowl waiver from the NCAA).
But ASU never waved the white flag on the season. It stomped UCLA, with backup quarterback Brock Osweiler taking over for injured starter Steven Threet, and then won an overtime thriller at rival Arizona.
Offensive MVP: Running back Cameron Marshall led Arizona State with 787 yards rushing and nine touchdowns. That's big because the Sun Devils have lacked a consistent running game for two seasons. Marshall and Deantre Lewis will form one of the best one-two combinations in the Pac-12 next fall.
Defensive MVP: When linebacker Vontaze Burfict is focused and not letting his emotions rule him, he's one of the best linebackers in the nation. He's a freaking force of nature. When he lets his emotions take control, however, he hurts his team, as he frequently has the past two seasons. Late in the year, Burfict hinted at maturity. With maturity, he's an All-American and first-round NFL draft choice in the spring of 2012. Oh, and he led the Sun Devils with 90 tackles. He had 8.5 tackles for a loss and two forced fumbles.
Turning point: When the Sun Devils lost 50-17, they could have packed in the season, which might have gotten Erickson fired (though ASU has long not wanted to eat a buyout on his contract). But, while they only went 3-2 over the final five games, they mostly played good football against good competition. That competitiveness and continued motivation hinted at a program upswing.
What’s next? Look at the roster. Just about everyone is coming back in 2011, including two quarterbacks who can play. The Sun Devils look like the Pac-12 South favorites, and voters who take the time to look may rank them in the preseason. Arizona State fans frustrated with the downturn after Erickson's spectacular first season will see the fruition of a plan to upgrade the team-wide athleticism, with a focus on defense. The quarterback competition between Threet and Osweiler will be interesting this spring, and the offensive line and pass rush could be better. But the future looks promising. Back-to-back nonconference games with Missouri and at Illinois should be revealing.