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Window of Opportunity: Arizona State

Posted by ESPN.com's Ted Miller

TEMPE, Ariz. -- If you Google "Arizona State" and "sleeping giant," 3,400 articles come up. So in the interest of originality, we're here to speculate on Arizona State's "Window of Opportunity" (more articles via Google but unrelated to football).

If a Pac-10 team has a chance to break USC's choke-hold on the conference title -- or at least to regularly challenge the Trojans for the top spot -- it's the Sun Devils.

Why Arizona State more than any other program?

Start with the only other coach in the conference who's won a national title in Dennis Erickson. Look next at a location that provides great school-year weather and is just a short hop from the recruiting hotbed of Southern California.

Consider academic standards that won't limit recruiting options, and an administration that is supportive of sports and suddenly wise in the ways of cultivating success.

And, finally, toss in just enough tradition to sell the possibility.

Still, challenging USC's supremacy is not an easy concept for a program to wrap its mind around. Even Erickson -- as competitive as a guy can be -- reveals a certain amount of deference, telling reporters when asked to assess the conference that, "To pick who, I guess, is going to be second would be very, very difficult."

Asked later about whether his team believes it can eclipse the Trojans, Erickson said, "They know how good 'SC is. When you play against them, you realize it. But I also believe our guys feel like they're not that far away."

Perhaps it's actually a sign of the overall optimism over the trajectory of the program that the Sun Devils reflect on the gap between the teams with a surprising honesty.

"What did we lose by last year?" quarterback Rudy Carpenter asked.

USC 44, ASU 24.

"Twenty points?" Carpenter said. "Obviously, we weren't close last year."

Later, he adds, "How many guys did they have drafted last year? When you've got wave after wave of guys who could probably start any other place in the country -- I mean you've got to be on top of your game (to beat them)."

Asked about USC, linebacker Mike Nixon said, "Leaving the game [last year], you just felt like you got hammered. But going back and looking at the film, there were about five plays that really swung the momentum and really deflated us."

The Sun Devils also reflect the conference-wide frustration that the rest of college football unfairly diminishes the Pac-10's other nine teams because of USC -- the feeling out West being if the Trojans played in any other conference they'd still be decorating their media guide with a graphic celebrating six consecutive conference titles.

Besides their ill-fated USC game, the Sun Devils had two other opportunities last year to make a statement about their joining the college football elite and they blew both of them. Oregon sacked Carpenter nine times in a 35-23 win, while Texas got him four times and forced five turnovers in a 52-34 Holiday Bowl blowout.

Erickson doesn't hide the fact that a favorable schedule helped his team win 10 games in 2007. That's not the case this season, with a gauntlet of Georgia, consecutive road games at California and USC and a visit from Oregon looming over a brutal five-week stretch.

The first step through the window of opportunity, however, is believing it can be taken.

"If we play disciplined and we play hard, they're going to bleed just like the rest of us," Nixon said.

Or, as Erickson concluded, "We're getting closer, that's the easy way to put it."