Arizona State, Cal face early tests

A great start to a season can catapult a team into the top 25 and give them staying power. See Oregon State last year. A slow start can stunt momentum and leave a team playing catch-up all year. See Washington.

ESPN Insider Travis Haney looked at five teams that have especially front-loaded schedulesInsider in 2013. Two of those five come from the Pac-12.

Arizona State and California will have their hands full to kick off the year. The Sun Devils have Rose Bowl hopes and, along with UCLA, appear to be slight favorites in a very competitive Pac-12 South. The Bears are in rebuilding mode under new head coach Sonny Dykes. A tough early slate could either be a shot in the arm or create a crisis of confidence.

Here's Haney's take on the Sun Devils, who play Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame early.

Anyone who saw the 62-28 bowl manhandling of Navy knows ASU is certainly capable. "We're not going to sneak up on anybody," Graham told our Pac-12 reporter, Ted Miller, last week. "People are expecting us to be a darn good football team. So how do you handle success?"

For starters, you adequately manage the first part of the schedule, beginning with last season's Rose Bowl teams -- meaning two conference champs -- in consecutive weeks. Adding a neutral-site game against last year's national runner-up is another chore.

If the Devils intend to be this year's UCLA, an upstart in the South Division, they're going to have to earn it. Winning two of those four would be solid. Three would be outstanding.

At Cal, the Bears are still trying to figure out who the quarterback is going to be in Dykes' new system. But a very talented group of young receivers -- like Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper -- are anxiously awaiting to find out who their signal-caller will be. Because whoever it is, he will be tested early. The Bears play Northwestern, Ohio State and at Oregon in the first month.

Writes Haney:

Playing Northwestern or Ohio State would be ambitious for Cal, but both? In particular, this is not the season to catch the national-title-intent Buckeyes, even if the game is in Berkeley.

The good news if you're a Bears fan is that at least Sonny Dykes and his wide-open offense should produce points that could make for competitive games regardless of the opponent's skill level.

Haney doesn't dig into teams that are back-loaded on their schedule. But on the blog we've already talked about the tough stretches facing Oregon State and Stanford. It's no cakewalk for ASU, either. The Sun Devils host Oregon State -- likely a top-25 team -- then travel to UCLA (top 25?) before closing out at home against rival Arizona (top 25?). Chances are that the South title will come down to the final two weeks. So a strong start would bode well for ASU and cement its legitimacy.