It's clear 2021 was circled as the year.
For the Arizona State Sun Devils, this season was pinned by many to potentially be the best year in recent memory for the program, as all of the potential pieces were in place to make a memorable run that could perhaps end with Arizona State smelling roses on New Year's Day.
Premier quarterback? Check. Jayden Daniels remains one of the top prospects to roll through Tempe in recent memory.
Strong coaching? Check. Head coach Herm Edwards has done quite well through his short tenure in Tempe, with coordinators Antonio Pierce and Zak Hill finding their blueprints successful as well.
Other key pieces exist for the Sun Devils, such as a rushing attack and veteran defense that are strong, two valuable pieces for any football team in the Pac-12 looking to win games.
There's talent littered across ASU's roster, and a good portion of that talent is likely to be departing after this season. As if there wasn't already a sense of urgency to capitalize on what many believe to be the most talented team Arizona State has fielded in some time, the ongoing NCAA investigations into alleged recruiting infractions leave a mystery as to what 2022 and beyond holds for the program, whether it be talent, structure or anything else that could potentially be impacted by any penalties levied towards the program.
So, the time is now for Arizona State to make good on the team currently playing, and for the most part, they've done precisely that. After six games, the Sun Devils sit atop the Pac-12 South with a 5-1 record, their sole loss coming to BYU when ASU departed Provo feeling as if the team defeated themselves as opposed to the Cougars actually taking the contest.
Since that night in Provo, the Sun Devils have turned the corner and have taken their play to new heights. ASU currently sits at No. 18 in the latest AP poll, and are 3-0 since that loss to BYU with an average score of 35-15. Arizona State has defeated fairly strong conference teams such as UCLA (on the road) and Stanford most recently.
With such a great start, there's genuine optimism that something great can evolve from this season.
So, how far can these Sun Devils go?
The obvious (and most popular) answer has to be the Rose Bowl. ASU hasn't appeared in a New Year's Six bowl game since the 1996 season, which of course is heralded as the gold standard for each team that plays in Sun Devil Stadium.
That of course hinges on ASU making (and winning) the Pac-12 title game. With six games left in the season and no ranked opponents currently on tap, the Sun Devils have to like their prospects at the halfway point in the season.
Yet, this isn't the first 5-1 start Arizona State has had in recent memory. There was a similar start that saw ASU drop four of its five games, with the losing streak starting on the road at Utah.
Now, the Sun Devils prepare for a road trip to Salt Lake City hoping for a different outcome since that last visit, which resulted in a 21-3 victory for the Utes.
Arizona State defensive coordinator Antonio Pierce looks to keep his guys in check despite their successful start.
“Since we’ve been here, we’ve been 5-1 before and it didn’t end well," said Pierce following the win over Stanford.
"You know what I’m talking about, just next guy up (mentality). Tough challenge coming up next week on the road with Utah. It’s always been a bloodbath since I’ve been here. It’s a physical game . . . We got to win that game. Two years ago they beat up on us. We need to be physical.”
Utah isn't the only tricky team on the slate for ASU. There is a three-game stretch featuring a home date with USC followed by road trips to Washington and Oregon State before a theoretical matchup with the Pac-12 North division winner in the conference's championship game.
It's easy to look ahead, yet that's exactly how teams get off track. The Sun Devils' biggest game of the season is always the next one, and this week's opponent is Utah. The Utes will once again look to provide a tough, physical test for Arizona State.
However, the fast start has been enjoyable in all aspects. ASU has made a lot of noise for its early performance and has received well-deserved praise ranging from local fans to national media.
The Sun Devils can go far thanks to a strong core of players that have both talent and experience to persevere through any adversity put in their way. Yes, even a Rose Bowl is well within reach for ASU.
However, it's ultimately up to the team to remain singularly focused on each respective matchup before letting the big picture absorb them. All indications through six weeks of play lean in favor of ASU not letting that happen.