So the Arizona State Sun Devils are right about where they were last October, when they breezed through Salt Lake City, seemingly on their way to big things.
They stood 5-1 overall and 3-0 in conference play after a convincing win over Utah, looking like sure winners of the Pac-12 South title.
Instead, ASU crumbled in November, and coach Dennis Erickson was fired.
The current Sun Devils actually have accomplished less than the 2011 team to this point, considering ASU already had beaten USC last season. Having defeated only Utah, California and Colorado in the Pac-12, they'll step up in class Thursday night when they host No. 2 Oregon in Tempe.
"It's a big gauge," said ASU coach Todd Graham. "Obviously, we'll find out exactly where we're at no question, because this is as good as it gets."
Last October, ASU followed its win at Utah with a 41-27 loss at Oregon, which was not devastating in itself. The real problems for Erickson came after the Sun Devils beat Colorado in their next game. They repeatedly collapsed in the fourth quarters of losses to UCLA, Washington State, Arizona and Cal.
The Sun Devils of 2012 should have much more staying power. In that sense, Thursday's game is not as important as what happens afterward, notably a Nov. 10 trip to USC that could determine the South's qualifier for the conference championship game. This stretch of the schedule against Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC certainly gives ASU an opportunity to validate Graham's nice start with the program.
ASU is staging what's seemingly become a mandatory "Blackout" promotion and expects a sellout crowd of about 72,000 at Sun Devil Stadium for the Ducks' visit. There are signs that the Sun Devils' improved defense will give them a chance to hang with Oregon. But nobody can say that for sure, considering the caliber of offenses ASU has faced to date.
The Sun Devils are eighth in the country in total defense, allowing 272.7 yards. Oregon's No. 8 ranking in total offense (541.7 yards) appears to be far more genuine.
Having said that, ASU's defense is very athletic and aggressive. The Sun Devils are led by tackle Will Sutton, who has 8.5 sacks in six games, and he's not the only high-level defender. Most coaches know opposing players only by their numbers, but Oregon's Chip Kelly rattled off a bunch of names of ASU defensive players during the Pac-12 teleconference Tuesday.
Graham, the former Tulsa and Pittsburgh coach, has his team playing sound, consistent football in contrast to the undisciplined Erickson era. He obviously inherited some talent and is maximizing it. "The cupboard was full," said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham, who clarified that comment as a tribute to Erickson's recruiting, not an indictment of his coaching.
But it's accurate, either way. The Sun Devils are positioned to challenge USC in the South, regardless of how they do Thursday against the best team from the North.