After nine bowlless seasons in Tempe, there is bold talk this season of a run for the Roses. Nineteen starters are back from last year's 6-5 team that lost three games by a total of eight points, and the Sun Devils are the only Pac-10 team with three returning first-team all-conference performers—Roque, quarterback Jake Plummer and wide receiver Keith Poole. A loss looms this weekend against No. 1 Nebraska, but after that the Sun Devils will have the advantage of facing their toughest remaining Pac-10 opponents, USC and Oregon, at Sun Devil Stadium.
Snyder knows that it is Arizona State's defense, which surrendered a league-high 30 points and 426 yards per game last fall, that will largely dictate the Sun Devils' fate this season. "If we get that impact player up front who can elevate our defense just a bit, we can be a pretty good team," says Snyder. "I think we have one who can elevate it quite a bit."
It's no secret whom he has in mind.
Among Pac-10 quarterbacks, Southern Cal's Brad Otton and Arizona State's Jake Plummer receive the bulk of the paeans. However, by season's end California's Pat Barnes could emerge as the conference's top signal-caller. Under new Bears coach Steve Mariucci, who was Brett Favre's mentor with the Green Bay Packers from 1992 to '95, Barnes rededicated himself during the off-season. In Cal's 42-37 win over San Diego State last Saturday, Barnes completed 15 of 29 passes for 278 yards, which lifted him to second in the nation in passing efficiency and Cal to an unblemished 2-0 record. With junior tailback Tarik Smith piling up big numbers (174 yards rushing and four touchdowns against San Diego State; 357 yards on the ground for the season), the Bears' new West Coast offense should lift Cal to its first winning season since 1993.
Texas A&M still enjoys a sufficiently exalted status in college football that some 38,000 fans were inspired to run onto the field and tear down one goalpost and mangle another in celebration of Southwestern Louisiana's 29-22 upset of the Aggies last Saturday at Cajun Field in Lafayette, La. Yet as the Aggies returned to College Station 0-2 and unranked for the first time since 1991, they had to accept this bitter reality: Perhaps their loss to the Ragin' Cajuns wasn't so stunning.
Since a 29-21 defeat by Colorado a year ago this Saturday, a loss that crushed its national title hopes, A&M has won an underwhelming seven of 11 games. Of the victories, one was a come-from-behind 17-10 squeaker over Rice, another a 20-17 last-second win over an SMU team that would end up last season with a 1-10 record.
Much-ballyhooed quarterback Branndon Stewart, who had completed 20 of 28 passes for 232 yards in a 41-37 loss to BYU, was picked off four times by the Ragin' Cajuns. Two of the interceptions were returned for touchdowns. Southwestern Louisiana also recovered four fumbles. "They didn't respect us," says Cajuns senior safety Damon Mason after a game in which he had an astounding nine tackles, two interceptions, two forced fumbles and a sack. "One guy comes up to me and says, 'Hey, little man, I'm going to take you to McDonald's and buy you a Happy Meal.' And he's just a sophomore.
"I knew we were a good team, but this was big," Mason added. "You should've seen it after the game. It was out of Gulliver's Travels, all these little people carrying this big goalpost out of the stadium and down the street."