TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) -Midway through his first season, Dennis Erickson already has created plenty of excitement and a chance to win an important game.
If the No. 7 Sun Devils beat No. 18 California on Saturday night in Sun Devil Stadium, it will set up a series of even bigger ones.
In a turbulent college football season, ASU (7-0, 4-0 Pac-10) has emerged as an improbable national championship contender, combining a soft schedule, an opportunistic defense and a big-play offense to avoid the losses that felled every preseason top 10 team.
``The thing that 7-0 has done for us, our players are excited, the community is excited, we'll have people in the stadium,'' Erickson said. ``At least people know who we are.''
But do they?
Although the Sun Devils are ranked fourth in the Bowl Championship Series standings, they remain a mystery outside the West Coast. That's partly because they play most of their games at night to escape the desert heat and partly because they have played a schedule ranked 97th by the NCAA.
ASU trailed Colorado 14-0 before rallying for a 33-14 win on Sept. 8. The Sun Devils spotted Oregon State a 19-0 lead before coming back to win 44-32 on Sept. 22.
On Oct. 6, they overcame a third-quarter deficit to defeat last-place Washington State 23-20, avoiding overtime when the Cougars missed a late field goal.
Arizona State, which wasn't ranked in the preseason, has rocketed through the polls without a single headline-making victory. But unlike USC, LSU and Oklahoma, among others, the Sun Devils have not had a headline-making defeat.
``They can say what they want about the schedule, but we're 7-0,'' Erickson said. ``Now we've got a long ways to go, believe me, to get it solid, year in and year out, like the SCs and the Cals and Oregon.''
Erickson spoke in a quiet atrium of ASU's football headquarters. Nearby, a trophy case sparkled in the sun.
One thing is absent: a national championship trophy.
A longtime Western Athletic Conference power under coach Frank Kush, ASU has produced flashes of brilliance amid long stretches of mediocrity since joining the Pac-10 in 1978.
The pattern was established in the Sun Devils' inaugural Pac-10 season, when they ambushed No. 2 Southern California 20-7, then lost their next game to Washington by 34 points. ASU stumbled to a fourth-place conference finish and the Trojans bounced back to earn a share of the national title.
Although it has produced dozens of NFL players, ASU has been to the Rose Bowl only twice in 29 Pac-10 seasons.
Now the Sun Devils have a chance to change the perception that they can't play with the elite. Cal (5-2, 2-2 Pac-10) will be their first test, and the Golden Bears are dangerous despite back-to-back losses. A rare sellout at 71,706-seat Sun Devil Stadium is possible.
``I think we're ready for the attention we're getting,'' said tailback Keegan Herring, who will start in place of Ryan Torain, lost for the season with a toe injury. ``It's a long time coming.''
Athletic director Lisa Love, who came to Tempe from tradition-laden USC, talked of changing the football program's culture when she fired Dirk Koetter less than a year after extending his contract through 2009. Koetter led ASU to three straight minor bowls but went 2-19 against the Top 25.
She turned to Erickson, a 60-year-old football nomad who had been a head coach at five other schools, as well as Seattle and San Francisco in the NFL. He won two national titles at Miami before leaving ahead of NCAA sanctions.
When Erickson pitched his tent in the desert, he pledged to stress defense, a big change at a school known for its potent passing attack.
The once-porous Sun Devils are allowing 15 points per game, fourth in the nation, and they have returned four interceptions for touchdowns.
ASU is averaging 37.7 points, 12th in the nation, but many of those points have come in blowouts of overmatched opponents.
The offensive line is a concern, having allowed 26 sacks, more than all but six teams. But junior quarterback Rudy Carpenter, who is 18-7 as a starter, has shown a knack for scrambling out of trouble and finding receivers deep downfield.
With every victory, ASU's confidence has soared.
``We're one of the few teams in the country that really has the ability to control our own destiny,'' Carpenter said. ``We can control really where we want to go.''
If ASU beats the Bears, it will set up a showdown against Oregon in Eugene next week. Then the Sun Devils meet UCLA in Pasadena, where they haven't won since 1996. After that, ASU hosts to USC on Thanksgiving night - the Trojans have won the past seven games between the schools - before finishing the regular season against struggling rival Arizona.
That stretch run is enough to make even the hardiest contender wince. But Erickson isn't looking too far ahead.
``This is a long-term thing,'' Erickson said. ``Who knows what's going to happen in the next five weeks? Nobody knows. A lot of things could happen.''

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