ASU’s Dennis Erickson…2010 Pac-10 Coach of the Year?

No, the headline isn’t a misprint.  But it does take an open mind – and a stretch of the imagination – to think this way.

But as far-fetched as it might seem when you consider that Dennis Erickson is coming off consecutive losing seasons and his Arizona State football team is picked to finish near the bottom of the Pac 10, he might actually be in a good position to snag the conference Coach of the Year award this season.

And that would make it a hat trick for the Sun Devil program.  He would be the third coach in a row from the school’s three major sports teams to get the honor.

Herb Sendek was named Coach of the Year for his success with the Sun Devil basketball team, as he took the program to a 22-9 regular-season record and finished second in the Pac-10 after being picked pre-season to finish no better than seventh.

And then Tim Esmay went from being the interim head coach to the real deal and earned his COY award when his squad opened the season with a school-record 24 straight wins and then went on to win the conference and earn a trip to the College World Series after compiling a 47-8 record.

Now it’s Erickson’s turn.

This would make it his second win while at ASU, as he was picked for the COY honor his first year when he took the Devils to a 10-3 record and a share of the Pac-10 crown.

So, what would it take to accomplish this minor miracle this season?

Perhaps not as much as one might think, since Erickson’s program appears to be coming from so far back in the race.  Any improvement will be sure to draw attention. ASU was 4-8 last year and 5-7 the year before.  The last time ASU football had back-to-back losing seasons was over 60 years ago.

Last year’s eight losses were the most in a season since 1994.  The 2009 Devils averaged just over 22 points a game in an offense that ranked at the bottom of the conference in most categories.  Their passing attack the past two seasons ranked 102nd and 67th in the nation.

So turning an eight-loss season into an eight-win season, a high conference finish, and a bowl bid might be enough to get enough conference COY votes for the man who was a National Coach of the Year in 2000 and has won two national championships with Miami.

Erickson is the only coach to be named Pac-10 Coach of the Year at three different schools: Washington State (1988), Oregon State (2000), and ASU in 2007.  The man does know how to win.

Here’s something else to think about.  The Sun Devils were picked to finish seventh in the conference in the 1987 pre-season poll.  They went on to post a 10-1-1 season and won the Rose Bowl.

This year, too, Erickson has the element of surprise on his side.  No one really knows what to expect since the Sun Devils will be running a new offense, under a new offensive coordinator, with a quarterback that won’t be named by Erickson until some time today.

But here’s what we do know.

ASU will return the heart of a defense that was ranked No. 1 in the Pac-10 last year and could be one of the best in the nation this year, anchored by linebacker Vontaze Burfict, last year’s Pac-10 Freshman Defensive  Player of the Year.  And it has one of the best kickers in the country in Thomas Weber, who gives them reasonable accuracy from as far out as 50 yards.

While there hasn’t been a clear-cut choice yet for starting quarterback, that doesn’t have to be all bad.  Erickson has a talented trio of signal callers under wraps.  He’s just got to figure out which one will give him the best chance to rebound this year.

Samson Szakacsy, a junior, started the final two games last year, but a shoulder injuy that kept him out of spring drills has put him in third place on the depth chart behind Steven Threet and Brock Osweiler.

Threet is a transfer from University of Michigan who is battle-tested in the Big Ten, where he threw for 1,105 yards and nine touchdowns in 2008 and then sat out 2009 to become eligible to compete for ASU this year.

And Osweiler is a big, 6’8″ athlete who can rush and break tackles; he played six games and started one for ASU as a true freshman in 2009. Against USC, he stepped in midway through the game and went on to complete 11 of 27 passes for 153 yards and the only Devil score.

They will be directing a new offense installed by first-year offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone.  The fast-paced, no-huddle system uses short, quick throws and counts on big plays from its receivers.

The coach figures he needs about seven or eight quality performers on the offensive line to make Mazzone’s offense effective, and claims he has those in an athletic front that he feels is underrated.  ASU will have the most inexperienced offensive line in the conference, but Erickson doesn’t appear overly concerned.

He is counting on Mazzone’s high-octane offense to put the kind of points on the board that North Carolina State enjoyed during the 2003 season when Mazzone was its offensive coordinator.  The Wolfpack averaged 38 points and 452 yards a game that year.

ASU wasn’t that far away from being bowl-eligible last season.  The Sun Devils lost four games by five points or less.  But they were a slow-starting offense last year and didn’t have an offense that could get points in bunches to dig their way out of holes.  Mazzone’s quick-strike offense could change all that.

But if that doesn’t happen, there won’t be another Coach of the Year trophy for Erickson in 2010.

And there might not be a job in 2011.