TEMPE, Ariz. -- There are lot meanings that could be assigned to Arizona State's home game against Colorado.
Some might call it a bounceback game after a gut-wrenching loss to Notre Dame. Others might call it a tune-up for crucial game against Washington next week. Others still might just consider it a scheduling formality. ASU doesn't see it any of those ways.
The Sun Devils view Saturday's game as the start of a new season, the earnest beginning of the Pac-12 schedule they must navigate successfully to fulfill their lofty goals.
"The way I gather it from our guys, they know the significance because it's Pac-12 South," ASU coach Todd Graham said. "They understand what our No. 1 objective and goal is. That's to win the South, then win the Pac-12 and then win the Rose Bowl. That ain't an easy deal.
"So the significance of this game is not bouncing back, it's not playing better. It's developing a championship attitude and coming out and dominating."
And dominate the Sun Devils should. Colorado (2-2, 0-2 Pac-12) has gone 4-21 over the last two seasons and this past offseason hired Mike MacIntyre as its new head coach. MacIntyre has injected new energy into the program, but the Buffaloes are still a ways from competing in the Pac-12. Last season, ASU beat Colorado 51-17 in Boulder.
But the Sun Devils do not view Colorado as a lowly opponent they must brush out of the way before bigger tests. Coaches and players, much as they did last season, have insisted every opponent demands their respect.
"You have to respect your opponent each week, especially when they have something new," Kelly said. "They're doing a great job with it as a team right now, so they have a lot of momentum. We've got to come in focused, match that, and top that momentum."
The new thing Kelly speaks of is MacIntyre. The former San Jose State coach has players believing they can win and buying into a new era of Colorado football.
No matter how inspired the Buffaloes might be playing, though, ASU is treating them like any other Pac-12 opponent, be it another rebuilding program or a conference power.
"This is a Pac-12 South game, so it's must-win for us," linebacker Carl Bradford said. "It's a must win every week from here on out, because it's conference play."
That's the approach ASU has taken this week: Just keep winning, no matter the opponent. The Sun Devils control their own destiny in the Pac-12 race, needing to focus only on themselves rather than worry about other results.
Players were already hammering home the Pac-12 focus in the moments after last week's loss to Notre Dame. Though it was a game ASU probably should have won, the players seemed to move on from it quickly.
"Notre Dame was a bad loss, but we didn't dwell on it too much," Bradford said. "They're a great team, and we came out and left some points on the field. We're not too devastated by it, and we're really focused this week on Colorado and taking another step toward a championship."
Colorado is the next step, with the first having come two weeks ago in a win over USC. The reality is it should be a fairly easy step. Colorado doesn't have the depth or the playmakers yet to keep up with established Pac-12 teams. ASU may not be in the top tier, but it's certainly a step or two above Colorado right now.
"Obviously, the caliber of teams we have been playing and where they're at right now is a little different," Graham said.
Given ASU's four-game stretch against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame and now a game against rebuilding team like Colorado, it remains a bit of mystery just where the Sun Devils stand. This week won't likely be much of an indicator, but it should shed some light on their focus.
Last season, ASU came out flat against Colorado, playing sloppy early and holding a slim 20-17 lead at halftime. The Sun Devils shut out the Buffaloes in the second half to pull away and cap a 5-1 start to the season.
It's difficult to compare that start to this season's start, which should be 4-2 come Saturday. The level of competition has been vastly different, but the Sun Devils feel better about themselves having been tested so much early.
"I think we're a lot further along than we were last year at this point, just from playing those four games," Kelly said.
Now comes a bit of a breather, at least on paper. An upset would almost certainly derail ASU's season entirely. As easy as some steps in the process may be, each one must still be taken.
"You look at Colorado and you might say they don't have the talent, but you never know," defensive tackle Will Sutton said. "It's college football; anything can happen. So we can't look past anybody, we can't take anybody lightly. We've got to go out there and play our game."