Depending on what happens Saturday, a team that's never gone to the Rose Bowl may wind up in Pasadena Jan. 1. The team is Arizona State, which entered the Pac-10 Conference in 1978 along with Arizona.
For the Sun Devils to earn the coveted New Year's Day assignment, they must beat their guests from Washington this weekend. The visiting Huskies have been the conference's Rose Bowl representative the last two seasons and are no strangers to big games.
They won their biggest to date last Saturday, when they edged previously undefeated but once-tied UCLA. The victory came on the heels of a shocking loss to Stanford and ran Washington's record to 8-1. At 9-0, Arizona State is one of only three undefeated major college teams, the others being No. 1 Georgia and second-ranked Southern Methodist.
While the Sun Devils are No. 3 in the writers' poll, they are no where to be found in the coaches' UPI ratings. That's because the coaches prefer to ignore teams on probation, and Arizona State is serving time until Jan. 1. As a consequence of this probation, the Sun Devils have been barred from regular-season TV appearances. A win Saturday, however, would double their pleasure, double their fun by locking up the Rose Bowl bid and an opportunity to play on national television.
That's heady stuff for a school that previously played in the overlooked Western Athletic Conference and has been on probation since late 1979.For Coach Darryl Rogers, the rewards may be even more alluring. In only one of the last seven seasons has he coached a team not on probation, and the outcast status was not of his own doing. At Michigan State, the Spartans were in the doghouse for three of his four years, and his Sun Devils have yet to get out of it since he arrived in Tempe in 1980.
Rogers is noted as an outstanding offensive strategist, a reputation he polished a year ago when A-State led the nation in total offense with 5,486 yards. With only three offensive starters back, however, this year's theme has been defense.
With one of the quickest defensive units in the country, the Sun Devils have limited opponents to a paltry 8.8 points a game in an age of high-powered passing attacks. They managed to hold Southern Cal, a traditionally strong running team, to just 20 rushing yards in their latest victory.
Come Saturday, Arizona State will face a defense not unlike its own.
The Huskies, though not as consistent during this injury-wracked season, can tighten the screws with the best of them, as it showed in sacking UCLA quarterback Tom Ramsey nine times. Some random observations
* Oregon's two big-time football schools must be setting some sort of record for collective futility. Both Oregon State and the University of Oregon are 0-8 -1.
* There won't be any battles of unbeaten teams in the bowls this season. If Georgia, Southern Methodist, and Arizona State keep their records spotless in the regular season, they will head for the Sugar, Cotton, and Rose Bowls, because of conference commitments.
* Northwestern is enjoying an interesting season of ''firsts,'' with the school's first victory in 35 games; first Big Ten victory since 1977, and first road victory since 1974.
* Earlier this season Maine was down, but not obviously not out. The Black Bears lost back-to-back overtime games (provided for in Yankee Conference play) and then a heartbreaker to Towson State on a last-second field goal. But Maine has shown a lot of character in winning its next four games and grabbing a share of conference honors for only the second time in the last 17 years.
* If you were going to mount an All-America campaign for a football player named Bart Oates, how would you do it? Brigham Young's answer was to insert a sprinkling of oats with their promotional literature on the 6 ft. 3 in., 266-lb. center. They're a sure attention getter for the picture of Bart standing in a grain warehouse.
* When Boston College quarterback Doug Flutie passed for 500 yards the other week against Penn State in a 52-17 loss, the misleading nature of statistics was underlined once again. If it's any consolation for Flutie, Iowa outgained Southern Cal 363 yards to 232 in 1974, yet lost 41-3.