Villa head to the Stadium of Light tonight on the back of a momentous victory at Manchester United which has lifted them up into fourth place.
And while Tottenham, Manchester City and Liverpool are all vying for a top four spot, Bruce feels Martin O'Neill can spring a surprise by breaking up the recognised big four this season.
It is a far cry from the days when Bruce was at Birmingham, when he felt Villa were there to be dethroned as the leading club in the Midlands.
But the Black Cats boss feels that, with the right management and backing from the boardroom, Sunderland have the potential to embark on a similar transformation in fortunes in the coming years.
We have made progress this season but we have been hit over the last four or five or six weeks, with injuries and suspensions, said Bruce, whose side travel to Manchester City on Saturday. I do believe we have made improvements.
If we'd been sitting here with 24 points, we have 21, we would have been delighted going into Christmas. We have two tough games going into Christmas. We will have to be at our best.
There is always an expectation here in the North-East and that is why I wanted to come here. But we have to manage that expectation. We have only been in the Premier League a couple of years.
We have to make sure that in another couple of years that the yardstick is someone like Villa. There is no reason why this cub can not follow the likes of Aston Villa. That is my aim. It takes time but we will get there.
Sunderland have picked up just a point from the last nine available, and supporters are looking for the club to get back to winning ways against Villa tonight.
Bruce is confident his squad has the ability to record a favourable result, having surprised Arsenal, Liverpool and Manchester United this season, but he is full of admiration for the work being done by O'Neill.
Bruce does not feel Aston Villa are ready to win the Premier League, but regards them as proof that the make up of the top tier in the English game is changing for the better.
The Premier League is possibly the most competitive it has been, said Bruce.
Of course there is a familiar ring at the top with Chelsea, Man U and Arsenal.
But it is becoming very competitive and the likes of Villa, Man City and Spurs are making a big push to compete. It is no longer a forgone conclusion that the top four which has been there for six, seven or eight years will be there again.
Whether they are title contenders I am not too sure but they will be my bet to break into the top four.
A lot of teams and I hope Sunderland are in there too - have had investment where they are a lot better. Martin is very good at his job. Very shrewd in the transfer market too. They have frightening pace and ability.
Aston Villa are unbeaten since November 4 which hardly bodes well for Sunderland after their recent run of poor form.
But in the aftermath of the painstaking draw with bottom club Portsmouth on Saturday, when Younes Kaboul grabbed an injurytime equaliser, Bruce has revealed how one of his injured players has lifted spirits.
It was doom and gloom around here on Sunday morning, as you would expect, but Lee Cattermole lit up training because of his hunger to be involved, said Bruce.
Cattermole was expected to be out until the new year with knee ligament damage but his eagerness to return has put him in contention to make an appearance for the reserves at Hartlepool tomorrow.
Bruce, who expects striker Kenwyne Jones to shrug off a shoulder problem to play tonight, said: I knew Lee would give me this problem which is a great problem.
We talked about 12 weeks - he has been eight weeks. He has worked like a beast to be in there.
Sunderland have Phil Bardsley and Kieran Richardson available again after suspension, with Bruce weighing up whether or not to retain Nyron Nosworthy at rightback.
Bruce, meanwhile, was yesterday told to forget about signing Wigan left-back Maynor Figueroa in January by Latics boss Roberto Martinez who said: Might he go in the summer Probably.
but until then we will keep enjoying the quality of his defending and the quality of his free-kicks.
SUNDERLAND: Fulop; Nosworthy, Da Silva, Turner, Richardson; Malbranque, Cana, Henderson, Reid; Jones, Bent.
Cash turnstiles are in operation at the Stadium of Light tonight.