Arizona State is led by one of the most underrated coaches in college football – Todd Graham – who led the Sun Devils to their first bowl win in seven years during his inaugural season in Tempe. Coming off a 10-3 season last year (including a bowl win over Duke) and with sixteen returning starters, Graham has a legitimate playoff contender on his hands.
Arizona State’s success on offense begins with senior quarterback Mike Bercovici, who came off the bench last season for an injured Taylor Kelly and threw for 1,445 yards (61.8%; 12-4). Bercovici provided the Sun Devils with an immediate spark, completing 42 of his 68 pass attempts against UCLA before defeating both USC (38-34) and Stanford (26-10).
The loss of wide receiver Jaelen Strong to the NFL Draft hurts the Sun Devils’ attack as he garnered 1,165 yards (14.2) in twelve starts last season. However, the return of both DJ Foster, who moved out of the backfield last season, and Ellis Jefferson both return for what should be an average wide receiving unit.
With Foster becoming a wide receiver, Arizona State’s backfield will now rely upon sophomore Demario Richard, who finished second on the team in rushing yards as a true freshman. The coaching staff remains optimistic about Richard, especially following his performance versus Utah against whom he compiled 116 rushing yards in a 19-16 Arizona State win in overtime.
My greatest concern for Arizona State is its attrition along the offensive line. Gone are 70 career starts courtesy of Jamil Douglas and Tyler Sulka, although the Sun Devils do return eight of their top 10 linemen, including center Nick Kelly. Arizona State has one of the weakest offensive lines and running games in the Pac-12 this season.
The strength of Arizona State’s defense is its front seven, particularly its defensive line that returns seven of its top 8 contributors from last year. Marcus Hardison’s departure to the NFL certainly impacts the Sun Devils’ pass rush, but the returning members along the line will remain strong under defensive coordinators Chris Ball and Keith Patterson.
Arizona State also boasts one of the Pac-12’s best linebacking units behind Salamo Fiso, who was the team’s #3 tackler in 2014. Insiders have also been extremely impressed with coach Graham’s recruiting during the off-season and believe he has strengthened the Sun Devils’ linebacking corp.
The Sun Devils also return 7 of their top eight defensive backs, including safety Jordan Simone and cornerback Lloyd Carrington. With that said, Arizona State lost its best safety in Damarious Randall, who led the team in tackles and was drafted by the Green Bay Packers. Despite the loss of Randall, I expect the Sun Devils’ to produce better numbers against the pass this season.
There is no question that Arizona State is a legitimate Pac-12 Title contender, and some would argue that the Sun Devils could find themselves in the playoff discussion in November. The key will be getting passed both USC (at home) and UCLA (on the road) in consecutive weeks (September 26 & October 3, respectively).