College Football Sleeper? Look Long and Hard at Arizona State
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For the first time in a while, Todd Graham is staying put. He’s not moving his family across the country to a new city for a new job, with another batch of angry fans trailing the plane with pitchforks and torches. Instead, he's remaining at Arizona State, where the future is brighter than it has looked in some time.
In the case of the 2013 season, things could be very bright. Other teams in the Pac-12 will garner headlines and preseason praise, just like they always do. But there’s a quiet optimism surrounding a Sun Devils team that will return many key pieces.
Arizona State’s 2012 started on a promising note, thanks in large part to a gift from the scheduling gods, although as the competition increased—especially during a monthlong stretch during the heart of the schedule—the losses began to mount. Still, Graham’s test drive, which culminated in a blowout victory over Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl, was a success given the circumstances.
The term “sleeper” has been beaten to death, although it applies in this case. If Arizona State can stay afloat during a brutal early stretch of its schedule, a breakout season could be on the horizon.
Breakout Potential: More of the Same, Which Is Welcomed
For as much as Graham is heralded for his high-powered, up-tempo offense, the Arizona State defense—particularly defending the pass—was fabulous the moment he got off the plane. It helps to inherit this kind of talent, too.
The Sun Devils allowed just 167.9 passing yards per game, which was third nationally. Much of this success came because of consistent pressure, as ASU also tallied 51 sacks and 188 tackles for loss. Both numbers also ranked top-three nationwide.
Six members of the front seven will return, including Will Sutton, ASU’s All-American defensive tackle who surprised everyone by announcing he was returning for his senior season. He will be joined by linebacker Carl Bradford—who totaled double-digit sacks in 2013—giving ASU a potent two-headed attack.
If Arizona State can replace talent on the back end of its defense, this unit could prove to be one of the most disruptive in the country. Regardless, this is not a team opposing quarterbacks will be thrilled about playing.
On the other side of the ball, another year of digestion in Graham’s system should pay off for the offense, which has shown flashes of brilliance in its short lifespan. The team averaged 38 points a game, which was behind only Oregon (surprise, surprise) in the Pac-12.
Taylor Kelly returns as the team’s quarterback, and he should improve after surprising as a sophomore. If he can build upon the 30 touchdowns from a year ago and limit the mistakes, the outlook could be even brighter.
Running back, however, with Marion Grice and D.J. Foster returning, is where there could be a dramatic increase in production.
Grice finishes 2012 by running for more than 300 yards and five touchdowns in the team’s final two games, and Foster logged meaningful carries as a true freshman and should only improve. More importantly for this offense, the two combined for 79 catches for nearly 1,000 yards receiving and 12 touchdowns.
On the Other Hand: Areas of Improvement
There’s no question that Arizona State has the firepower to take that next step. Unlike most teams not named Alabama, however, there are areas of concerns. There are always areas of concern.
For ASU, however, these concerns boil down to a few items. First and foremost, it has to stop the run.
As good as this group was against the pass, it allowed more than 180 yards per game on the ground. Given the aggressive nature of the defense, it’s not necessarily a surprise. Sacrificing some of the incredible pressure generated for a more complete group could translate into more “controlled pressure” and less yards overall. There’s enough talent up front to make this possible.
And if stopping the run isn’t keeping Graham up at night, then perhaps it’s the depth at receiver. Chris Coyle returns as one of the better pass-catching tight ends in the Pac-12, although experience catching passes is lacking.
With Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles graduating, Richard Smith is the player many believe will step up. Help will also come this fall from a few intriguing recruits and junior college transfers.
After hauling in 67 catches for 1,263 yards and 15 touchdowns at Pierce Community College, Jaelen Strong is a name to keep an eye on. This is a dramatic step up in class, although at 6’4”, Strong has the size and speed Graham desperately needs.
Having a talented tight end and running backs to catch passes is a tremendous asset, but ASU needs both speed and consistency—something it lacked last season—on the outside. If it can find it, this offense will be incredibly difficult to slow down.
Season Synopsis: The Timing Is Right, and a Fast Start Will Be Integral
The Pac-12 South is ripe for the taking.
USC is still not its former self, and while UCLA and Arizona provide significant challenges, neither is a sure thing. The conference has undergone significant talent departures (with both players and coaches), which is good news for a team returning 17 starters.
Who will win the Pac-12 South?
The schedule wouldn’t be classified as favorable, and the potential of this team will be realized—one way or another—during a four-week stretch starting on Sept. 14. In that time ASU will take on Wisconsin (at home), head to Stanford, welcome USC and take on Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.
In the middle of November, the Sun Devils will match up with Oregon State and go to UCLA and Arizona in consecutive weeks. Again, there aren’t many “gimmes” on paper, although it might not matter.
Graham has one of the most complete teams in the country, one that seemingly no one's talking about. No, you won’t mistake the defense for Stanford’s, and the offense isn’t up to speed with Oregon’s relentless attack, but both units should improve upon an already impressive foundation.
If that’s the case, the eight wins from a year ago could resemble a good first step. And a run at roses might not be far off.
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