ASU has their best chance since the conference expanded to capture the Pac-12 South crown.
Head coach Todd Graham and the Arizona State Sun Devils are bringing back their high-octane offense and gritty defense with the expectation of winning the Pac-12 South, and they have more than a decent shot at doing so.
Thanks to their gritty defense, explosive offense and tough schedule, ASU has their best chance to win the Pac-12 South since the conference expanded a few years ago.
The Sun Devils quickly became a team to watch going into 2013 when star defensive tackle Will Sutton announced he would forego the NFL draft to return to ASU for his senior season.
Sutton accounted for 13 sacks and 64 tackles last season. His play earned him a spot on many award watch lists entering 2013.
The Sun Devil's defense isn't all Will Sutton though.
Sutton will be battling alongside the likes of Carl Bradford, Chris Young and JUCO transfer Marcus Hardison.
As a whole, Arizona State's defense is menacing and imposing.
The scheme ASU runs on defense emphasizes speed and athleticism to beat down the will of the opposition. It's all about an unrelenting attack from all sides.
Paul Myerberg of USA Today writes about ASU's defensive scheme:
At its most basic definition, ASU runs a flexible 3-4 defense. The second level contains two hybrids, however, one best described as a fourth linemen and the other as a de facto fifth defensive back – each spot moves between both levels, and each demands an athletic, do-everything, aggressive option.
This is where Bradford and potentially Hardison will wreak the most havoc.
That hybrid fourth lineman, fifth defensive back position is essentially a free-roaming hit machine. At least that's what Bradford made the position into last year.
The freedom of the position allows ASU to throw off opposing offenses by disguising blitz schemes.
All of this combined adds up to the Sun Devils having one of, if not the best defenses in all the Pac-12. As the saying goes, "Defense wins championships." ASU hopes that's true.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly has a full year under his belt running Graham's high-octane offense.
Add this experience to a backfield featuring D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, both were added to the 2013 Doak Walker Award watch list, and you have yourself an offense primed to set records.
ASU finished only behind Oregon in total touchdowns and points per game last season. They also finished fourth in total offensive yardage.
This year, the offense can and will be even better.
For one, the players know the system better and will likely be able to run it even faster than they did last year. While they probably won't be throwing teams off like the Oregon Ducks with their play-calling speed, they should be able to keep defenses tired and on the field.
They also can keep teams on their toes by using their running backs and tight ends on explosive plays downfield.
One question mark coming into 2013 for ASU's offense is their wide receivers.
ASU relied heavily on their running backs and tight ends to make plays last year, but they will need to have production from their wide receivers to win the Pac-12 South.
Insert JUCO transfers Jaelen Strong and Joseph Smith to a squad returning Kevin Ozier, Rick Smith and Alonzo Agwuenu.
Brad Denny of SB Nation says fans need to keep an eye on Agwuenu next season as he could have a breakout year for the Sun Devils:
Agwuenu brings a very potent skillset to the Sun Devil lineup. He has a tremendous frame at 6-foot-4 and 210 pounds, and complements that with speed in the high 4.4s and reliable hands. With a year in the ASU offensive system, he is primed to become, as Graham hoped, a "big time deep threat for us" at the X position on the outside.
If the receivers can rise to the occasion, ASU's offense will put up plenty of points in 2013.
ASU has one of the toughest schedules in the nation, with their first five games coming against Sacramento State, Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame.
While many look at this as a potential death sentence for the Sun Devils, this may actually become their biggest strength.
After all, when you start a season with this caliber of opponent week-after-week, it's all downhill from there, right?
The thing about this five-game stretch is that if ASU stays healthy and plays to their potential, they could win all five of these games.
If they do that, they will have so much momentum that they should be able to cruise through the second half of their schedule.
While it's every Sun Devil fan's dream to see ASU start out 5-0 after this gauntlet, it seems unlikely they will do so. The key though is coming out of this with a record of at least 3-2, with those two losses being tough, close battles.
This is the type of stretch that can really bring a team together and rally them toward a common cause.
If ASU is going to win the Pac-12 South this year, they will win it in the first five weeks of the year.
After the Notre Dame game, ASU fans will know if they are dealing with an underachieving squad or a serious contender.
Thanks to their stout defense and explosive offense, ASU has a very good chance to escape this stretch with a record of 4-1. Playing Stanford on the road will be their toughest test and likely where their loss will come.
If ASU can come out of this stretch with no more than two losses, teams should take notice because this team will have their sights on a Pac-12 South title. A title they can win.
All stats come from either ESPN.com or Pac-12.com.