The Arizona State Sun Devils need to answer a few questions if they are going to win the 2014 Pac-12 title.
First question: Who is going to step up on defense?
Next question: Can they slow down Stanford?
The biggest hurdle the Devils faced last season was that team up in Palo Alto, California. The Stanford Cardinal moved the ball with ease against ASU while preventing the big plays that the Devils have thrived on for the last few years.
Flash back to September 21, 2013. The Devils were coming off of a huge win against Wisconsin at home. While the win itself was a bit controversial, the implications were monumental. ASU was finally living up to expectations, and head coach Todd Graham was building something that fans of the Devils had long been waiting for.
The Cardinal dominated in all phases of the game, scoring 42 points, 29 of which came in the first half. The defense forced two turnovers and had three sacks. Special teams blocked two punts and recorded a safety. The offense hit pay dirt twice through the air and three times by land.
Simply put, the No. 5-ranked team in AP's Top 25 (via ESPN.com) looked like it.
After the loss, ASU's first in the Pac-12, the Devils wouldn't lose another conference game until 11 weeks later.
ASU rolled into the Pac-12 title game on home turf riding a seven-game winning streak. The Devils had defined themselves over the course of the season as a team that could compete with anybody. Players like D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong had emerged as key contributors to a powerful offense. The Devils thought they were prepared for a visit from the Cardinal.
The script was the same. Stanford ran the ball early and often and had the game locked up by halftime.
Possibly the scariest thing about the next meeting with the Cardinal is that the 2014 iteration of the Sun Devils is missing nine defensive starters from its 2013 self. Many of the players lining up on defense this fall will be freshmen or JUCO transfers.
But there are positives. In an interview during the Pac-12's annual media day at Paramount Pictures Studio, Coach Graham had this to say, per ASU's official website:
We have 70 players out of 110 that are operating at 3.0 or higher [grade-point average]. This is the smartest team I've had. The team with the best character I've ever had, and I have a lot of confidence this will be the best football team we've put on the field at Arizona State.
So, assuming the coaching staff can put together a competent defense, what other challenges are facing the defending Pac-12 South champions?
The Devils face a still-trying-to-get-out-of-a-deep-institutional-hole USC program, a UCLA team that boasts a potential top-five NFL draft pick at quarterback in Brett Hundley and, potentially, a team that has treated ASU even worse than Stanford in recent times: Oregon.
ASU hasn't bested the Oregon Ducks since 2004, when Andrew Walter was the starting QB for the Devils. A full decade of beatdowns later, it could be Heisman hopeful Marcus Mariota and his Nike-clad Ducks waiting for the opportunity to ruin Arizona State's bid for a conference title.
While the season is chock-full of pitfalls, not the least of which being the 10 returning starting QBs in the conference, the Devils can be confident they possess one of the most potent offenses in the country. From the emergence of do-it-all tailback Foster to the explosive Strong, quarterback Taylor Kelly has all the weapons he could ask for in his bid to bring home the Pac-12 title.
It's like Jeff Metcalfe of AZCentral.com says:
"Let's just take a deep preseason breath and accept that if ASU gives up 30 or more points in some games and still wins, that's what this season is meant to be. And didn't you old-timers used to love that in the WAC days?"
Regardless of the questions asked of Arizona State this fall, the answer is clear.
Just keep scoring.