Ross D. Franklin/Associated Press
Arizona State senior quarterback Taylor Kelly.
Arizona State Sun Devils
Prediction: 8-4, 6-3 (Tied-2nd in Pac-12 South)
It took Todd Graham just two seasons to get his Sun Devils a South Division title and contending for a major bowl game. The offense, led by gunslinger senior quarterback Taylor Kelly, has the talent to put points up on opponents this season and make a run at a Pac-12 title. But the defense will need to step up with just two returning starters back.
Kelly, who threw for 3,635 yards and 28 touchdowns, will head an offense that averaged an impressive 39.7 points per game last season. Not only will he be relied on to make big plays through the air while trying to avoid opposing defenders, but Kelly needs to be a threat in the run game, too. He is the top returning rusher for the Sun Devils, after recording 608 yards and nine touchdowns.
Joining Kelly in the backfield will be Pac-12 Honorable Mention junior running back D.J. Foster (501 yards, six TDs). The No. 2 running back spot will be filled by either senior Kyle Middlebrooks, senior Deantre Lewis (301 yards, one TD) or freshman Kalen Ballage.
While Foster looks to have a big role as the main ball carrier, he will still be a target in the passing game, which returns All-Pac-12 junior wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
Strong, a deep threat who accounted for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns last season, will headline an inexperienced receiving corps. Junior college transfer Eric Lauderdale should be of help to Strong in the pass game, though. Up front, the Sun Devils return three starters and will look for second-team All-Pac-12 left tackle Jamil Douglas, as well as Auburn transfer left tackle Christian Westerman, as a force to be reckoned with.
Graham must replace All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, second-team All-Pac-12 linebacker Carl Bradford, team-leading tackler linebacker Chris Young, and defensive backs Alden Darby and Robert Nelson. With a lot of talent lost, it will be up to junior-college transfers to make an impact right away.
The defensive line will look to senior defensive end Marcus Hardison and nose tackle Jaxon Hood to lead a line with no returning starters. Junior college transfer defensive end Edmond Boateng could have an opportunity to get in the mix as well. In the linebacking unit, much of the responsibility could lie with true freshman D.J. Calhoun, who enrolled early at Arizona State and had a solid spring showing at the weakside position. Joining Calhoun will be returning strongside linebacker Salamo Fiso.
Like Fiso, free safety Damarious Randall (71 tackles, three INTs) is the only starter back in the secondary. Randall will hope to get help from junior cornerback Lloyd Carrington and All-American junior college cornerback Kweishi Brown in a defensive backfield that lost both starting corners.
A positive aspect for the Sun Devils will be that their first three games come against inferior opponents Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado. These matchups will give the new starters experience prior to facing more quality teams in late September and October.
The schedule gets difficult with a home game against UCLA on Sept. 25 and a road game at USC on Oct. 4. These two games could be a deciding factor on whether Arizona State wins the Pac-12 South Division or not.
The Sun Devils have a bye week following USC and host Stanford on Oct. 18, who they lost to in both meetings last season. The final six games, which include Washington, Utah, non-conference opponent Notre Dame, Oregon State, Washington State and in-state rival Arizona, are all winnable.
The Pac-12 schedule will be difficult for an Arizona State team that must replace most of its starters from 2013, but Graham should have his team in contention to win a second consecutive division title.