Football is a game of inches.
It also a game of numbers. Yards, touchdowns, wins, jerseys...everything has has a numerical value.
The key numbers for the Arizona State Sun Devils last season were six, 16, 17 and three.
Those corresponded to—respectively—their loss total, Steven Threet's interceptions, the combined points in their losses to Wisconsin, Oregon, USC and Stanford, and the number of missed extra points.
Heading into a 2011 season that is heavy with expectations for the Sun Devils, an examination of the key numbers is warranted.
As is tradition in sports, setting an over/under line establishes a baseline for expectations and performance. From the granular to the overarching, these key figures will determine if the Devils can rise up and capture the inaugural Pac-12 South division championship.
After years of running a bland and predictable offense under former coordinator Rich Olson, head coach Dennis Erickson made a change and made Noel Mazzone the new head of the offense.
The changes were immediately evident. The Sun Devils installed an up-tempo attack that ended the season ranked 15th overall in passing and accounted for 23 passing touchdowns (18 by Steven Threet, five by Brock Osweiler).
With Osweiler now entrenched as the starting quarterback, the question is how will he fare. Can he become the first Sun Devil to exceed 20 touchdowns since 2007 (Rudy Carpenter, 25)?
There are a few factors in favor of just that.
Their entire offensive line returns, as do eight of the top 10 receivers. Osweiler will now have the comfort of having a full season of experience in Mazzone's system.
However, ASU's offensive strength appears to be at running back, with Cameron Marshall, Deantre Lewis and Kyle Middlebrooks all figuring to play large parts in the attack. Mazzone did receive some criticism for favoring the pass too often last season.
Even with greater play-calling balance, look for Osweiler to exceed 20...just barely.
Prediction: Over, 21
Over/Under: 1,000 yards
Arizona State hasn't had a 1,000 yard rusher since Ryan Torain's 1,279 yards in 2006. Will that streak come to an end?
Cameron Marshall led the team with 787 yards last season, as he demonstrated a powerful running style that worked well between the tackles. However, Deantre Lewis supplanted him as starter after reeling off three straight 100-yard efforts, against Wisconsin, Oregon and Oregon State, but was slowed by injuries during the season's latter half. Kyle Middlebrooks also showed effectiveness as a shifty runner during spot duty.
The offensive line returns entirely intact, with eight players coming back who made starts in 2010, which bodes very well for the offense.
However, don't look for one player to eclipse the magical 1,000 yard mark, as both Marshall and Lewis should split time and production, with enough action for Middlebrooks to keep defenses guessing.
Prediction: Under, Cameron Marshall with 829 yards
The Sun Devils haven't had a receiver eclipse 1,000 yards since Shaun McDonald (2001, 2002) and Derek Hagan (2003-2005) did so for five straight seasons.
ASU loses its top two receivers in terms of yardage from a season ago in Kerry Taylor (699, graduation) and T.J. Simpson (481, ACL tear). However, returning starters Gerrell Robinson and Mike Willie both are experienced, talented and have great size at 6'4".
Willie led the team with six receiving touchdowns among his 36 receptions and became a sure-handed option that consistently generated first downs. His 12.3 yards-per-catch average illustrates that fact. Willie could very well lead the team in receptions and touchdowns, but he is best as a short-to-intermediate threat.
Robinson possesses better speed than Willie, but his hands have been his issue. Despite his considerable physical skills, he has never eclipsed 30 receptions in a season. However, when he does make the catch, he is productive, as he scored five touchdowns among his 29 catches in 2010.
Not to be forgotten are Aaron Pflugrad, who runs short routes in a Wes Welker-style, and the running backs, led by Deantre Lewis, who play large parts in the passing attack.
With so many weapons and no immediate standout, look for several Sun Devils to post solid-to-impressive yardage totals.
Prediction: Under, Robinson with 810
One of ASU's greatest difficulties over the past five seasons has been in pass protection.
During that span, ASU surrendered 184 sacks, including a disastrous 2007 season in which the Sun Devils gave up a staggering 55 sacks, costing the team 382 yards and countless battle scars for Rudy Carpenter.
That number has dropped to 31 last season, an improvement for sure but it still ranked an abysmal 95th in the nation.
Can the Devils get that number below the two-per-game mark?
It all starts up front with the offensive line. Early-season injuries caused several different line combinations, but the upside of that was several players gained valuable experience. The 2011 Devils return eight players who made starts a season ago, including all five starters. For an offensive line, few things are as important as a consistent lineup.
During the final two games of the season, quarterback Brock Osweiler displayed excellent mobility for a player his size (6'8", 235 pounds) and his pocket awareness in avoiding the pass rush was uncanny.
Prediction: Under, 22
Out of all the self-inflicted and otherwise preventable maladies that the Sun Devils fell victim to last season, their difficulties on the sport's easiest play were the most devastating.
A blocked extra point against Wisconsin was the difference in the Devils' 20-19 loss.
Another blocked PAT occurred against USC, and the two-point Trojan run back was the difference in ASU's 34-33 defeat.
A shanked extra point after their late go-ahead touchdown in their hotly contested game against Stanford changed the complexion of the game. ASU eventually lost 17-13.
These plays served as painful reminders not to take the extra point for granted, even when you have a Lou Groza Award winner doing the kicking.
With Thomas Weber now gone, a battle in summer camp between red-shirt freshmen will commence over who will take over the kicking duties.
ASU figures to score plenty of points in 2011 and at some point their bad habit from 2010 will resurface.
Over the first five games of 2010, the Sun Devil defense managed a total of four sacks.
Four. In five games.
That pitiful production prompted a change in the starting lineup, as freshman defensive end Junior Onyeali was inserted and became a force, finishing the season with team-highs in sacks (6.5) and tackles-for-loss (11.5). His play also opened up the lanes for his teammates, and James Brooks and Jamaar Jarrett each made contributions over the season's latter half.
With a secondary greatly weakened by the injury to cornerback Omar Bolden, a consistent pass rush will be imperative for the Sun Devils in 2011. Brooks—a starter—surprisingly left the team last week, adding even greater pressure to the unit.
While talented players remain despite Brooks' decision, the star of the pass rush will undoubtedly be Onyeali. A short speedster in the Elvis Dumervil mold, the reigning Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year will be the key for ASU's defensive line. With a full season ahead as a starter, look for a strong sophomore campaign.
Prediction: Over, Onyeali with 10.5
Ranking 112th, 120th and 114th.
Those are ASU's national placements in penalties-per-game over the last three seasons. This horrific lack of discipline has become endemic of the Dennis Erickson regime in Tempe.
Yes, in 2009, the Sun Devils were the single worst team in the nation, which makes their "improvement" last season not impressive in the least.
Those penalties cost them an average of nearly 70 yards-per-game, with much of them coming off of inexplicably dumb personal foul calls in key situations.
With the same coaching staff in place and most of the same players returning, can ASU make a marked improvement in this area?
Erickson has made many pledges over his tenure about cleaning up this problem, yet the problem persists. For ASU to succeed in 2011, it seems it will be in spite of their run-ins with the officials.
Prediction: Over, 103rd
During the off-season, linebacker Vontaze Burfict has received most of the national attention, and rightfully so.
The junior is bona fide playmaker and a vicious hitter, the likes of which ASU hasn't seen on defense since Terrell Suggs. Barring injury, he seems a near lock for making his second straight All-Pac-10/12 First Team.
However, he's not alone among Devils that could vie for that prestigious squad.
On offense, the Devils have tremendous talent in the backfield (see previous slide) and at wide receiver, where Gerrell Robinson and Mike Willie can make big-time plays. The experienced offensive line is led by senior Garth Gerhart, who was named to the Outland Trophy watch list.
On defense, the other popular candidate, cornerback Omar Bolden, blew out his ACL in April and may miss the season. However, even had he been healthy, he may have been beaten out by sophomore defensive end Junior Onyeali.
As a freshman, Onyeali recorded 6.5 sacks and was named the Pac-10 Defensive Freshman of the Year. Now with a season of experience and a full campaign ahead as a starter, the speedy pass-rusher should take the next step.
Prediction: Over, 3 - Burfict, Onyeali, Gerhart
The Sun Devils are mired in a three season bowl drought, the longest such period in school history. Over that stretch, they've only won 15 games.
With the heavy expectations now on them in 2011, can ASU meet them?
Their schedule is tough, yet manageable.
In the "should win" category are games against UC Davis, Illinois, Oregon State, Colorado, UCLA, Washington State and Cal. That's seven.
Games at home against Missouri, USC and Arizona and a road game against Utah should be very stiff challenges, but ASU should at worst split those four games. The other remaining game is a road trip against Oregon in which the Devils will be underdogs.
Prediction: Over, 10 wins
In most preseason top 25 rankings, ASU is listed on the very fringe, typically in the 23rd to 25th spots. Given their 6-6 record in 2010, this is a very reasonable starting position.
A tough early schedule has the Devils facing Missouri, USC and Illinois on the road within the first month, a manageable yet daunting task.
Other than the Oregon road game, this stretch poses the most difficulty for ASU’s journey up the rankings. Troubles here would cast them out of the top 25 and force a mid-to-late season surge to get back.
However, with 10 wins predicted earlier, a position within the top 20 is a likely possibility.
That leaves their final rank in the AP standings contingent upon their bowl game performance.
If ASU can win their bowl game and get to 11, a spot near or above No. 15 seems likely, as only one BCS school with 11 wins (Virginia Tech, 16th) finished below that mark in 2010.
Prediction: Over, 15th