Quick, which Pac-12 team had the best record in the league last year?
It wasn’t the defending champion Stanford Cardinal and it wasn’t the Oregon Ducks. It was the Sun Devils of Arizona State who posted the best record in the league a year ago, losing just once in the regular season.
Todd Graham has obviously done a masterful job in just two years at the helm in Tempe. He has an excellent third-year starter returning under center in Taylor Kelly and a host of big-play weapons with which to surround him. But Graham also has to replace eight all-conference defensive starters.
So while Arizona State is a team that has grown accustomed to playing in marquee showdowns out West, many believe that a brutal schedule packaged with a totally rebuilt defensive depth chart will make repeating as Pac-12 South champs extremely difficult.
2014 Arizona State Schedule Analysis
Ease into things
The beginning of the season for Todd Graham should be a welcome sight. His brand-new defense won’t really be tested by Weber State or New Mexico in the first two weeks. And while Colorado should be much improved on offense, the Sun Devils should be capable of handling the Buffaloes in Boulder in Week 3. Arizona State, which gets an off weekend after the first three games, topped the Buffs 54-13 a year ago.
South Division Round-Robin
While USC and UCLA won’t play until much later in the year (Nov. 22), Arizona State will face its top two competitors in the South Division in back-to-back weeks as the calendar flips to October. The Bruins come to town to renew a developing coaching rivalry between Graham and Jim Mora. The road team has won both meetings between the two coaches and the combined scores of the two games is 81-78 (ASU). The following week, ASU must visit USC. While Graham single-handedly removed Lane Kiffin from power a year ago in Tempe, his Sun Devils were smoked the last time they visited The Coliseum (38-17). These two games could decide the entire season for Arizona State and they will happen in a two-week span early in the year.
On the heels of facing UCLA and USC — the top two teams picked in the South Division — Arizona State is fortunate to get an off weekend, because the Devils will have to face Stanford (home) and Washington (road) in the last two weeks of October. So over a five-week span, Arizona State will face four of the five best teams in the league, missing only Oregon. A 2-2 record might be considered a huge success, especially if those two wins come against the Bruins and Trojans.
Stretch run offers no breaks
After the bye week in Week 7, Arizona State literally won’t have a break in the schedule. The Sun Devils will play seven straight games to end the year. The good news is there are plenty of winnable contests in the month of November. Utah and Washington State at home are must-wins while two road trips to pesky Oregon State and in-state rival Arizona will be difficult. The lone marquee showdown in the final month is a bout with Notre Dame — who comes to Sun Devil Stadium on Nov. 8. Graham’s squad could win four, possibly five, games in the final month if the defense rounds into form and it could make ASU one of the hotter teams in the nation at the end of the season.
Arizona State should be happy it eases into action in 2014 with three guaranteed wins to start. This should allow the defense some time to develop, as so many new faces will dot the starting lineup. After that, however, things get really salty as the heart of the 2014 schedule will make or break the Sun Devils chances to repeat in the South. Three wins over a four-game span from Sept. 25 to Oct. 25 will likely decide the division race. Should Arizona State make it through the October gauntlet, this team could surge down the stretch. There are tricky but winnable games in November and even a loss to Notre Dame wouldn’t hurt a Pac-12 title run. Fans should know all they need to about ASU’s title hopes before Halloween.