Todd Graham begins his sixth season as Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Thursday against New Mexico State, but it's a new-look season in Tempe with first-year coordinators overseeing both the offense and defense.
Billy Napier arrives from Alabama to take over as the third offensive coordinator in as many seasons. Phil Bennett is in charge of a defense that struggled mightily the past two campaigns – both of which resulted in sub-.500 finishes for the Sun Devils.
After those back-to-back disappointments, the pressure is on Graham to lead a rebound in 2017. The first step on the road back to Pac-12 contention comes against New Mexico State, an Arizona State counterpart many years ago in the old Border Conference.
Much has changed in the decades since, and for New Mexico State, arguably the biggest change yet looms after this season. The Aggies move into independence in the 2018 season. In the meantime, they hope to break through in Sun Belt Conference play for the program's first bowl game in 57 years.
New Mexico State at Arizona State
Kickoff: Thursday, Aug. 31 at 10:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona State -23
Three Things to Watch
1. Arizona State’s ongoing quarterback situation
Returning starting quarterback Manny Wilkins was named the No. 1 for the opener, but do not assume the position is settled. Wilkins beat out Alabama transfer Blake Barnett, a former 5-star recruit from Southern California.
Barnett's impressive bona fides coming out of high school added a layer of intrigue to the offseason competition, though he lacks the collegiate credentials of his teammate. Wilkins passed for 12 touchdowns and rushed for five in 2016, showing flashes of brilliance despite injuries.
With the Sun Devils likely to overmatch New Mexico State, don't be surprised to see both take significant snaps.
2. Defensive adjustments
Arizona State struggled mightily against the pass each of the previous two seasons, finishing dead last in FBS (128 teams) in both of those campaigns. However, it was a porous performance against the rush that sent the Sun Devils into the offseason on a sour note, with rival Arizona rolling up 511 yards on the ground in last November's regular-season finale.
New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett's adjustments made in the offseason will get their first test against game competition. And while it might be easy to dismiss the challenge New Mexico State could pose, don't overlook Aggies running back Larry Rose III.
Rose rushed for 1,651 yards and 14 touchdowns in 2015, powering NMSU in a strong finish to that campaign. His 2016 was injury-shortened, but he still averaged 5.4 yards per attempt.
3. Carries to go around
The many options Arizona State has in the running game might be the greatest strength for this team. Wilkins has demonstrated an ability to move outside of the pocket, while running backs Demario Richard (above, right) and Kalen Ballage have each shown elite-level ability for stretches in their respective Sun Devil careers.
New offensive coordinator Billy Napier won't need to call on any of his starters too heavily if all goes according to plan. In fact, it's best for Arizona State if the play-calling is relatively vanilla with a stout San Diego State defense visiting Tempe next week. Still, the early sequences could offer a glimpse into Arizona State's plan for using its multi-dimensional rushing attack. How often will Wilkins' number called? Is Richard poised to be a feature back? How much Sparky formation will Ballage see?
While New Mexico State has improved measurably in the last few seasons under head coach Doug Martin, climbing from the bottom of the FBS to challenge some of its Sun Belt counterparts, the Aggies simply are not built to contend with a Pac-12 opponent like Arizona State.
This Week 1 matchup is a prime opportunity for Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham's new staff to get game film on some of the points of emphasis they are teaching in practices. Plenty of Sun Devils should see snaps, too, as Arizona State's talent advantage should translate into a big lead very early in the contest.