Todd Graham is unambiguous about his ambitions for the Arizona State football program. The head coach talks of pursuing Pac-12 and national championships, and in three years with the Sun Devils, he’s had the west’s sleeping giant on the cusp of those goals.
The 2015 season could be Arizona State’s best opportunity yet to take the next step with a Pac-12 title and berth in the College Football Playoff. The Sun Devils return the conference’s second-most veteran starting roster, rife with potential breakout stars.
On the flip side, Arizona State must establish itself in one of, if not the deepest and most competitive divisions in college football. The Sun Devils are up against four other teams that finished the 2014 season with at least nine wins and ranked in the final polls.
Three Reasons Why Arizona State Will Make the College Football Playoff
1. An Explosive Offense Stacked at Skill Positions
Sun Devils offensive coordinator Mike Norvell operates one of the most effectively unpredictably — or unpredictably effective — offenses in college football. Arizona State has ranked no lower than No. 16 nationally in points per game each of Norvell’s three seasons in Tempe.
The 2015 offense may be his best yet.
Demario Richard moves into the feature back role, with jack-of-all-trades D.J. Foster transitioning to receiver in response to losing All-American Jaelen Strong. Foster proved himself a more than capable pass catcher the previous three years at running back, while Richard has a two-way rushing and receiving skill set reminiscent of 2013 star Marion Grice.
Grice tied the program record for touchdowns in a season with 22 before suffering an injury in the penultimate game of the campaign.
With high-potential playmakers at the skill positions, and three returning starters on the offensive line, the x-factor that will decide the productivity of the offense is quarterback Mike Bercovici. Bercovici spelled three-year starter Taylor Kelly in various stretches last season, leading a fourth-quarter comeback to beat USC and nearly mounting a rally against rival Arizona.
Graham’s first priority upon taking over for Dennis Erickson after the 2011 season was cultivating a more disciplined attitude. Arizona State finished dead last that season not only in a heavily penalized Pac-12, but also in all of college football, averaging 79.8 yards worth of flags per game.
Graham’s message resonated immediately. Players come out for penalties, so his Sun Devils have responded by becoming the least-flagged team in the conference. Last season, Arizona State garnered just 32.4 yards of laundry per game.
In a perhaps fitting twist, Arizona State sealed its spot in the 2013 Pac-12 Championship Game in part because of penalties. UCLA had possession with a chance to win in the final drive, but a series of holding calls against the Bruins pushed them back and allowed the Sun Devils' front seven to tee off in the waning seconds.
Arizona State has seen firsthand the value of keeping penalties low, and in the flag-happy Pac-12, it could mean the difference in winning a title and not.
3. Key Pac-12 Games at Home
Make no mistake: Arizona State plays a tough schedule. After opening with Texas A&M, the Sun Devils get USC and UCLA back-to-back in the first two weeks of Pac-12 play.
Arizona State also sees defending conference champion Oregon in cross-divisional action. The Sun Devils haven’t beaten the Ducks since 2004.
While the above could easily be chalked up as a reason the Sun Devils won’t reach the College Football Playoff, successfully navigating such treacherous water almost assures Arizona State voyage into the Promised Land. And, if you’re going to play a resume-building schedule, you might as well get as many key games at home as possible.
Arizona State opens its Pac-12 slate hosting USC, gets Oregon in Sun Devil Stadium on a Thursday night in late October, and also draws rival Arizona at home. Of the biggest games on the docket in Pac-12 play, only UCLA is on the road — and the Sun Devils have won their last two times in Los Angeles (at UCLA in 2013, at USC last October).
Arizona State's 2015 Schedule
Athlon Projected Rank for 2015
vs. Texas A&M*
*Neutral-site game in Houston, Texas
Three Reasons Why Arizona State Will Not Make the College Football Playoff
1. Defensive Question Marks
After an impressive 2013, in which Arizona State rode Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year Will Sutton, the Sun Devils had to replace 10 starters going into 2014. The result was a step backward both in points allowed and sacks, the bread-and-butter of this defense.
While Arizona State is considerably more experienced on that side of the ball this season, returning nine starters, there are still some questions that need to be addressed — and fast, with high-scoring Texas A&M kicking off the Sun Devils’ 2015 season.
The dismissal of 5-star recruit Davon Durant this offseason leaves ASU still seeking a reliable answer at devil backer. The devil backer position is integral to the blitz-heavy scheme Graham favors. Carl Bradford manned it expertly in 2013, stunting as well as he blitzed and knowing when to pull back the reins.
While aggression is key to the Sun Devils' style, over-aggression leaves Arizona State open to big plays, and last season, this unit gave up 51 plays of 20-plus yards (No. 116 nationally), 27 of 30-plus yards (No. 120) and 12 of 40-plus yards (No. 94).
2. Losing An Element in the Run Game
Bercovici was impressive in relief of Kelly, sure, but he’s never been "The Man" for the Sun Devils. Taking over as the No. 1 quarterback full-time is a whole different set of challenges and pressures separate from playing backup.
In his first career start, last September against UCLA, Bercovici threw three touchdown passes and for 488 yards; he was also intercepted twice, including once at the goal line before halftime in a pivotal swing that the Bruins rode to an easy win.
More importantly for the overall outlook of Arizona State’s season is that Bercovici is a much different style quarterback than Kelly, the No. 1 throughout Graham’s tenure to date. Kelly played a key role in the rushing attack, going for 516 and 608 yards in 2012 and '13. He was slowed by his foot injury last season, yet managed three touchdowns and 256 yards rushing.
Bercovici is not a runner, and Michael Eubank — used occasionally in goal-line and short-yardage packages in 2012 and '13 — transferred out of the program before last week.
Arizona State faces adjustment to this new style, and its brutal schedule allows for little acclimation time if the Sun Devils are going to compete for the Playoff.
3. Weak Replacing Strong
Few receivers in college football last season were as vital to their team’s passing game as Jaelen Strong was to Arizona State. Strong’s 82 receptions and 1,165 yards accounted for 29 and 33 percent of the Sun Devils' passing offense, respectively.
Foster’s move to receiver is meant to help address the loss of Strong, and the converted running back is indeed Arizona State’s top returning receiver. But Foster will operate out of the slot, leaving the Sun Devils in search of that reliable, possession receiver in hopes of replacing Strong's production.
Someone adequately filling this role is especially important, given the move to more emphasis on the passing game with the drop-back quarterback Bercovici behind center.
Athlon’s Projected Final Ranking: 13
Athlon’s Projected Final Record: 9-3
Bovada Projected Over/Under Odds: 8.5
CG Technology Over/Under Odds: 8
5 Dimes Projected Over/Under Odds: 8.5