SQ College Football Top-25 Preview: #16 Arizona State
The college football staff at SQ have put together a ranking of the top-25 teams heading into 2015. To get our readers prepared for the upcoming season, the staff has created a preview for each one of these teams. Today’s focus is on #16 Arizona State.
Team: Arizona State
SQ Ranking: 16
2014 Record: 10-3
Finish in AP Poll: 12th
Head Coach: Todd Graham (4th year)
Previewing the Arizona State Offense: Arizona State offensive coordinator Mike Norvell has done wonders for the Sun Devils since he joined the program in 2012. The team has never ranked below 3rd in the PAC-12 or 16th nationally in scoring offense, with the lowest output coming last year at 36.9 points per game.
This season, Arizona State looks to continue its streak of being a deadly offensive force even after losing starting QB Taylor Kelly. Sun Devils fans shouldn't fret, as Mike Bercovici is a proven talent under center. The fifth-year senior showed that he has big-arm potential last season when threw for 488 yards and 510 yards against UCLA and USC, respectively, in consecutive weeks. Bercovici finished the season with 1,445 passing yards and 12 touchdowns.
Seeing as how Bercovici lacks the mobility that Kelly possessed, the run-game will be leaned on a little bit more. Demario Richard, who averaged 5.69 yards per carry in 2014, will lead the rushing attack this season as opposed to last season's leading rusher, D.J. Foster, who has converted to a full-time slot receiver.
Losing wideouts Jaelen Strong - taken in the 3rd round of this year's NFL Draft - and Cameron Smith - sidelined for all of 2015 after season-ending knee surgery - might be a setback, but gaining UCLA transfer Devin Lucien will give Bercovici another solid target to throw to. Along the offensive line, the Sun Devils are set up the middle at guard and center, but there's still questions at tackle.
Previewing the Arizona State Defense: The hallmark of head coach Todd Graham's defenses at Arizona State has been to pressure opposing QBs with numerous blitz packages. Last season, the Sun Devils were again one of the best in the nation in sacks (T-13th) and tackles for loss (T-12th). And while that's been a real strength for the team, it's also hurt it too, leaving the defense susceptible to big plays - the Sun Devils gave up 27 passes that were 30+ yards, a mark that had them tied for 120th in the nation.
But heading into 2015, Arizona State's strength will be its back seven. The core of this group is the linebackers, a position which the team returns all three starters from last season, making it one of the top units in the conference. Keep a look out for the sophomore tandem of Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun, each have been pushing for playing time and could make an impact early on at the SAM and WILL linebacker spots, respectively.
Although Damarious Randall will be missed, the Sun Devils have three senior starters returning to the secondary. Cornerback Kweishi Brown and safety Jordan Simone combined for five interceptions last season and return to lead the defensive backs.
Really, if there's anything that Arizona State's defense could be lacking in 2015, it's a true pass rusher. Last season it was Marcus Hardison, a fourth round draft choice this year, leaving a vacancy that could be tough to fill. Filling the Devil-backer position, a hybrid of a linebacker and defensive end that specializes in pass rushing, seems to be a tough challenge for the team so far. But no matter the circumstances or the depth, you can be sure that Graham won't be any less aggressive, dialing up blitzes at will.
Three Key Games:
1. Arizona State vs. Texas A&M (played at NRG Stadium in Houston), September 5th - Talk about a great opening week matchup right out of the gate, Arizona State vs. Texas A&M has must-watch written all over it. While ESPN's Football isn't being very kind to the Sun Devils right now, only giving the team a 34.6% chance of winning, I'd say their chances of winning are much higher. This is a big opening statement game for Arizona State and could set the table for how the rest of the season could play out.
2. Arizona State at UCLA, October 3rd - The thought of getting beat on your home field 62-27 makes you want to cringe. That's exactly what UCLA did when it traveled to Tempe last year, when they embarrassing the Sun Devils. This year's contest should be a lot clo ser and could be a game that plays a part in deciding the PAC-12 South champion later on in the season.
3. Arizona State vs. Arizona, November 21st - Last season, the Sun Devils had a chance to play spoiler to instate rival Arizona, but the team was unsuccessful, watching the Wildcats win not just the game, but the PAC-12 South as well. This game is a must-win for Arizona State if it's going to make a run for the PAC-12 title. Both teams come into this year's match having split the last four games.
Final Analysis: Todd Graham has won 10 games in each of the past two seasons, something the program hasn't seen since Frank Kush led the team to four straight seasons of 10 or more wins from 1970-73. Graham has a chance to win 10 games for a third straight as long as the defense can keep the big plays to a minimum.
Arizona State will be tested early on with its opening matchup against Texas A&M and four of its first five conference games coming against USC, UCLA, Utah and Oregon. Escaping that gauntlet with just one conference loss would put the team in a good spot going forward in the race for the PAC-12 South. If it can do that, it's not inconceivable to think that Arizona State could hoist up the PAC-12 title when it's all said and done.