USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
It's easy to get lost in the shuffle. Todd Graham fights for the spotlight on two fronts: one, as a member of the coaching-rich Pac-12, a league as loaded with star power as any in the Football Bowl Subdivision; and two, as a member of the coaching-change class of 2011, a group that rivals any in ability, potential and on-field production.
Yet all Arizona State has done is win, starting with a two-win improvement in 2012, Graham's debut campaign, and continuing with double-digit wins and the South Division title last fall, his impressive follow-up. Yeah, it's hard to make noise out West – but Graham and ASU are beating the drum.
Perhaps Graham would receive more recognition for his quick-twitch rebuilding project had other third-year coaches not stolen the show. He's just one of many: Graham's been fantastic, but so have Rich Rodriguez – yes, the other guy in Arizona – Gus Malzahn, Tim DeRuyter, Hugh Freeze, Larry Fedora, Urban Meyer, Kevin Sumlin, Matt Campbell and Jim Mora, to name a few.
So even as the Sun Devils storm to the top of the South – edging past UCLA, USC and the rival Wildcats – Graham remains known more for how he arrived, amid the digs and catcalls of another move, than for what he's done since he arrived.
Time will heal wounds – as will wins. Graham's already claimed 18 in two years, one more than even Frank Kush pulled in his first two seasons with the Sun Devils; he's even won some conference hardware, something ASU hadn't done since 1996. And this may just be the beginning: ASU might take a step back in 2014, but the Graham-led future looks bright.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
What's the worst-case scenario? That ASU stumbles early, dropping to 3-4 or 2-5 heading into a date with Washington State, and is never taken seriously in the South race. The best-case scenario, on the other hand, could see the Sun Devils win 10 or more games during the regular season and take a giant leap ahead of schedule. To me, the former is more likely than the latter.
In a nutshell: There was a time, back in October and November – and perhaps even in September – that no team in the country wanted anything to do with Arizona State. USC sure didn't, not after the Sun Devils sent the Trojans and Lane Kiffin packing in a 62-41 win – That got out of hand, the Trojans said. Washington? Thanks but no thanks, said the Huskies, after coming out on the sour end of a 53-24 shellacking. Washington State: No mas. UCLA: Have fun with Stanford. Arizona: Next year will be different, we promise. If only the Sun Devils didn't have to play Stanford once, let alone twice; then ASU could've been onto something. As it was, ASU dropped a game to the Cardinal early, storming back in the second half but failing to overcome a lopsided early margin, and a dropped another in the Pac-12 title game, trading the Rose Bowl for the Holiday Bowl and, perhaps as expected, coming out flat against Texas Tech.
High point: Back-to-back wins against UCLA and Arizona. Graham said of Washington, which was coming off losses to Stanford and Oregon, "They weren't dominated the way we dominated them."
Low point: Stanford. Not once but twice.
Tidbit: Arizona State has forced at least one turnover in each of the last 27 games, a stretch that dates to a 47-38 loss to California on Nov. 25, 2011. This stands as the second-longest forced-turnover streak in the FBS, trailing only Missouri.
Tidbit (Pac-12 edition): You may find this somewhat hard to believe. Nonetheless: ASU won eight conference games a season ago, giving the program just its fourth season with five or more victories during league play since 1987. Hard to believe, I know, but true.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: "This is the best offensive football team I've ever coached," said Gus Malzahn's former boss at Tulsa. The gauntlet has been laid at Taylor Kelly's feet: Graham is bullish on this offense – he's bullish on everything, I should add – and particularly high on his quarterback, a multiple-year starter who not only enters his final season as a reigning all-league pick but, as Graham himself would attest, stands as one of the most underrated players in college football. There's little Kelly can't do within the framework of this offense, which asks the senior to deliver in a sideline-to-sideline passing game (3,635 yards and 26 touchdowns) while adding carefully choreographed production on the ground (608 yards). The run-game yardage is somewhat new, particularly when it comes to short-yardage situations: Kelly was used more heavily last fall on third down, particularly when facing a conversion between five and seven yards, and became an invaluable asset inside the red zone. There's very little that needs amending; Kelly is locked, loaded and ready to roll, and only the presence of Marcus Mariota and Brett Hundley will keep him from claiming notoriety outside the boundaries of the Pac-12.
While junior D.J. Foster (501 yards) seems ready to assume an every-down role at running back, Arizona State does need to identify a second, third and fourth option in the backfield. Two reasons: one, Foster would be wasted, in a sense, by inhabiting a role that didn't properly utilize his well-rounded skill set, which includes very impressive production in the passing game; and two, Graham's running game has always leaned slightly toward a by-committee approach. Foster's top reserve should be senior Deantre Lewis (301 yards), who returned to the backfield last fall and showcased a bit of the athleticism flashed during his freshman campaign. The Sun Devils also bring back Kyle Middlebrooks, a big-play athlete best served in a change-of-pace role, and will add into the mix JUCO transfer De'Chavon Hayes and true freshmen Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. There's every reason to think Hayes is going to push Lewis and Middlebrooks for touches.
The receiver corps isn't fantastic – but senior Jaelen Strong is. Strong (75 receptions for 1,122 yards) is the most proven returning receiver in the Pac-12, a lock for all-conference honors and a contender for All-American accolades, should he add a stronger mental grasp of the position to some next-level physical gifts. Say one thing: Kelly and Strong have developed a wonderful rapport. But ASU will need to give Strong some help, and will need to cobble together some assistance from a crop of relatively young and unproven underclassmen.
One is redshirt freshman Ellis Jefferson, who was set for a major role as a rookie before suffering a season-ending injury during fall camp. A second, former walk-on Fredrick Gammage, showed enough during the spring to secure a substantial role in the rotation. Then there's sophomore Cameron Smith, a promising talent; Gary Chambers, and it's now or never for the junior; Ronald Lewis, a jitterbug in the slot; and JUCO transfer Eric Lauderdale, who will be expected to grab a starting role from the start. At tight end, ASU will replace Chris Coyle with De'Marieya Nelson, a do-everything former JUCO transfer with the ability to contribute through the air and on the ground – as he showed in last year's destruction of the rival Wildcats.
Defense: A short list of what – or who, rather – is gone from last year's defense: Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Osahon Irabor, Alden Darby, Davon Coleman, Chris Young and Robert Nelson. The losses are severe, clearly, and it's on the next in line – those former reserves pegged for a step up the two-deep – to maintain this program's Graham-era tradition of attacking and aggressive play defensively. The line is hurting most of all, I'd say, given that it's hard to project just how well former JUCO transfer Marcus Hardison performs as the full-time starting end; the talent is there, obviously, but it's on Hardison to translate that talent into production. One thing that is safe to say: Hardison might be the defining factor on this entire defense.
At the very least, this line will go only as far as Hardison can take it. He'll start at end, replacing the combination of Coleman and Gannon Conway, while sophomore Jaxon Hood (17 tackles) takes on the unenviable task of stepping into Sutton's shoes along the interior – Hood is a defender on the rise in the Pac-12, but he won't free up the rest of the front seven, as did Sutton, by constantly demanding double-teamed attention. ASU will turn the nose over to Mo Latu, a physically imposing ex-offensive lineman with the frame and brute strength to be a decided asset in the middle. One issue: Latu is about 380 pounds, depending on last night's dinner, and as such can be immovable against the run – yet must be spelled for conditioning, of course, and replaced in stop-the-pass situations. A second issue: I don't see another viable interior option on the roster. Perhaps ASU's best scenario on clear passing downs would entail moving Hood or Hardison inside a step and putting Edmond Boateng at end, or moving one of its many hybrid outside linebackers down a level.
The Sun Devils do have options on the outside, if none of the inspiring commodity. One of three options will fill Bradford's role as the quarterback-harassing edge menace: Chans Cox, once a touted recruit, Eriquel Florence, a former JUCO addition, and Viliami Latu, who dabbled primarily in special teams as a rookie. As noted, none inspire immense confidence. In fact, the one sure thing along this level is sophomore Salamo Fiso (71 tackles, 5.5 for loss), a potential all-conference pick asked to lead this entire group despite his relative inexperience. It's dicey elsewhere: Viliami Moeakiola is somewhat new to linebacker, having spent a good part of last season at safety; Marcus Washington is new to defense altogether, having started his career in the backfield and at tight end; Alani Latu is just a redshirt freshman; Carlos Mendoza can't stay healthy; Antonio Logino needs to prove he can put his massive gifts to good use; and for all his advanced billing – and he met those expectations during the spring – D.J. Calhoun is just a true freshman. In total, the front seven is set to take a steep step back from last season.
As should the secondary, which must replace a trio of all-league selections – including both starting cornerbacks, Irabor and Nelson. Losing that pair places pressure on junior Lloyd Carrington, the clear-cut starter on the field side, and places equal pressure on JUCO transfer Kweishi Brown to step into a starting role as Irabor's replacement by the start of Pac-12 play. In the interim – or if Brown doesn't meet expectations – Baylor will turn to youngsters William Earley and Solomon Means; neither is a palatable option. The back end will be patrolled by senior Damarious Randall (71 tackles, 3 interceptions), who should challenge for all-conference accolades in his second season with the program. Yet Darby leaves a huge void in coverage, one the Sun Devils hope to fill with some combination of former Washington State transfer Jordan Simone and redshirt freshman Marcus Ball. If healthy, Ball should be the pick – but we won't know if he's back at full strength until fall camp.
Just to quickly sum up what ASU is losing in Young, Sutton, Bradford, Nelson, Irabor and Coleman: 395 tackles, 72.5 tackles for loss, 29.5 sacks and 15 interceptions. That tackle-for-loss total from this group alone would have ranked 70th nationally a season ago; the sack output would've ranked 43rd and the interception total 36th.
Special teams: ASU is blessed with one of the nation's best kickers in sophomore Zane Gonzalez, the team's lone returning first-team all-conference selection from a season ago. While it's hard to project year-to-year production at the position – we've all tried and failed – Gonzalez stands as a heavy contender for Lou Groza honors. But the Sun Devils do need more length from punter Matt Haack, now the full-time option, and must land ample return-game explosiveness from Middlebrooks and Randall.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: Not that the Sun Devils' offense is entirely perfect: ASU needs to find a secure backup quarterback, locate a viable third option on the ground and develop a stronger second tier at receiver. But – and Graham suggested as much this week – the offense has the skill-position pieces to flourish in the Pac-12; all that might be missing is a cohesive front five, one that retools along the interior without a pair of last season's starters. The biggest change is happening on the edge, where Jamil Douglas, a reigning all-conference pick, transitions from left guard to left tackle, replacing Evan Finkenberg. Douglas has enough experience to not be cowed by the challenge of manning the blind side; whether he has the athleticism and flexibility to handle the corner remains to be seen. The strong side will remain intact, with Vi Teofilo back at guard and Tyler Sulka at tackle, but two new faces join the mix at left guard and center. The latter will be manned by senior Nick Kelly, a former JUCO transfer who spent last season apprenticing behind Kody Koebensky. And then there's this guy: Christian Westerman, once of Auburn, is going to take over at left guard and simply dominate.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Arizona: Let's not put a label on things, but I don't think it'd be fair to project Arizona State to make a serious charge at the Pac-12 title. The Sun Devils will make a run at eight wins, however, and could get there by taking care of in-league play during the final month. Utah comes at home to start November; Washington State comes three weeks later. Sandwiched among this pair – and a home date with Notre Dame – come road trips to Oregon State and Arizona, and the only thing as satisfying as beating the Wildcats in Tempe is doing the same in Tucson.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: It's on this offense – the best Graham has ever coached, remember – to carry ASU into the Rose Bowl conversation. Yeah, the offense could do just that: Kelly's a monster, the backfield has solid depth, the offensive line remains an asset and the receiver corps has talent, if not optimal experience; in total, the Sun Devils' attack should again rank near the top of the Pac-12 in most major statistical categories. Yet even the slightest dip in production could mean trouble for ASU, which houses a defense that cannot be viewed with anything but a degree of skepticism. Unlike last season, the Sun Devils lack balance.
There's no solid portion on defense. The line could be strong, true, but only if Hardison and Hood deliver in starting roles – and only if Graham and new coordinator Keith Patterson find some depth along the interior. The second level is bereft of experience. The secondary loses a trio of all-league selections, including both cornerbacks, and will need an immediate boost from a JUCO transfer to handle the load on the outside. On paper, there's nothing this defense does particularly well; that must be galling to Graham, who despite his history of offensive fireworks remains, deep in his core, a coach with a strong defense-first mindset.
This is a roundabout way of saying the following: Arizona State isn't repeating as South Division champs, nor matching last season's 10-win total. What the Sun Devils can do, however, is challenge for eight wins during the regular season and make things interesting in the Pac-12 – because despite some flaws, this team has the talent and coaching to run with any team in this deep and crowded conference. The schedule does hurt matters, what with Stanford coming out of the North and Notre Dame again appearing in non-league play, but that shouldn't prevent another season with seven or more wins. This isn't a stumble; it's merely a hiccup, and the good times will return in short order.
Dream season: ASU shocks the Pac-12 by winning the South Division.
Nightmare season: The Sun Devils' issues on defense lead to a five-win finish.
Who's No. 46? This team's coach was once the quarterbacks coach for George Whitfield's first notable college pupil.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014