Arizona State Sun Devils
Head Coach: Todd Graham
2014 record: 10-3 overall, 6-3 Pac 12 South
2014 Postseason results: Beat Duke 36-31 in the Sun Bowl
2015 returning starters: 5 offense, 7 defense
Odds to win 2016 College Football Championship game: 80/1
Odds to win 2015 Pac 12 Championship Game: 8/1
Odds to Win 2015 Pac 12 South Division: 17/4
Regular season wins: under 8 -150 / over 8 +120
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Last season, the Arizona State Sun Devils needed to beat their arch rivals the Arizona Wildcats in the regular season finale in order to clinch the Pac 12 South Division and a spot in the Pac 12 Championship game. It didn’t work out as the Sun Devils lost a 42-35 shootout to fall to 9-3 in the regular season. ASU would have to settle for a 36-31 win over Duke in the Sun Bowl in El Paso.
This year 12 starters are back for coach Todd Graham, including seven on defense. There is no consensus favorite in the Pac 12 so there is no reason to think ASU can’t contend for the Pac 12 title again.
Last season, Arizona State averaged 442 yards and 37 points per game. Offensive coordinator Mike Norvell flirted with some head coaching positions namely Tulsa where he served under Graham as offensive coordinator several seasons ago. However, Norvell stayed at Arizona State and gets back five starters on offense.
ASU must replace starting quarterback Taylor Kelly, who graduated. Kelly threw for 2,114 yards with 22 touchdowns and 5 interceptions, and also rushed for 256 yards and 3 touchdowns. He missed three games last year due to injury and his replacement was Mike Bercovici. The now senior takes over the job full time after throwing for 1,445 yards with 12 touchdowns and 4 interceptions. Freshman Manny Wilkins is the back-up.
Last year’s leading rusher D.J. Foster split time between running back and wide receiver. However, this year he moves to receiver full time. Foster had 194 carries for 1,081 yards and 9 touchdowns along with 62 catches for 688 yards and 3 touchdowns. Demario Richard will get a lot of carries after rushing for 478 yards on 84 carries with 4 touchdowns, and also making 13 catches for 156 yards and 4 touchdowns. Kalen Ballage also plays outside linebacker for the Sun Devils. He had 42 carries for 126 yards and 3 touchdowns, and also made 6 catches including a touchdown. Gump Hayes is very fast and will get some carries as well.
Foster moved full time to receiver because the unit was decimated by leading receiver Jaelen Strong leaving early for the NFL and a torn ACL for Cameron Smith. Strong, now with the Houston Texans, made 82 catches for 1,165 yards and 10 touchdowns. Smith had 41 catches for 596 yards and 6 touchdowns. No other receiver had more than 16 catches last season. Tight end Kody Kohl should get more targets after making 16 catches for 167 yards and 4 touchdowns last season. The Sun Devils need receivers Ellis Jefferson and Gary Chambers to step up on the other side of Foster.
Three starters are back on the offensive line, but the Sun Devils must replace both starting tackles. Center Nick Kelly and guards Christian Westerman and Vi Teofilo are all seniors though. The line gave up 39 sacks in 2014 so they do need to improve in pass protection.
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While the offense was #36 or better nationally in all offensive categories except rushing, the defense was mediocre at best. ASU gave up 417 yards and 28 points per game. The pass defense was especially woeful allowing 260 yards per game. Only 22 of the 128 FBS schools were worse than that against the pass. Co-Coordinators Chris Ball and Keith Patterson get 7 starters back, and expect improvement.
Only one of those returning starters is on the line, nose tackle Tashon Smallwood. There isn’t really a proven pass rusher on the line. Five star JUCO recruit Davon Durant was kicked off the team in mid-July after a domestic abuse incident. Look for Edmond Boateng and Demetrius Cherry to start at the ends. Despite the lack of a pass rusher, expect Graham to gamble often with blitzes as he has throughout his coaching career.
Three players with starting experience return for the linebackers. Viliami Moeakiola will start at one of the outside linebacker positions. However, inside linebackers Salamo Fiso and Antonio Longino might have lost their starting spots to a pair of talented sophomores, Christian Sam and D.J. Calhoun.
Three starters are also back in the secondary including corners Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown are back along with safety Jordan Simone. The only exception is safety Damarious Randall, now with the Green Bay Packers. James Johnson seems like a more than capable replacement.
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Kicker Zane Gonzalez made 22 of 27 field goals last year. Punter Matt Haack averaged 43 yards per punt with 17 inside the 20. Both return in 2015. The Sun Devils hope speedster Gump Hayes is the answer to their punt and kick return woes from last year.
Arizona State opens the season in Houston against Texas A&M in what should be a defense optional shootout. The Sun Devils then host Cal Poly and New Mexico before USC comes to Tempe in an early season showdown. October brings road games at UCLA and Utah alternated with home games against Colorado and Oregon. In November, ASU travels to Washington State, hosts Washington and Arizona, before closing the season at California.
Look for Arizona State to lean more on the run with a lack of targets for new quarterback Bercovici. Still this offense should score a lot of points, but as always the questions will be on defense. With a tough schedule I can’t see more than 7 or 8 wins for this team. I think they go to a mid-tier bowl like the Alamo or Holiday.
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