Pac-12 football preview: Arizona State offense will help Sun Devils contend
The theme of this season for Arizona State is what was left undone last year: Pac-12 championship. Rose Bowl. A bowl win at all, actually. In the words of Todd Graham: "Our program's about winning championships, period."
The Sun Devils came just a few steps shy of accomplishing that goal last fall, hosting the Pac-12 championship but falling to Stanford. A triumphant season was shaded by late losses, including back-to-back drops to the Cardinal and the Fighting Kliff Kingsburys.
But the expectations for this year's team range all over the map. ASU is ranked in the preseason USA Today poll, but other preseason countdowns and lists have docked the Devils for their inexperience on the defensive side of the ball where only two starters return.
A lot of what you think about Arizona State rests on what you think of quarterback Taylor Kelly. The leader of the Sun Devils' NASCAR-paced offense, Kelly is poised to be one of the all-time greats in ASU history. He'll have some good pieces around him, including receiver Jaelen Strong, making the offense go once again. ASU scored more than 50 points in six different games last year, and although the receiving corps is heavily reliant on Strong, the Sun Devils hope some other weapons will step up.
The question, then, is what of the defense? It's a completely rebuilt operation, with only two starters back. Graham said at Pac-12 media days he like the speed of the guys filling those roles, and he's looking for a solid transition: That's the kind of program Arizona State likes to think it is.
"So we'll adapt, obviously, early in the season," he said. "We need to score points and we need to really be dominant when it comes to defense and special teams to help us grow those guys. Will we be as talented and experienced on defense? Well, no. But I do think we'll surprise a lot of people with the productivity in the country."
The Sun Devils can't throw tortillas on the field any longer, but the fans are still hoping the season's end will bring a reason to celebrate.
2013 IN REVIEW • 10-4, 8-1 in the Pac-12, lost to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl
RETURNING STARTERS • 10 total (6 offense, 2 defense, 2 specialists)
TOP RETURNING PLAYER • While Taylor Kelly merits strong consideration, he's no Jaelen Strong. The junior wideout has the size and strength of an elite receiver, but he also gets separation like few others in the league. His breakout season last year made him one of the most feared and respected playmakers in the nation.
BIGGEST QUESTION MARK • Defensive line seems to be an area of concern, especially replacing disruptive tackle Will Sutton. While Jaxon Hood and Marcus Hardison are expected to fill some of that void, it's unclear how effective they can be in stopping the run.
SCHEDULE OUTLOOK • The Sun Devils could easily be 3-0 going into their first bye, followed by a season-defining game hosting UCLA. If ASU beats the Bruins, it faces its next closest competition the next week with a road trip to USC. Another bye before a revenge opportunity against Stanford, and then ASU has a lineup of strong - but not elite - teams leading to the end of the regular season. It will be interesting to see if the Sun Devils' youth can gain momentum on that back end; if so, an 8- or 9-win season isn't out of the question. The four weeks in which the Bruins, Trojans and Cardinal all come up will be the difference between being a good team and taking care of that nagging unfinished business.
Kyle Goonkgoon@sltrib.comTwitter: @kylegoon