5-7, 2-7 in Conference
Key Wins: UCLA, Texas Tech
Key Losses: Arizona
Saturday, October 15th, 2016: Arizona State sits at 5-1 with two wins in conference over Cal and UCLA, their one loss to a rejuvinated USC. The perennial doormats of the South, Colorado, comes into town riding on a hot streak of their own. 2015 had been a disappointing follow-up to a season that saw them routinely in the Top 20. 2016 was shaping up to be a return to high quality football we had expected from the Sun Devils. While the defense had some hit-or-miss performances, the offense was clicking on all cylinders.
Unfortunately, after the first quarter, the Sun Devils were smoked by the Buffs, 40-16. After a tight loss of 37-32 against Washington State, ASU received beatings from their conference opponents to round the season out on a seven game losing streak. They ended the year with with a 56-35 loss against rival Arizona to miss out on a bowl by one win. Despite finishing 40th in the nation for points scored per game, there was no single standout on their team. Perhaps the most impressive was Kalen Ballage who, despite having only 536 rushing yards, was able to score 14 touchdowns.
Head Coach: Todd Graham
Todd Graham has had a mixed-bag of a career. After winning Conference-USA’s Coach of the Year at Rice, and signing an extension, he left just days later for Conference-USA’s Tulsa. After a healthy career there, winning two C-USA Championships, he left for the head coaching job at Pittsburgh. After one disappointing season, he resigned from Pitt in order to take the job at Arizona State. His first three seasons saw winning records and Top 25 appearances, two of them finishing with 10 wins. The last two seasons have finished 6-7 and 5-7 with no Top 25 appearances.
While Arizona State has never been truly been considered a blueblood program, they have only had 12 seasons without a Top 25 appearance. While there has been an undoubted decline in performance since 2013, it would be tough to place Graham on the hot seat at this moment. There is a lot of returning production for the Sun Devils on both sides of the ball and, in college football, that almost certainly points towards improvement.
The offense returns three electric players: leading rusher Demario Richard, leading receiver K’Neal Harry, and all-purpose star Kalen Ballage who netted over 1,400 all-purpose yards. Combine that with a few transfer players who become eligible this year and you have an exciting squad to watch. Further, former Alabama 5* QB Blake Barnett was able to transfer to Arizona State without having to sit out for the typically required season. Barnett transferred almost immediately after losing the starting gig to Jalen Hurts. Despite being 21-years-old, Barnett comes in as a sophomore with three more seasons of eligibility.
Pro: the defense returns a lot of talent from 2016. Con: the defense was not good last year. Pro (?): it cannot get much worse as the defense finished 114th in the nation for defensive S/P+ (a metric created by SBNation’s/Football Outsiders’ Bill Connelly). The defensive front seven returns a lot of talent that was very successful in disrupting opposing offenses at the point of attack. The major issue for the Sun Devils was in the defensive secondary. As many Pac-12 fans know, this is a major problem in a conference where even the “run heavy” offenses have daunting passing attacks. There is no indication that this problem is going to be solved, either.
Projected Record: 5-7
Arizona State faces similar issues that Arizona does: a surging Pac-12 South and a tough out-of-conference schedule. Texas Tech is a pass-happy offense that preyed on ASU’s secondary scoring 55 points (despite losing 68-55). San Diego State lost their generational talent in Donnell Pumphrey but still remains a formidable opponent. Arizona State also catches Oregon, Stanford, Washington, and Oregon State from the North. On top of all that, ASU has a stretch against Oregon, @Stanford, Washington, @Utah, USC, Colorado, and @UCLA. It is difficult to project more than one or two wins during this gauntlet. I do not see Graham being fired after this, but I do see his seat heating up to unprecedented levels during his Arizona State tenure.