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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 86: Arizona State

It's hard to find A.S.U. photos online that don't feature numerous nearly-naked co-eds.

The defense did its part, carrying an offense that couldn’t muster more than 27 points in any of Arizona State’s nine conference games. Only twice did this group, led by a jaw-dropping true freshman linebacker, allow an opponent to score more than 28 points: at Stanford (33 points) and at Oregon (44). Unfortunately — unless my math is incorrect — 28 > 27. Using those same dodgy math skills, hence the 4-8 record. Here’s a more important number: 18. That’s how many losses A.S.U. has posted in 29 games since starting the 2007 season 8-0 under coach Dennis Erickson.


Tempe, Ariz.

Sun Devils

Returning starters
12 (7 offense, 5 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 59

2009 record
(4-8, 2-7)

Last year’s

No. 96

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Portland St.
  • Sept. 11
    Northern Arizona
  • Sept. 18
    at Wisconsin
  • Sept. 25
  • Oct. 2
    at Oregon St.
  • Oct. 9
    at Washington
  • Oct. 23
    at California
  • Oct. 30
    Washington St.
  • Nov. 6
    at U.S.C.
  • Nov. 13
  • Nov. 26
  • Dec. 2
    at Arizona

Last year’s prediction

What about this year’s team, which must break in a new starter at quarterback, among other positions? If all goes right for the Sun Devils – solid quarterback play, an improved running game – there is no doubt this team can be a sleeper, and challenge for a top-three finish in conference. However, my final prediction is a 6-6 regular-season finish, 4-5 in the Pac-10.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Arizona State’s defense was really, really good. So good, in fact, that it’s a disappointment to have seen it wasted on an impotent offense. Among the lows hit by last year’s offense? Only 268 points, which while more than the 253 given up by the defense marked a program-low since 1994. Only 119.2 yards rushing per game, 93rd in the country. Less than 335 yards of total offense per game, 90th nationally. I don’t want to point fingers, but I am nodding my head in the direction of offensive coordinator Rich Olson — scratch that, former offensive coordinator — who has now alienated college fan bases on both coasts. This excuse will only go so far, however. Now that A.S.U. has landed a proven college offensive coordinator, Noel Mazzone, it’s time to produce.

High point Back-to-back Pac-10 wins over Washington and Washington State in mid-October pushed A.S.U. to 4-2, 2-1 in conference play. Not that the win over the Cougars is anything special, but Washington proved to be a much, much improved team in 2009.

Low point A second half disaster: 0-6 (all in Pac-10 play, of course), with three losses coming by five points or less. As if losing by two to California wasn’t bad enough, the Sun Devils ended their season with a bitter loss to rival Arizona on a last-second field goal. That makes two straight Territorial Cup losses for A.S.U.

Tidbit Get ready for a recurring theme in this preview: I’m going to tout the A.S.U. defense. How good was last year’s unit? It led the Pac-10 in rush defense (108.6 yards per game), pass defense (189.0 yards per game), total defense (297.6 yards per game, 13th nationally), first downs allowed (190) and third down defense (29.7 percent).

Tidbit (Malthus edition) Bad news. For the first decade in its history, the city of Tempe did not see its population grow by at least 10 percent from 2000-9. While the numbers are not yet official — don’t forget to fill out your Census form, by the way — the projected growth is roughly nine and a half percent. Tempe grew by at least 12 percent in every decade since 1900, with a high of 224 percent increase — from 7,684 inhabitants to 24,897 — from 1950-60.

Tidbit (fun with numbers edition) Six, seven, eight. No, this isn’t Sesame Street. Six is the number worn by starting strong side linebacker Shelly Lyons. Seven is middle linebacker Vontaze Burfict’s jersey number. Eight belongs to weak side linebacker Brandon Magee. When a television broadcast shows an end zone view of the A.S.U. defense, that’s what you’ll see, from left to right: six, seven, eight. Unless an offense goes with the tight end lined up on the weak side, in which case you’ll see eight, seven, six. Which is still cool.

Former players in the N.F.L.

28 S Josh Barrett (Denver), QB Rudy Carpenter (Tampa Bay), LB Dexter Davis (Seattle), OG Paul Fanaika (Washington), LB Travis Goethel (Oakland), WR Derek Hagan (New York Giants), TE Todd Heap (Baltimore), LB Robert James (Atlanta), LS Brian Jennings (San Francisco), WR Michael Jones (Seattle), FB Mike Karney (St. Louis), OG Kyle Kosier (Dallas), LS Jason Kyle (New Orleans), OG Shawn Lauvao (Cleveland), WR Chris McGaha (Jacksonville), TE Zach Miller (Oakland), RB Dimitri Nance (Atlanta), LB Mike Nixon (San Diego), S Troy Nolan (Houston), OG Mike Pollak (Indianapolis), OT Brandon Rodd (Oakland), LB Terrell Suggs (Baltimore), RB Ryan Torain (Washington), CB Justin Tryon (Washington), QB Andrew Walter (Oakland), LB Jamar Williams (Carolina), WR Kyle Williams (San Francisco).

Arbitrary top five list

Least favorite words beginning with tempe-
1. Temperance.
2. Temperate.
3. Temperamental.
4. Tempeh.
5. Tempest.


Dennis Erickson (Montana State ’70), 19-18 after three seasons with the Sun Devils and 167-83-1 overall after 19 seasons as a college head coach. In 2007, his first season with the program, Erickson led the Sun Devils to a 10-3 final record, the program’s most wins since 1996 and a school record for victories for a first-year coach. That team burst out of the gate to an 8-0 start, but stumbled through three losses in its final five games, including blowout defeats to both U.S.C. and Texas. Thanks to that stellar debut, A.S.U. was a concrete choice for preseason Top 25 honors – including from the Countdown –  heading into 2008; however, a six-game losing streak extinguished Arizona State’s early-season hopes, and the team finished with a losing record for the first time since 2003. Another poor season followed last fall, leaving Erickson in the delicate situation of needing to lead the Sun Devils back into bowl play not only to illustrate his first season was not a fluke, but perhaps to keep his job. Arizona State marks Erickson’s third Pac-10 coaching stop, following two years at Washington State (1987-88) and four years at Oregon State (1999-2002). A coaching vagabond, Erickson has been a head coach for nine different teams, seven on the college level and two separate N.F.L. stops. In the college ranks, in addition to W.S.U. and Oregon State he has spent at least one year at Idaho (1982-85, 2006), Wyoming (1986), Miami (1989-1994) and now A.S.U. (2007-present); Erickson is a two-time national title winner (with the Hurricanes in 1989 and 1991). As a pro head coach, Erickson spent four years with the Seattle Seahawks (1995-98) and two with the 49ers (2003-4), without great success. But Erickson is a college coach, as his track record can attest. Whether this is his final season as a coach on any level remains to be seen.

Players to watch

The Arizona State offense needs a more efficient ground attack, particularly as the team prepares to break in a new starter at quarterback. The Sun Devils will turn to sophomore Cameron Marshall, who rushed for 280 yards last fall, to be the lead back. He shared snaps with Dmitri Nance last fall, but showed flashes of 1,000-yard potential: he’s not blazing fast, but quick enough to get to the edge, and has the size to run between the tackles with authority. Depth here is a concern; even Marshall, though talented, is inexperienced. Finding a backup will be a key task for Mazzone, with a pair of youngsters, Marcus Washington and James Morrison, the latter a walk-on, battling to earn significant snaps.

I could cut and paste this statement from each of my last two Arizona State previews: the offensive line, at best, will be a work in progress. The potential of this group took a major hit when senior left guard Jon Hargis tore his A.C.L. during the spring, costing the Sun Devils its most experienced lineman and the unquestioned leader of the unit. His job will fall to junior Matt Husted, a former right tackle who is battling a lower-body injury of his own. The anchor on the interior of the line will now be center Garth Gerhart, younger brother of Toby, who made seven starts in 2009. The line must get an immediate impact from highly-touted JUCO recruit Brice Schwab, who has the potential to be a leading run blocker as the strong side tackle. From top to bottom, not a good group. If Schwab can step up, if Gerhart continues to progress and if unproven linemen like Zach Schlink, Adam Tello, Nick Emanuele and Evan Finkenbery can step, maybe we’ll see an improvement. Don’t bank on it.

The Sun Devils must replace its two leading pass-catchers, leaving senior Kerry Taylor (22 receptions for 259 yards) as the most experienced receiver on the roster. I still like the potential of this group. This is largely due to the projected emergence of junior Gerell Robinson, who has found a home on the offensive side of the ball after the staff entertained thoughts of playing the former four-star recruit on defense as a youngster. He took a solid first step forward in 2009: 28 grabs for 281 yards. He’ll play a huge role as a junior. Two transfers are expected to make noise for the Sun Devils. The first is JUCO recruit George Bell, who brings a measure of speed unmatched by the rest of the receiver corps. The second is Oregon transfer Aaron Pflugrad, who joins the Sun Devils after making 23 career grabs for their conference rival.

When did I know — with 100 percent certainty — that Vontaze Burfict was going to be a star? Try three quarters into his first game on the college level. I realize A.S.U. opened the season against Idaho State; nevertheless, his third-quarter sack illustrated the speed, awareness and ferocity befitting the former five-star recruit, the highest-rated prospect to ever sign with Arizona State. There simply aren’t enough superlatives to describe the future all-American: strong, fast, quick — his first burst is extraordinary — fierce, fierce, fierce. He made an immediate impact in Tempe, compiling 69 tackles (7 for loss) and 2 sacks in nine starts at middle linebacker. He already has a head for the game, though he still needs to gain the in-game experience to match his N.F.L.-ready body. He’s a superstar, by far the best player profiled thus far on the Countdown.

The Sun Devils will insert two new starters at outside linebacker. Brandon Magee will man the weak side after serving as one of the top reserves at linebacker a year ago; he made 34 stops (7 for loss) and a pair of sacks, leaving me intrigued as to what kind of production the junior will have as a full-time starter. Another junior, Shelly Lyons, has a leg up in the competition, though fellow third-year player Colin Parker remains in the mix. I suppose senior Gerald Munns, who has started at middle linebacker in the past, could theoretically also earn snaps on the strong side. He’s best fit for the middle spot, however, and will see time as Burfict’s backup.

The play of the secondary will largely hinge on the health of junior Omar Bolden, who missed the final eight games of last season following a knee injury. Bolden earned a medical hardship year for 2009, leaving him with two year of eligibility remaining. If he’s healthy, Bolden can be a premier cornerback in the Pac-10. If he’s not — all signs point to him being ready to go come September — the job will fall to either senior LeQuan Lewis or redshirt freshman Osahon Irabor, both of whom impressed during the spring. Lewis, in fact, served as the starter during the spring for sophomore Deveron Carr, the projected starter who was sidelined due to injuries.

While A.S.U. will lack experience at safety, it won’t lack speed. This is particularly the case with sophomore Keelan Johnson, who was originally recruited as an athlete — with the potential to play on both sides of the ball — but has found a home at free safety. Johnson might get burned at times, mostly due to his inexperience, but his athletic ability, his ability to play the ball, makes him an intriguing prospect. He played in nine games as a freshman, starting one, and will learn on the job. The same can be likely said of junior strong safety Clint Floyd, though Floyd did start five games last fall.

The defensive line will really miss Dexter Davis, a three-time all-conference selection whose calling card was, simply, getting to the quarterback. Arizona State will attempt to replace his speed of the edge with a handful of contributors, such as sophomore Greg Smith, junior Jamaar Jarrett and senior Dean DeLeone, the latter a past JUCO transfer. Smith is the likely starter, though DeLeone is pushing him for snaps. James Brooks, who has the size to contribute inside on passing downs, returns at the second end spot after starting nine games last fall. With Davis gone, tackle Lawrence Guy becomes the star of the defense. A starter since his freshman season, the junior took a big step forward in 2009: 37 tackles (7 for loss) and a team-best 4.5 sacks. After earning honorable mention all-conference honors a year ago, Guy enters his third year in Tempe as one of the top interior linemen in the Pac-10.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Mazzone will ask the offense to play a higher tempo, using little of the play clock between plays in an effort to keep defenses off balance. It is imperative, therefore, that A.S.U. finds a quarterback able to keep the no-huddle scheme going, helping players rotate into action and identifying possible weak spots on an out-of-breath defense. Hopefully. Mazzone will have three options to choose from following the departure of 2009 starter Danny Sullivan, a multiple-year backup who, with all due respect, was never able to get the passing game off the ground. Each potential starter brings something to the table. Sophomore Brock Osweiler brings a big-time arm. He played in six games last fall as a true freshman — making one start — completing 24 of 55 attempts for 249 yards. While not extensive experience, the snaps he took in 2009 gave Osweiler at least a taste of the speed he’ll face in the Pac-10; every snap helped. You may recognize quarterback No. 2: Steven Threet, a transfer from Michigan, brings the most experience to the table. Threet started eight games in 2008, Rich Rodriguez’s rookie season, throwing for 1,105 yards and 9 touchdowns. The third contender is junior Sam Szakacsy, the most athletic of the bunch. Osweiler: the arm; Threet: the experience; Szakacsy: the legs. To be honest, Threet has the best combination of throwing ability and athleticism outside the pocket, though he struggled in the spring grasping Mazzone’s offense. The leader entering the summer — by a thin margin — is Osweiler, who has the highest ceiling of the trio. More will be decided when Arizona State reconvenes in August.

Game(s) to watch

Do you like seeing opponents share a clear, visceral disdain for one another? Check out the fierce rivalry between Arizona State and Arizona, which gets little attention on the East Coast but certainly ranks among the most vicious in-state rivalries in college football. This year’s game may be for more than just bragging rights: after years of domination in the series, A.S.U. is in danger of losing the state — and its many talented recruits — to the Wildcats.

I did this on The Quad a few times last year to mixed results. I love to hear from from fans what makes these intense rivalries great — especially those that, somehow, slide under the national radar — as well as their favorite moments, both good and bad, in the rivalry’s history. When it comes to the Territorial Cup, I’m asking Arizona State (and Arizona fans): what can you tell us about your rivalry? What have been your favorite moments in its long history?

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell So much is dependent on the growth of Arizona State’s offense. And that’s what scares me about ranking the Sun Devils in this spot. If the offense can be merely serviceable — good, not poor — A.S.U. can very easily reach six wins. If the offense is very good — not great, just very good — the Sun Devils can win eight games and compete for a very solid bowl. The defense can be that good. The front has a rising star in Guy, though it will miss Dexter Davis rushing the quarterback. The secondary, if Bolden has fully recovered, will be among the best in the Pac-10. And Burfict, the sublime sophomore, must be seen to be believed. It’s almost disappointing, in fact, that A.S.U. cannot put forth an offense worthy of this defense. Perhaps, however, things may turn. Mazzone has a wonderful resume of success on the college and N.F.L. ranks. Osweiler, should he grab the starting role, has the arm; he just needs snaps, it seems. Marshall has 1,000-yard ability. There are athletic options at receiver. The offensive line does need work — as it always does, seemingly, at Arizona State. I love this defense. I could watch Burfict play all day. But I continue to have reservations about the offense. All told, I feel more confident predicting A.S.U. to finish in the bottom third of the Pac-10 than I do predicting a bowl trip in 2010.

Dream season New offense, new results: 9-3, 6-3 in conference play.

Nightmare season The Sun Devils, still a mess on offense, fail to recapture the success of last year’s defense. Not quite a fitting farewell for Erickson, who steps down at the end of a three-win season.

In case you were wondering

Where do Arizona State fans congregate? A number of solid options for the Web-savvy A.S.U. fan: ASU Devils and Devils Digest for recruiting coverage; Cactus Ranch as a solid independent site; and Pitchfork Nation and House of Sparky for the blog lovers.

Tidbit (100-word preview edition) It’s that time again. Here’s how it works: I give you a quiz question; you become the first person to answer the question in the comment field below; you win the opportunity to pen a 100-word preview of your favorite team when it appears on the Countdown. Get it? Good. Here’s the question:

Arizona State has the 14th-highest winning percentage since 1950 of any program in major college football, not including programs — like Boise State — that did not begin play until after 1950. A.S.U. is also one of only two programs to play football west of the Rockies, joining Southern California. Can you name which conference has the most programs on this top 15 list? Can you name which conference has the second-most? No partial credit awarded.

Teams already spoken for: Texas Tech (Freakville), Texas A&M (Dr. Norris Camacho), Virginia Tech (James) and Washington (Dr. Klahn).

Up Next

Who is No. 85? Our next school is perhaps the only one in the nation that requires each of its more than 4,500 students participate in a team sport every semester.

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  1. jjtiller says:

    SEC has the most with five programs (Bama, Vols, Gators, Auburn, Georgia), Big Ten and Big XII to tie for the second place with three. Btw the most winningest is the Buckeyes since 1950

    Paul: JJ, our Hungarian football expert. Last year you choose Wake Forest. Same team this year?

  2. jjtiller says:

    Yes, thank you :)

  3. Lane says:

    Is Butler No.85?

  4. No 85. – ARMY.
    that’s right

  5. Dave says:

    “It’s hard to find A.S.U. photos online that don’t feature numerous nearly-naked co-eds.”

    You say this like its a problem.

  6. katster says:

    I was going to say the SEC and then the Big 10 in that order, but going with the Big 10 over the Big 12 is sheer guesswork. (Either that or my natural Cal bias against Texas is showing…)


  7. [...] week that was began with Arizona State (No. 86), the second Pac-10 program to come off the board. Washington State dropped all the way [...]

  8. Sparks says:

    Oh noooo, we suck again!!

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