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The Countdown

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

Need to Know

Who’s Sleeping on Arizona State?

This guy, it seems. Or am I? There is something to be said of a team that returns such a high number of starters from last season, as do the Sun Devils, but let’s remember one thing: though a year younger than they’ll be in 2011, these Sun Devils did reach .500 last fall thanks in part to a pair of wins over F.C.S. competition. Not that the Sun Devils weren’t competitive; A.S.U. dropped close games in and out of conference play, including an early game against Wisconsin — had A.S.U. pulled that game out, in fact, perhaps the entire season could have turned out differently. So what’s to like about Arizona State in 2011? Is it time to get on the bandwagon?

Here’s the number that has people talking: 19. That’s the number of non-senior starters on Arizona State’s final 2010 depth chart, the one it fielded in a potentially momentum-changing win over rival Arizona in the season finale. The lone senior starter among the position players — or the lone clear senior starter, not one listed as a co-starter — was receiver Kerry Taylor, who led the Sun Devils with 54 receptions for 699 yards.

So a big loss, though far from a crippling one. There are far more important pieces returning on offense, such as a young, talented backfield, one headlined by rising junior Cameron Marshall, and an offensive line that will surely grow from last season’s experience.

Key linemen like Evan Finkenberg and Andrew Sampson developed into Pac-10 — make that Pac-12 — caliber performers over the second half of the 2010 season. This was largely due to finding concrete roles: Finkenberg found a home at left tackle after spending the first month of the season at right guard; Sampson was inserted into the starting lineup at that guard spot once A.S.U. entered the heart of conference play.

One thing the Sun Devils didn’t do well in 2010: protect the quarterback. Finkenberg, who was starting as a redshirt freshman in 2010, will help solidify A.S.U.’s pass protection. One thing A.S.U. did moderately well was run the football, particularly down the stretch. Part of this progression is surely due to Sampson’s presence in the lineup on the strong side of the line; from October on, once he cracked the starting rotation, A.S.U. rushed for at least 110 yards in six of eight games.

While there will be open competition for spots along the offensive front during the spring and in August, the starting line should look similar to the one put forth against Arizona: from left to right, it should be Finkenberg, Mike Marcisz — though a healthy Adam Tello could push for time — Garth Gerhart, Sampson and either Aderious Simmons or Dan Knapp. Again, there will be competition at left guard and right tackle, more than likely.

It’s not really about this offense, after all, but about a defense that may very well be the Pac-12′s best — or right near the top. We know about Vontaze Burfict, the shockingly ferocious junior middle linebacker who will challenge for all-American honors in 2011. As on the offense, the big news is that A.S.U. returns an overwhelming number of contributors: Burfict, for starters, but also cornerback Omar Bolden and fellow linebacker Brandon Magee.

The biggest losses are on special teams, where A.S.U. must replace former Lou Groza Award winner Thomas Weber and punter Trevor Hankins. These are significant losses, particularly at kicker, but survivable ones: Weber instilled confidence, but his last three seasons were plagued by the type of inconsistency not seen during his breakout freshman campaign.

So there’s talent returning; there’s experience returning, with the 19 — give or take — starters returning in 2010 now a year wiser and more seasoned. That never, ever hurts, even if A.S.U. had not ended the season with such a solid victory or played several more talented teams tough during conference play.

Just remember that we’ve been here before. We expected enormous things from A.S.U. in 2008, the program’s second season under Dennis Erickson, only to be bitterly disappointed in a 5-7 finish. That preceded a 4-8 2009 campaign and last fall’s 6-6 mark — the Sun Devils have gone 15-21 over the last three seasons.

In other words, temper some of the excitement with a dose of realism: A.S.U. should be better in 2011, perhaps be the Pac-12′s most improved team, but we’ve been here before — to a degree. Perhaps the Sun Devils will fare better when sneaking up on teams, such as they did in 2007.

On a side note: Should I have put A.S.U. among my early, early list of the top 40 teams heading into 2011? Yeah, I should have, probably in the mid-30s. Poor job on my part.

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  1. WashingtonDCduck says:

    The only thought I have to share, is that after watching ASU nearly beat my Oregon Ducks in a late night September thriller, I thought for sure the Sun Devils would make more noise than stumble to a .500 finish. I watched them outmuscle and push Wisconsin around, and they were very physical with Oregon. What killed them in our game was our defense that ball hawked all night and forced 7 turnovers, a combination of ASU just being careless with the rock but Oregon as well playing incredibly opportunistic defense.

    ASU will finish in the upper half of the Pac-12 next year. Aside from USC and Utah in the southern division, who could take it? UCLA? Nope. Arizona, ummm, probably not – but maybe. Certainly not Colorado. I just don’t see much from anyone else, and I think ASU could push the Trojans and newcomers Utah. ASU’s depth and experience from last year is going to go a long, long way.

    Pundits really underestimate experience in the college game. Not always, but most teams are led by a senior/junior core of experience, battle tested guys who know how to win games. And that’s the key in Tempe, can this group learn how to beat teams like Wisconsin and Oregon, and turn the tide for a program that was once thought to be the next hot thing out west.

    Paul: Great comment. It’s easy to see why so many are high on A.S.U. heading into 2011. As an Oregon fan, you know that last year’s team was relatively close to breaking through several times during conference play. I’m just saying that the program’s recent track record suggests we should wait until we get a clearer picture of how the returning talent shakes out before making conference title plans. But the talent is there to be successful, no question.

  2. WashingtonDCduck says:

    Absolutely, Arizona State has seemed to have some very puffed up expectations going into seasons within the past few years (I’m really thinking 2000s) and have not followed through on lofty expectations. Talent alone can never win championships. I think of the current state of the Illinois program, with Ron Zook. The casual fan might not know how much talent actually resides in Champaign. Zook has a number of prep All-Americans, and some incredibly talented guys from all the country, from Florida, D.C., to throughout the Midwest. However, as he proved at Florida, just stockpiling talented high school guys doesn’t equate to “W’s”. The challenge is to develop them, inspire classroom excellence, and making sure they leave your program better young men than when they entered as starry eyed freshman.

    Dennis Erickson has done some remarkable things in Miami, Oregon State, and really Idaho back in the day as well, but I’m thinking maybe he’s run out of energy that it takes. Maybe? Not sure, but one thing you are spot on is given the football culture at Arizona State, maybe it’s time to let the Sun Devils back it up with their play on the field before they are anointed Pac-12 South Champs just yet.

  3. adam says:

    For myself, a Sun Devil alum who got to watch Plummer and Tillman lead them to the Rose Bowl my senior year, it’s been a dismal decade+ since. It seems each season they exceed low expectations or fail to live up to the hype, leading to constant 5-7 win seasons, and a bowl game every 3 years or so. As ‘WashingtonDCduck’ says, Dennis Erickson may have run out of tricks. I think so.

    Last season, the Wisconsin game saw some incredibly bad luck and a couple of terrible calls. Specifically the kick return that ended on the 1 yard line as the half ended, and a blatant pass interference non-call in the end zone on a 3rd and long (even the announcers were incredulous). But still, they lost and had their opportunity. The Oregon game was in their grasp and they gave up a season’s worth of turnovers.

    The 2011 team has tons of depth and great experience. QB is really the only question mark but Osweiler should step up and I think he’s shown some good improvement, another spring and he’ll be ready. The D will be tremendous and Burfict will have an absolute monster year. This team has literally no excuses not to win the Pac-12 South and make a serious run at Oregon for the title. A bowl game is a given. Unless Erickson finds a way to be mediocre again. Such is the Sun Devils. I’ve learned to not get my hopes up even if I am optimistic.

  4. Mason says:

    As a long time sundevil fan, I would have to say every point you hit matched what I have been thinking since the minute the 2010 season ended.

    This team has had all the tools to be good last year.

    Now, they have all the tools and the experience going into next year.

    The defense should lead the way, but if My Devils want a shot at the pac-12 title the offensive line will have to show substantial growth this spring/fall. Particularly in passing situations, Threet was sacked way too many times. When a QB is rushed on a good number of his snaps, he’s more inclined to throw picks (Threet – 16 int) so we’ll see.

  5. [...] if you’re jonesing for more football, the Pre-Snap Read has an early preview of Arizona State.  Paul Myerberg takes a closer look at everyone’s favorite argument for why ASU will be [...]

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