One nugget on Arizona State not mentioned below, but potentially significant to the end-game, is the shift in the cross-division schedule rotation.
Last year, ASU played Washington on the road, Oregon on the road and Stanford at home — and lost to all three by a combined 16 points.
This year, the Sun Devils miss Washington and Stanford and host Oregon.
Stanford’s off, Cal’s on.
UW’s off, Washington State’s on.
Based on what we think we know, those swaps stand as a net positive for a program that must replace its most important pieces, receiver N’Keal Harry and quarterback Manny Wilkins.
(Links to other installments of the season preview series at bottom.)
ARIZONA STATE SUN DEVILS
2018 record: 7-6/5-4
Program trending: Up.
Granted, the bottom line — at least in conference play — isn’t positive: Arizona State went 6-3 in Todd Graham’s final season and 5-4 in Herm Edwards’ first season and, as we see it, is unlikely to do better than 5-4 in Edwards’ second season. But other factors (facility projects, staff hires, style of play) are trending in the right direction. Can ASU take advantage while the momentum is in place and the opportunity at hand? It’s difficult to envision both USC and UCLA remaining in their current states for long. As soon as one of them self-corrects, the path to the South title narrows significantly.
Coach: Herm Edwards (second year)
Edwards’ five-year win total: 4-9-4-2-7 (first four in the NFL, back in the 00s)
Contract status: Signed through 2022
Seat temperature: Chilled.
We won’t begin to guess whether Edwards coaches through the remaining four years of his contract and re-ups with the Sun Devils — but because he’s 65, not because he’s in danger of dismissal. He has full support from president Michael Crow and athletic director Ray Anderson, his longtime friend and former business partner. And that support figures to remain in place until Edwards himself decides it’s time to step away. What’s more, he displayed a steady hand while facing immense scrutiny following his unusual hire and decade away from the sideline. Rather than feeding the narrative, he pancaked it.
Key staff addition: Shaun Aguano
The obvious call here would be Marvin Lewis, the former longtime NFL coach who joined ASU’s staff as a special advisor, mentor and conveyor of wisdom. But Lewis isn’t an active coach or recruiter. Aguano is both, and he’s an active recruiter where ASU needs help the most: in metropolitan Phoenix. Aguano spent eight years in charge of Chandler High School and was hired to improve the Devils’ retention rate with top homegrown talent, in addition to coaching the running backs. (More on the recruiting issue here.)
Breakout star: Brandon Aiyuk
Considered true freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels, who was named the starter earlier this week, then decided Daniels was a bit obvious for our liking. But Aiyuk’s mention here requires context: He’s a senior, not an underclassman; and he played regularly last season (33 catches, four touchdowns). Our expectation, however, is that with increased opportunity created by Harry’s departure, Aiyuk morphs into one of the top all-around playmakers in the conference — a threat as both receiver and returner and game-changing complement to tailback Eno Benjamin.
Number crunch: 28.6.
Arizona State’s winning percentage on the road in the four seasons since claiming the South division. In raw numbers: six wins, 15 losses. (That victory total includes one each against UTSA and Oregon State.) Then again, the Sun Devils can crash-and-burn on the road again this season but reach the postseason so long as they win at least six of their seven home games.
Pac-12 recruiting ranking 2015-19 (per 247sports): 4th-4th-6th-6th-5th
Returning all-conference players: tailback Eno Benjamin (first team), offensive lineman Cohl Cabral (second team), safety Aashari Crosswell (honorable mention)
Best-case scenario: Daniels plays like an upperclassman (particularly in limiting mistakes), the veteran offensive line combines with Benjamin to form one of the conference’s top running games, the young talent in the back seven (Crosswell, linebacker Merlin Robertson) continues to develop, the Sun Devils find new ways to win each week, take advantage of the home-heavy schedule and remain in hot pursuit of Utah to the end, finishing with nine wins and a conference Coach of the Year award for Edwards.
Worst-case scenario: Daniels struggles as soon as the schedule stiffens, opponents load the line of scrimmage and smother Benjamin, the turnover game tilts against ASU (which had just 11 giveaways last season), the revamped defensive line struggles against the run, opponents figure out coordinator Danny Gonzales’ 3-3-5 in his second year through the conference, the Los Angeles schools are better than expected, Khalil Tate leads Arizona’s recovery and the Sun Devils sink to fifth place.
Here we go …
Aug. 29: vs. Kent State
Comment: Ideal first opponent for a rookie quarterback. The Golden Flashes haven’t won more than three games since Daniels was in junior high.
Sept. 6: vs. Sacramento State
Comment: Ideal second opponent for a rookie quarterback. The Sun Devils can stay basic and hide their true intentions for one more week.
Sept. 14: at Michigan State
Comment: Eight starters return for a Michigan State defense that held Harry and Co. to just 16 points. And this time, the Spartans are at home, in cooler weather, and not taking the field at 10:45 p.m. Eastern.
Sept. 21: vs. Colorado
Comment: Good week to watch the injury report: How battered is ASU’s depth chart following a punishing affair in East Lansing? Big fourth quarter from Benjamin is the difference.
Sept. 27: at Cal
Comment: Short week roadies are grueling physically. The limited prep time against Cal’s granite defense makes this assignment exceedingly difficult for a true freshman quarterback. First team to 10 wins.
Oct. 5: Open
Comment: No competitive advantage here: Washington State has the week off, as well.
Oct. 12: vs. Washington State
Comment: Struggled with this pick initially, then decided the visitors will wear down in the heat. In the fourth overtime.
Oct. 19: at Utah
Comment: Utah is strong where ASU’s strong (DL vs. OL) and strong where ASU’s weak (OL vs. DL). Oh, and Rice-Eccles is loud.
Oct. 26: at UCLA
Comment: Bruins will have extra time to prepare following a Thursday game at Stanford, while the Devils will be less than fresh in the same way everyone’s less than fresh after playing Utah.
Nov. 2: Open
Comment: Much-needed break after the back-to-back roadies.
Nov. 9: vs. USC
Comment: ASU is home with two weeks to prepare while USC is on the road after what’s sure to be a taxing duel with Oregon. The Hotline’s instincts scream Sun Devils. Time to pull a Costanza.
Nov. 16: at Oregon State
Comment: In Spanish, they call it un juego de trampa (or something like that).
Nov. 23: vs. Oregon
Comment: Total points scored in the past two matchups: ASU 66, Oregon 66. This is on our short list of candidates for Pac-12 game of the year.
Nov. 30: vs. Arizona
Comment: Bowl bid on the line for both teams, and Edwards gets the better of Arizona (again) as the Sun Devils secure their third consecutive postseason berth. The back-to-back wins in elimination games create a sense of euphoria, but signs of true progress are less clear.
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*** Up next: Cal
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