The secondary is a question, but the front seven should be strong enough to make this the Pac-10's most underrated defense.
You definitely didn't think of Arizona State, nor did I. In my mind, the Devils have always been able to throw it well enough, but they had an obvious Achilles heel. They simply were not gritty enough defensively to ever win a big game, and so they would always have the type of solid, eight-win seasons that end in Holiday Bowl trips. Seeing Arizona State score 35 against Stanford in 2005, only to still lose by ten, forged an impression I'd long remember – I made myself promise to never predict great things out of this team until their defense gave me a reason to believe.
And the stats backed up my perception almost to a T. The last five years of the Dirk Koetter era (which ended after the 2006 season), Arizona State gave up over 25 points per game four times, but scored at least 25 per game in four of those seasons too. Thus, the Devils had four winning seasons, but never won more than nine games, and, sure enough, played in a Holiday Bowl. You just knew: death, taxes and Arizona State taking fourth in the Pac-10.
But then Dennis Erickson arrived, and the squad, especially the defense, started to play with a discipline, with a fire they hadn't before. Aided by a soft out-of-conference schedule and some good, old-fashioned luck, the Devils posted their first 10-win season and snagged a share of their first Pac-10 title since Jake Plummer was quarterback in 1997. (Ironically, the 2007 season ended with Texas running up 52 points against the Devils in, where else, the Holiday Bowl. Guess Erickson still has some work to do.)
The point of this crash course in history is that last year was notable for ASU not because of the offense, which put up the same solid numbers it has for years, at 32 points and 400 yards per game. Instead, it was the defense turning heads by finishing off a quantum leap that started the year before.
In 2005, ASU gave up 30 points, 180 rush yards and 289 pass yards per game. The defense had tightened by 2007 such that opponents managed just 22.5 points, 116 rush yards and 229 yards through the air. Arizona State, the perennial defensive also-ran, finished behind only USC and Oregon State in Pac-10 rush yards and points per game, and set the stage for even bigger expectations this year.
It's ironic then that Arizona State is the consensus pick for second in the 2008 Pac-10 (I have them fourth) because of its returning skill position players, but Joe Public might turn out to be right after all – but because of the improved defense under Erickson.
The strength of the unit is the front seven, where five starters return, including 2007 Second Team All-Pac-10 end Dexter Davis. Davis is joined, in true ASU fashion, by a litany of transfers from Pac-10 colleges and JUCOs, including end Eugene Germany (USC), linebacker Mike Nixon (UCLA), senior end Luis Vasquez (JUCO) and senior linebacker Morris Wooten (JUCO). All but Germany are likely starters. The fresh faces will have to fill the hole left by Robert James, the team's defensive MVP (106 tackles in 2007, 35 better than any teammate), and fifth-round NFL Draft pick.
Another key up front is 6'5", 270-pound tackle Lawrence Guy, who could well start as a true freshman because the DT depth is relatively thin after senior David Smith. DT's probably the most underrated position on the field (See: Glenn Dorsey and LSU's national title. See also: Sedrick Ellis and USC's run) and a mighty tough position to learn that quickly: If he's called upon up front, Guy will likely be the only true frosh starting at defensive tackle in the entire conference. Still, Guy's performance and James' departure are the only question marks on a unit that was quietly one of the best in the Pac-10 last year. It won't top USC's rush D, but with Oregon State returning only three defensive starters, Arizona State's rush D should be a clear-cut second in the league.
Combine Arizona State's front seven with Oregon's backfield (which national publications are calling the best in the country) and Pete Carroll might have reason to worry. As is though, the secondary loses two key starters from last year, reason to think it might backtrack to its Koetter levels.
Gone are two draft picks, corner Justin Tyron and safety Josh Barrett. Against one of the tougher schedules in the country, ASU forced nearly as many picks (17) as it allowed passing TDs (18) last year, and just 53 percent of passes were completed, down from 60 percent two years earlier. Free safety Troy Nolan, Second Team All-Pac-10 for his six picks last year, will obviously do just fine this season, and sophomore Omar Bolden should only improve after starting nine games as a true frosh, but there are questions at the other two positions. Terell Carr, a JUCO who arrived in spring, may be the answer opposite Bolden at corner, and JUCO transfer Max Tabach may also help shore up safety. Still, JUCOs are somewhat of a canary in a coal mine: any year a school brings in two DBs from the junior college pipeline, as ASU did this past offseason, you know the staff is worried about the unit.
Bottom line: between ASU usually leading its opponents and the strength of the front seven, look for this secondary to have to defend more passes than anyone in the Pac-10. (Only UCLA's secondary faced more passes last season, and the Bruins aren't going to be leading too many teams this year.) How well the secondary can play the pass could make the difference between second and fifth in the league.
Fourth Down: Extra Points
How about kicker Thomas Weber, who won the Groza award as a redshirt freshman last year? While his net punting average of 33 yards was nothing special, he hit 24-of-25 field goals to be named First Team All-Pac-10. He's a big reason Arizona State went 3-0 in close games in 2007, and he's a good reason to think that ASU might do better than most teams in games that come down to the wire this season. Maybe 7-2 in conference wasn't a total fluke after all.
The flip side of the special teams coin is with Weber's inevitable return to earth this year and return man Rudy Burgess' departure, ASU's special teams may still be strong, but they can't be as dominant as in 2007.
Arizona State got incredibly lucky with the timing of its schedule. The Devils have three byes this season; no Pac-10 team has more. Plus, the games right after the byes are among ASU's biggest: at Cal, vs. Oregon and vs. UCLA. The Devils also have vs. Georgia, at USC and vs. Washington State right before a bye, so players that might otherwise be held out to recover from nagging injuries can play that much harder. All told, ASU plays its four toughest opponents (Georgia, USC, Cal and Oregon) in a week immediately before or after a bye. That alone should be worth a win.
Stanford and Washington State, meanwhile, are the only Pac-10 schools with
just one bye week. When Stanford fans talk about how snakebit their team is in
terms of injuries: well, it's not entirely bad luck – this is a rather obvious
explanation. And the football office can far more easily control the schedule
than other causative factors (other teams are bigger, other teams are faster,
our quarterback gets hit more).
Here's an idea: why not push Big Game back to Dec. 6, give Stanford a bye week for Thanksgiving (Nov. 29 this year), and move the rest of the schedule back a week, so that game No. 11 is on Nov. 22 (Big Game's current date). This shift would allow Stanford to create another bye in its schedule.
It would be the right thing to do to give us a competitive edge, and given
all the well-documented disadvantages we face versus the rest of the Pac-10,
seems to me we need to jump at every edge we have. Plus, college athletics,
especially at Stanford, are supposed to be about the student-athletes first and
foremost, and creating an extra week of rest would be right thing to do for our
players' health. The weather's nice enough to play Big Game in early December,
students are in town so we could get a crowd, and it would ensure that Big Game
actually ends the season, as it should. (This year, Cal ends its regular season
by hosting Washington on Dec. 6.) I know Finals start the following week, but
let's get realistic – most students aren't studying for their Finals six days
ahead of time. And if you're that motivated, now you have Thanksgiving Week to
Arizona State has been the Pac-10's Wisconsin or Kansas State in recent years, playing cupcake opponents out-of-conference, and rarely if ever outside of Tempe. This year, however, Arizona State hosts Georgia, the preseason number one team in the country, on September 20. With USC hosting Ohio State the week before, the nation's opinion of the Pac-10 will be set in stone three weeks into the season, and nothing that happens over the next two months will change that perception.
That's pretty unfair for the Pac-10, because Ohio State and Georgia might just be the two best teams in the country, and I think USC and ASU have an uphill fight in either game. Say USC and ASU turn out to be legitimate top-ten teams on their ways to 10-2 seasons, teams that would beat 90 percent of BCS opponents put in front of them. Doesn't matter -- all the message boards and talking heads will be crowing about will be that the Pac-10 can't even win at home.
In fact, Oregon State at Penn State Sept. 6, Tennessee at UCLA on Sept. 1 and Oklahoma at Washington on Sept. 13 are the three next-biggest games I see on the Pac-10 schedule. And unless someone pulls an Appalachian State right out of the gate, the Pac-10 team will be the underdog in all those games. I could easily see the Pac-10 winning 80 percent of its games out-of-conference, with a winning record against BCS conferences, but no one will care because it will be these games, not Washington State at Baylor or Cal vs. Michigan State, that will be implanted in the national mindset. Good luck to a 9-3 Oregon or Cal trying to get that extra at-large BCS berth.
The last time the Stanford-Arizona State winner failed to crack 30 was 2000. (Stanford won 29-7.) Since, the winning team has scored 51, 65, 38, 34, 45, 38 and 41.
Speaking of which, Arizona State has absolutely owned Stanford the last two years, winning 38-3 and 41-3. Given the Card's upsets of USC and Cal and inspired play against Oregon last season, the Devils are the team Stanford has most underperformed against since its 2005 victory. A close second has to be UCLA, which beat Stanford 31-0 in 2006, by 28 last season, and came from 21 down in the fourth quarter in 2005 to win in overtime 30-27. Just thinking about that collapse is awful.
Here's a related depressing thought: Stanford last scored a touchdown in Tempe four years ago. Ninety percent of this year's squad wasn't on the team then.
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