Oct. 8, Sun Devil Stadium
2015 Record: 6-7 (4-5)
2015 Recap: Apparently, this wasn't Todd Graham's best team ever. ASU didn't beat a single team that finished the year ranked, and lost all but one road game the Sun Devils played (the one win coming against UCLA). Offensively, the Sun Devils seemingly never embraced what should have been their identity -- a run-first offense geared around two big, powerful backs in Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard. Instead, ASU consistently went to the air with Mike Bercovici, who just wasn't up to the task of delivering consistent offensive performances. As has been the trend, Pac-12 teams have also started to figure out ASU's blitz-happy defense a little bit more, and through the last half of the season, the defense was carved up regularly. After the season, ASU lost its offensive coordinator, Mike Norvell, who left for a head coaching gig, and also lost several other assistants. It's going to be a new-look staff this year, and Todd Graham is hoping he has the right combination for a bounce-back season.
Returning Starters: 10 (four on offense, six on defense)
2016 Projection: Arizona State is going to be in a bit of a rebuilding phase to start the year. ASU will be breaking in a new starting quarterback for the second-straight year, except this time the new starter will have virtually no live experience. Manny Wilkins might have a slight leg up coming out of spring, but it still sounds like a very open competition between Wilkins, Brady White, and Bryce Perkins. The offensive line will also be largely new, and Devin Lucien, who led the team in receiving last year, is now in the NFL. Where last year we were wondering where ASU would find a receiver as capable as Jaelen Strong, this year the Sun Devils have many more questions.
That said, the running game is not a question mark. ASU has arguably the best tandem of backs in the Pac-12 with Ballage and Richard, and we have to imagine with Norvell leaving and with the obvious issues at receiver and quarterback, the Sun Devils will lean on the running game much more heavily than they did a year ago. Ballage and Richard are also big, powerful backs, which means they can mitigate, to a certain extent, some question marks on the offensive line.
Defensively, ASU returns more than on offense, but the secondary is a little light on bodies, which prompted playmaker Tim White, who shined on offense and special teams last year, to move over to cornerback. The goal for the Sun Devils is to pressure with four this year, and it makes sense given the thin secondary that Graham would like to drop six or seven more than he has in the past. The question is whether ASU has the defensive line to get pressure with four. There's certainly talent -- Tashon Smallwood, Joseph Wicker, and Viliami Latu are all very good pieces -- but pressuring with four has not been a strength of Graham's ASU teams.
ASU has given itself an easier non-conference schedule than last year, swapping out Texas A&M for Texas Tech. The other two games should be obvious wins, against Northern Arizona and UTSA. In the conference season, it's a pretty tough schedule for ASU, with road games against USC, Oregon, and Washington looming as particularly tough games. The home slate is a bit easier, and ASU luckily gets California instead of Stanford this year, and the Bears should be down. Eyeballing it, ASU is probably going to struggle to contend in the South with all of the roster turnover, but the Sun Devils could have a nice, 8-4 type year that'll give Graham a nice bounce back from last year -- or what he'll describe as the Greatest. Bounce-Back Year. Ever.
Outlook for UCLA: This series has been weird for both teams over the last four years. UCLA has lost twice, both at home, and ASU has lost twice, both at home. Given that ASU looks like it'll still be a year away from being a true South contender again, we could pretty easily see UCLA holding serve in this bizarro series. The Bruins should be better suited to stop ASU's rushing attack than a year ago, and on the other side, UCLA's running game should be better suited to running against ASU's tough run defense. We'd also hope that Kennedy Polamalu will not be quite as stubborn and obstinate in his play calling as Noel Mazzone was in this matchup last year.
Neither team will have had a bye week yet at this point in the year, so we'd imagine that'll favor UCLA a bit more, since the Bruins are probably a bit deeper than the Sun Devils. That said, ASU's starting quarterback, whoever it ends up being, will have had five games under his belt at this point, which could mean that he's starting to hit his stride.
For this to be a very good year for UCLA, snagging this one on the road is pretty critical. Washington State looms the following week, and the Cougars could be pretty good again, and Pullman is a tough place to play. If the Bruins already have a couple of losses at this point, they'll need to play catch up on the road against these two teams.
That said, after this road swing, the schedule does get a good deal easier. Over the final five games, UCLA will play a slightly down Utah at home, on the road at Colorado, home against Oregon State and USC, and then at a very down California to end the year. If the Bruins somehow do emerge from the road trip unscathed, it's not unreasonable to project a 4-1 or even 5-0 finish for the Bruins.
Next up: Washington State...