2014 Record: 8-5 (3-5 SEC West)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: offensive tackle James Clear, offensive guard Jarvis Harrison, offensive tackle Cedric Ogbuehi, running back Trey Williams
Former Arizona State Athletic Director Steve Patterson certainly made an impact during his short time in Tempe having both his fans and detractors. One of his bright and shining moments took place when the Sun Devils announced back in late-2013 that the school would be taking on Texas A&M as part of an emphasis in scheduling games against schools residing within the state of Texas. While the trend by the Devils for scheduling a challenging non-conference schedule (Notre Dame and Wisconsin the opponents most recently) continued, the chance to play an SEC team, in Texas, in primetime during the first week of the season seemed too good to be true.
While ASU will meet up with Texas A&M on a neutral site at NRG Stadium in Houston (located just under 100 miles southeast of College Station) as part of the Advocare Texas Kickoff, it can expect to be met by a largely hostile Texas-based crowd. Regardless, it represents a chance for the Devils to play a team with national prestige, on national television, in a recruiting hotbed for head coach Todd Graham’s coaching staff.
Much like the Sun Devils, times are changing for the Aggies under the direction of head coach Kevin Sumlin. Once a candidate to replace Dennis Erickson during the 2011 off-season, he spurned ASU, leaving his helm at Houston to replace Mike Sherman in College Station returning to the team having been their offensive coordinator for two seasons from 2001-2002. Todd Graham would go on to become the 23rd Sun Devils head coach shortly thereafter.
While Sumlin’s win totals and conference success have trended downwards during his three years at the school when you look at just the basic standings alone, they head into 2015 coming off a bowl win against West Virginia. Not to mention the fact that his teams have beaten some big-time opponents, recruited very well, while continuing to being recognized among both the college coaching community and NFL front offices as one of the brightest offensive minds in college football. The questions have always surrounded the defense, not the ability of the offense to score points.
Since the start of their new jobs beginning in 2012, both Sumlin and Graham have totaled 28 wins. Interestly, the success of each program has helped build a recruiting battle both in Texas and Arizona high schools. Nine players on the 2015 ASU roster reside from Texas, in addition to receiver Jeremy Smith and defensive back J’Marcus Rhodes, current verbal commits in the Devil’s 2016 recruiting class. In turn, few teams have consistently recruited the best in-state players from Arizona like the Aggies have during the past two recruiting cycles in Christian Kirk in 2015, as well as Kyle Allen and Qualen Cunningham in 2014.
Sumlin hasn’t shied away from this recruiting dominance either when he commented at Houston Coach’s Night, “I’m sure Todd Graham will be real excited to come here. He’s the head coach at Arizona State, and we just snatched the two best players out of their state two years in a row.” Salty comments from a coach whose Houston teams won two of the three times he faced Graham’s Tulsa squad back in their Conference USA days from 2008-2010.
What to look for from the Aggies on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 21
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 57.45% (78th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 58 (75th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 8
The 2015 ASU defense looks like a mirror opposite, in terms of experience, from where this unit was at 365 days ago. This upcoming season promises to arm Graham with defenders possessing much more experience. And that’s a good thing considering they don’t have the luxury of opening the season against a FCS school.
Texas A&M run a super-powered version of Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense. A scheme built for underdogs that is beautiful in its simplicity, but when you have the firepower at the skill positions like Sumlin has, it becomes that much more potent. Former Arizona prep quarterback Kyle Allen has top shelf accuracy, which is why he fits so well into this offense (regardless of 2014 freshman statistics). He has a bevy of options at his disposal be it the tall receivers on the outside of the five-star variety, or the smaller and quicker slot players, such as Speedy Noil and Kirk of equal value.
It will be interesting to see how Graham and co-defensive coordinators Keith Patterson and Chris Ball decide to defend the Aggies. Sumlin will have had the entire off-season to prep for the Devils lineup of blitzes shown against the likes of Leach’s Washington State offense back in 2014. But will the Aggies relatively inexperienced offensive line be able to provide Allen with the time needed to distribute the football to his stand-out receiving corps? The answer to this may begin to show itself depending on how the Devils continue to develop the next great devil-backer to replace Carl Bradford.
What to look for from the Aggies on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 73
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.133 (103rd in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 64.59% (57th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 8
Sumlin addressed his main area of concern in a big way this offseason hiring John Chavis away (one of seven new defensive coordinators in the SEC this season) from LSU to fix a defense that couldn’t get to the quarterback or stop the run at all in 2014. Not to mention, a defense that ranked dead last in the SEC in total defense for the second consecutive year.
Chavis on the other hand ran defenses that consistently ranked at the top of the SEC stopping the run since he took over in 2009. The hire also helped Sumlin get rid of the defensive coorduinator that shut down his high-powered offense most consistently during his time in the SEC. In essence, he killed two birds with one stone, or in the words of Sumlin “if you can’t beat him, hire him.”
Scheme-wise, Chavis’ defenses throughout his time as a coordinator in the SEC, be it in Knoxville or in Baton Rouge, have been relatively straight forward. He’ll look at his corners to play man on the likes of Sun Devil wideouts lead by D.J. Foster, while attempting to get his athletic defensive ends up field as much as possible. One would assume the challenge of blocking the likes of defensive end Myles Garrett (team-high 11 sacks in 2014) with his two new starting offensive tackles has kept ASU offensive line coach Chris Thomsen up at nights more often than not. But that’s where Mike Norvell has succeeded in the past. Keeping aggressive defensive lines off-balance through the use of misdirection plays and lots and lots of pre-snap motion. Like most present day defensive coordinators, Chavis will run a 4-2-5 scheme against spread teams like ASU. With his flavor of this scheme being recognized as being at the forefront of spread killing defenses.
But what about the Aggies ability to match-up in the passing game against a Sun Devils offense in transition? For Chavis, the talent on defense per man is certainly evident based on the quality of recruits the Aggies have brought in under Sumlin’s watch. But how will the players adapt to the new scheme in the first week of the season against a Sun Devil offense now lead by the strong right arm of senior quarterback Mike Bercovici?
So loaded were the Aggies at running back, that they will be trying out a former blue chip running back at corner. And while no one doubts the speed and athleticism of Brandon Williams, how will he hold up against an offense that will still be figuring out things as they go without the likes of Jaelen Strong and Cam Smith at receiver to depend on. Will Bercovici be able to put up the nearly 13 yards per completion that he averaged in his playing time against UCLA, USC, Stanford, and Arizona? Or will Chavis be able to minimize the ASU ground attack and force offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense to throw the ball to win the game?
It should also be noted that newly hired Sun Devils special teams coordinator Shawn Slocum will have his hands full right out of the gates, as both Noil and Kirk are electric in the return game for the Aggies. But Graham will get a good sense of whether or not his team has gotten over the hump in this phase of the game that has been a bit of a letdown during his time as coach in Tempe.
Golden Nugget Casino early line: Texas A&M -3
Each team will learn their true identity after just one week of play. How many other teams in college football will be that lucky? For the Devils, they’ll learn how much their offense will have missed the presence of all-world wide receiver Jaelen Strong, and how they’ll have to transition throughout the final 11 games on their schedule. Fans of the Aggies will have a pretty good barometer right off the bat of whether or not Chavis was a good hire.
Aficionados of offense couldn’t ask for much more out of a season opener. This will more than likely will not be a replay of the 2014 Rose Bowl where both Stanford and Michigan played smash mouth football until the final minute of the game. If ASU has its way, it will be able to play aggressive on defense early on, force turnovers, and feed sophomore running back Demario Richard the ball early and often and not have to test out it’s new bookend offensive tackles on third and long situations.
This is the Devils one shot as a resume builder outside of conference play. So if they hope to sniff the upper tier of the College Football Playoff rankings, a win here against a quality opponent would go a long way.
**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”
**Graphs provided by ASU Devils Den stats guru Gary Doran**