College Football Preview: What Sort of Year Will Arizona State Have in 2012?

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Arizona State’s 2012 college football win totals at 5Dimes are set at under 4.5 (+120) or under 5 (-135) and over 4.5 (-160) or over 5 wins (+115).

After starting the 2011 season 6-2 including an impressive 43-22 win over USC, Arizona State imploded and lost their last 5 games.  HC Dennis Erickson was fired and after a disastrous head coaching search and hiring process, ASU hired former Pitt coach Todd Graham.

New Coach, New Culture

Seven months later new HC Todd Graham has energized the fan base and begun to change the culture in Tempe. But this is clearly a program in transition from the one that existed last year (which is a good thing).

With new coaches come new offensive and defensive schemes. The Devils will be transitioning  from a pass-heavy horizontal attack to a run-heavy spread offense that will stretch defenses vertically. Defensively ASU changes from a base 4-3 to a multi-set defense designed to attack opposing offenses.

Needless to say, like most transitions of this magnitude, it is going to take time and the Devils are sure to experience some inconsistencies along the way.

Graham was successful at Rice and Tulsa, but didn’t do so well in his one year at Pitt, so the jury is still out whether or not he can coach at this level.

The Passing Game is a Concern

Brock Osweiler threw for over 4000 yards and 26 TDs last year. He has taken his skills to the NFL. Two sophomores (Mike Bercovici and Taylor Kelly) and a redshirt freshman (Michael Eubank) are in a three-man battle for the starting job. All three are long on potential, but short on experience.

Whoever wins the job will not only be making his first career start come August 30th, but he will also be throwing to a group of very inexperienced receivers. ASU lost four extremely prolific receivers – Gerrell Robinson, George Bell, Mike Wille and Aaron Pflugard combined for 175 receptions and 2,728 yards last year.

Defense is a BIG question mark

The Sun Devils lose six of their top seven tacklers. They also lose their interceptions leader and sack leader. But the good news is that this defense wasn’t really that good last year so the losses are replaceable.

The Sun Devil DL does have some talent, Brandon McGhee returns from injury at LB and the secondary is capable, so ASU has some pieces in place to improve on last years poor showing. However, in 49 games as a DC, Chris Ball (ASU’s new DC) defenses have given up 30+ points 33 times and 40+ points 22 times. I can’t see Chip Kelly, Lane Kiffin or many other PAC 12 offenses worrying too much about the ASU D.

PAC 12’s Best RB Group?

Graham’s version of the spread focuses on the running game and it just so happens that ASU has arguably the best running back unit in the PAC 12 (though I hear they have some pretty decent running backs in Eugene).

The star is Cameron Marshall who rushed for 1,050 yards and 18 TDs last season. Depth makes this group special. Kyle Middlebrooks, James Morrison and Deantre Lewis are all proven commodities. Lewis’ return from injury (he missed last season after suffering a gunshot wound in the offseason) could be a big boost. In 2010, he rushed for 539 yards (5.86 ypr), 4 TDs and also had 23 receptions out of the backfield for 370 yards (16.1 ypc avg).

Playmakers in the Return Game

Over the last two seasons, ASU has ranked No. 3 and No. 10 in the nation in kickoff returns. Once again, the return game looks formidable.

Leading the way is senior Jamal Miles. Last year he set the school record with his third career kickoff return touchdown, and he also posted a terrific 16.6 yards average on punt returns.

Schedule Analysis and Projected Win Probabilities 

According to Phil Steele ASU has the 27th most difficult schedule in the nation. That is probably not a good thing considering the Sun Devils will be breaking in a new QB and new schemes on both sides of the ball. I expect a lot of up and downs.

Northern Arizona  (100%)
Illinois (50%)
@ Missouri  (25%)
Utah (50%)
@ California (25%)
@ Colorado(55%)
Oregon (25%)
UCLA  (50%)
@ Oregon State  (45%)
@ USC  (20%)
Washington State  (65%)
@ Arizona (45%)

The total number I come up for ASU is 555, or 5.55 wins based on the win probability numbers. Based on the projected “win value” for each game, which requires going through the schedule and figuring out if each game will be a “W″ (likely win), a “T″ (toss up) or a “L″ (loss), I give ASU 5 wins.

ASU’s 2012 college football win totals

Trips to Missouri, Cal and USC appear to be likely losses, as does Oregon at home. However, there is no other team on the schedule that will have a talent edge over the Sun Devils and they get Illinois, Utah and UCLA in Tempe. I see no reason why ASU cannot win a minimum of 5 games this season, and if the ball bounces favorably more often than not, 6 wins and a bowl game are within reach.

If you get a chance please check out the ASU Q & A I did a few weeks with College Football Zealots. Let me know of I am too much of a homer with my ASU assessment by leaving me a comment below. Thanks – Pez.

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Get more great college football analysis over at Saturday Edge.