Back-to-back 10-win seasons and a ton of talent returning on both sides of the ball have amounted to high expectations for next season’s Arizona State Sun Devils football team.
Those expectations are reflected in experts’ early top-25 forecasts for the 2015 football season.
ASU followed up a 10-4 season and a first ever Pac-12 South championship in 2013 with a surprising 10-3 mark in 2014 that was capped with a 36-31 Sun Bowl victory over Duke.
Five of the Sun Devils’ nine Pac-12 games next season will be in Tempe, including matchups against division opponents USC and Arizona.
Here’s a look at where the experts rank the Devils heading into Todd Graham’s fourth year as head coach:
15. Arizona State Sun Devils
2014 record: 10-3, 6-3 Pac-12
Returning starters: 7 offense, 9 defense, 2 special teams
Key personnel losses: WR Jaelen Strong, OT Jamil Douglas, QB Taylor Kelly, DE Marcus Hardison, S Damarious Randall
Why they might finish higher: After winning 10 games in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 1970-73, the Sun Devils got a major boost when junior tailback D.J. Foster decided he’ll return to school for his senior season. Strong is turning pro, so Foster might be utilized more as a slot receiver in 2015. The Sun Devils lose quarterback Kelly, but Mike Bercovici started three games in 2014 and passed for 1,445 yards with 12 touchdowns and four interceptions. Nine starters are expected back on defense.
Why they might finish lower: The Sun Devils will have to do some rebuilding on both lines of scrimmage, as they lose their starting offensive tackles and Hardison, who had 15 tackles for loss and 10 sacks in 2014. Arizona State’s schedule won’t be easy, either. It opens the season against Texas A&M in Houston, then opens Pac-12 play with consecutive games against USC (home) and UCLA (road).
11. Arizona State (10-3)
Why No. 11? Because of the sense of the unfinished business 16 returning starters will bring to the table in 2015. After falling short in the crowded Pac-12 South Division, motivation won’t be hard to find. At the same time, Arizona State will improve under center with Mike Bercovici’s ascension to the starting role, has an All-America talent at receiver in D.J. Foster, has options in the backfield and may be deeper across the board on defense. There are question marks on the offensive front, however, and a hole in the passing game without Jaelen Strong.
No. 17 Arizona State Sun Devils
Todd Graham has been stockpiling octane, and competing while doing so. Senior quarterback Mike Bercovici played competently in extended 2014 action. Last year, the Sun Devils had a very good team, despite a small senior class and very few returning starters. This year, ASU’s roster demographics become more favorable. Star wideout Jaelen Strong will be a huge loss, though.
12) Arizona State Sun Devils (10-3)
No offense to Taylor Kelly, but the Sun Devils’ offense was scarier when strong-armed Mike Bercovici took the helm for several games. It’s his job now, and he gets back all-purpose dynamo D.J. Foster and emerging complement Kalen Ballage. Coach Todd Graham also brings back nearly his entire starting defense led by a loaded linebacking corps.