2011 Season Preview: Volatility, Kanye And The Arizona State Sun Devils

Arizona State is a popular team with the pundits this offseason. Can they overcome injuries, volatility, and a chronic inability to win close games, to live up to the hype?

NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you hate numbers, just skip to the words.

As the 2010 season began to wrap up, conventional wisdom was already beginning to percolate with the thought of Arizona State putting together a breakthrough season in 2011. It's easy enough to put the pieces together; they suffered ultra-competitive losses to Oregon (at home), Wisconsin (in Madison), USC (in the Coliseum) and Stanford (at home), and they return boatloads of starters. They have strong athleticism and one of the best, meanest linebackers in the game (Vontaze Burfict). Plus, with USC banned from the postseason, they may even be the favorite to represent the South division in the first ever Pac-12 title game.

But ... do you believe in karma? Because if so, you're getting a pretty bad vibe from an Arizona State program that, this offseason alone, saw...

Now ... Threet's replacement, massive Brock Osweiler, is solid enough ... and Lewis is but a backup Cameron Marshall (and is expected to be ready for the season anyway) ... and only Bolden is probably a true difference-maker among the players lost. But virtually every Sun Devil-based highlight this offseason centered around another player getting hurt. Is Sun Devil Stadium built on an ancient Indian burial ground? Did Dennis Erickson refuse a kiss under the mistletoe last December? Has Burfict taken too many cheapshots? Something has brought ASU some seriously bad juju, and a team that was already volatile and unpredictable, probably became a bit more so this offseason.

It doesn't appear, however, that any of the injuries have put a damper on expectations. The Sun Devils are still quite possibly going to start the season in the Top 25 despite going just 4-6 against FBS teams last fall. Are they ready to live up to the still-building hype, or is their multi-year inability to close games a character flaw instead of a sign of youth or bad luck?

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 6-6 | Adj. Record: 7-5 | Final F/+ Rk**: 38
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Portland State
54-9 W 34.7 - 25.6 W
11-Sep Northern Arizona
41-20 W 17.2 - 20.4 L
18-Sep at Wisconsin 19-20 L 36.2 - 24.1 W
25-Sep Oregon 31-42 L 38.5 - 16.1 W
2-Oct at Oregon State 28-31 L 25.3 - 32.3 L
9-Oct at Washington 24-14 W 27.3 - 28.2 L
23-Oct at California 17-50 L 7.6 - 29.5 L
30-Oct Washington State 42-0 W 28.8 - 16.9 W
6-Nov at USC 33-34 L 28.9 - 26.3 W
13-Nov Stanford 13-17 L 25.7 - 17.3 W
26-Nov UCLA 55-34 W 39.6 - 31.1 W
2-Dec at Arizona 30-29 W 18.1 - 26.0 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 32.3 28 25.0 55
Adj. Points Per Game 27.3 62 24.5 38

It's been an up-and-down few years for Dennis Erickson since he left the wonders of the Kibbie Dome for one of the 20 most desirable jobs in the country four seasons ago. Throughout his career, which has now spanned 18 seasons (and six schools) at the FBS level, Erickson has been a fast starter. He moved Washington State from 3-9 to 9-3 in his second year there, he went 44-4 in his first four years at Miami (then again, I could have probably gone about 40-8 with that talent, and I was 11 at the time), he boosted Oregon State to an unheard-of 11-1 in his second year, and he even made Idaho a respectable 4-8 in his lone season in Moscow; it was the Vandals' highest win total in six years.

At Arizona State, it was no different. In his first season in Tempe, Arizona State won double-digit games for the first time since their charmed 1996 season. Of course, it was a bit of a mirage. They went 3-0 in one-possession games and ranked 25th in our F/+ rankings; they were good, but they weren't "ten wins" good, and in the three years that have followed, their average F/+ ranking has been 57th, they've gone just 11-21 versus FBS opponents, and they've gone 2-10 in one-possession games. They were just good enough to be disappointing in 2010, with a few blowout wins over bad teams (Portland State, Northern Arizona, Washington State, UCLA) and the aforementioned competitive losses. Their Adj. Record suggests they indeed played better than their 6-6 record, which is a positive sign for 2011, but the trend is alarming.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 51 64 49
RUSHING 78 78 67 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 47 49 45 67
Standard Downs 69 93 60 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 50 39 48 59
Redzone 89 83 92
Q1 Rk 59 1st Down Rk 71
Q2 Rk 49 2nd Down Rk 44
Q3 Rk 62 3rd Down Rk 83
Q4 Rk 61

Arizona State's is a pass-first offense, which in 2010 was a problem thanks to injuries at the quarterback position and the distinct lack of a No. 2 target at receiver. Steven Threet (2,534 yards, 7.5 per pass, 62% completion rate, 18 TD, 16 INT) was decent as a game manager -- in the nine games in which he was the primary signal caller, the Sun Devils had an Adj. Score of greater than 27.1 (the national average) six times. He kept ASU in a series of competitive games, though his nine combined picks in close losses to Oregon, Oregon State and USC suggested that he was as detrimental to ASU's cause as he was beneficial.

Threet missed major time in three games: California (he missed the second half), UCLA (he threw three passes before succumbing to another concussion) and Arizona (he didn't play a down). The California game was an outright disaster -- he was completely ineffective in the first half, and well-coiffed backup Samson Szakacsy did not make the most of his moment in the sun. ASU's 7.6 Adj. Pts. against Cal were a season low. Things were a bit better the second time around; Brock Osweiler (797 yards, 57% completion, 7.3 per pass, 5 TD, 0 INT), a 6-foot-8, 240-pound man mountain from Montana, filled in against UCLA and Arizona and acquitted himself well. He is more prone to throwing balls away than throwing picks, which led to lower completion percentages and fewer turnovers than what Threet managed; plus, he is relatively nimble for his size and incredibly difficult to bring down. For all intents and purposes, Osweiler's performance was a sign that Threet's retirement from competitive football won't be significantly damaging. Now he just needs some receivers.

By no means was Arizona State's receiving corps terrible in 2010; Kerry Taylor (699 yards, 12.9 per catch, 77% catch rate) averaged 10.0 yards per target as the No. 1 weapon, but the No. 2 man oscillated from game to game, and it seemed to hold back the passing attack a bit. In all, ASU's top three targets -- Taylor, Mike Willie (442 yards, 12.3 per catch, 68% catch rate) and T.J. Simpson (481 yards, 16.6 per catch, 56% catch -- combined for just 41% of Arizona State's targets last year, the third-lowest total in the country for a top three. As means of comparison, Washington's top three receivers were targeted 69% of the time. Sharing the wealth is good, but having trustworthy go-to options is, according to today's Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit, evidently better.

As mentioned above, Simpson is injured, but Willie returns, as do a host of other potential targets -- Gerell Robinson, Aaron Pflugrad, Jamal Miles, et cetera. Special teams dynamo J.J. Holliday has quite a bit of big-play potential, but he has not been consistent enough in practice to sniff major playing time. At least a couple of the candidates needs to prove both valuable and reliable, however, if ASU is going to live up to expectations.

Other tidbits:

  • All five starters return from a line that was perfectly average in 2010. They weren't the cause of many problems, especially compared to their struggles in recent years, but they didn't do their backfield too many favors. They were not good and bad, they just were.
  • The running backs were solid last fall. Cameron Marshall and Deantre Lewis combined for 1,326 yards and +11.6 Adj. POE, but perhaps their highest value was in the passing game. They were both reliable and dangerous drifting into flare-pass territory. Iffy run blocking held the running game back, however -- this area certainly needs work in 2011.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 35 25 44
RUSHING 8 4 13 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 71 86 64 4
Standard Downs 31 24 33 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 43 45 44 99
Redzone 31 41 28
Q1 Rk 40 1st Down Rk 38
Q2 Rk 49 2nd Down Rk 38
Q3 Rk 51 3rd Down Rk 17
Q4 Rk 7

In three of four seasons under Erickson and defensive coordinator Craig Bray, Arizona State's defense has been one of high efficiency. They ranked in the Top 25 in Def. Success Rate+ in 2007, 2009 and 2010 and have never ranked below 31st in Def. Standard Downs S&P+. The pass defense has been occasionally flaky, but Arizona State's identity is one of strength in the front seven, and 2011 should be no different, not when they've got three strong ends and the meanest linebacker in college football forming a triangle up front.

Honestly, if you saw Arizona State play last year, you probably assumed Vontaze Burfict's stat line was going to be even more impressive than it actually was (72.0 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 PBU) ... and it was still rather impressive. You can't keep your eyes off of Burfict when Arizona State's defense is on the field, both because you are afraid of missing a highlight reel play ... and because he's a bit of a ticking timebomb. Exhibit A, Exhibit B, Exhibit C, et cetera. You are supposed to play until the whistle blows, but one gets the impression that Burfict doesn't hear whistles. He is college football's Kanye West in that he is fascinating and often brilliant, but his glitches frustrate you to no end (and make him more fascinating).

Regardless of Burfict's extracurriculars, he sets the tone for a dynamic front seven that returns quite a few key pieces. Gone are tackles Lawrence Guy (27.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) and Saia Falahola (21.0 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks), but a trio of ends are worth watching if you can take your eyes off of Burfict: Jamaar Jarrett (31.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks), James Brooks (22.5 tackles, 7.5 TFL/sacks and Junior Onyeali (15.5 tackles, 11.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF as just a redshirt freshman). The undersized (5-foot-11, 233 pounds) Onyeali has the highest upside of the bunch, but he was too all-or-nothing to be counted on from down to down. If he surges as a sophomore, a run defense that was already one of the best in the country becomes downright scary.

Now if they could just defend the pass. For all of the front seven's strengths, getting to the quarterback was not one of them. The lack of a pass rush (just 23 sacks last year, 8.5 from Guy and Falahola) hurt the Sun Devils, especially once opponents began to abandon the run for early-down passing.

Other tidbits:

  • The loss of Omar Bolden (44.5 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 7 PBU) hurts. The cornerback combined with two strong safeties (Max Tabach and Eddie Elder) to create a solid secondary despite the lack of a pass rush, but now Tabach is gone, and Bolden is gone at least for now. The pressure now shifts to Osahon Irabor (33.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 2 PBU as a redshirt freshman) to cover opponents' No. 1 receivers, though evidently redshirt freshman Devan Spann had a lovely spring.
  • If injuries ding the present tense but bolster the future tense, then the future is bright in Tempe. Bolden, Simpson, Threet and Lewis were not the only players with random injury issues -- on the defense alone, Onyeali, Elder, cornerback Deveron Carr and free safety Keelan Johnson all missed significant portions of the spring as well. They should be ready for the fall, but only if you think ASU's luck has changed by then.

Arizona State's 2010 Season Set to Music

Let's see ... 12 tracks that increasingly hint at brilliance while disappointing overall ... sounds a lot like every Kanye album. Okay, that's not fair. Sounds specifically like 808s and Heartbreak.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

Here.

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 47
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 40
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -6 / -9.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 19 (10, 9)
Yds/Pt Margin***** -1.4

With USC banned from the postseason, it does look like we're facing an interesting battle for the inaugural Pac-12 South title between three interesting-but-flawed teams: Arizona, Arizona State and Utah. The Sun Devils have the most experience, the most upside and the most volatility of the three. Their peripherals above are not particularly encouraging -- their recruiting rank is not what one (specifically, Andy Staples) would expect it to be, they kept a lot of games close with fumble luck, and their YPP margin suggests they were possibly more competitive than they should have been.

By the end of September, we'll have found out whether ASU has begun to fix the issues that held them back last year, namely rushing offense and pass defense. Missouri comes to town the evening of September 9 -- they will severely test ASU's vulnerability to standard downs passing. Then, the Sun Devils head to Champaign to face an Illinois defense that ranked ninth in Rushing S&P+ last year (granted, they've lost some key personnel in their front seven). Finally, they return home to take on a USC offense that was quite efficient, both on the ground and in the air, on standard downs. If they enter October at 4-0, they are the real deal. But they are just as likely to be looking at 2-2 and an identity crisis. Predicting what such a volatile team is capable of doing (and sustaining) from week to week is damn near impossible, but whatever happens to Arizona State in 2011 should be entertaining.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

*****Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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