clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

The big 2015 Appalachian State football guide: Can that stunning turnaround continue?

New, comment
Todd Bennett/Getty Images

Confused? Check out the advanced-stats glossary here.

1. Timing is everything -- except when it's not

In 24 years on the job, head coach Jerry Moore took a healthy program and made it a dominant one. While some low-rung FBS teams struggle to draw 10,000 for a conference game, Appalachian State drew 30,856 for a game against Montana. Hell, ASU drew 26,415 for a game against a terrible N.C. A&T squad. In 2012, the Mountaineers averaged higher attendance (27,964) than any current Sun Belt program despite playing at the FCS level. [...]

A few years ago, near the height of its power, the school weighed a jump to FBS. Last March, it got its ducks in a row. The transition begins in 2014.

Meanwhile, the slide began three years ago. In 2011-12, Moore managed matching 8-4 records and FCS playoff appearances, but ASU lost in the first round both years. And following 2012, Moore was more or less informed that he was retiring. In stepped Scott Satterfield; his first squad went 4-8, losing more than it won for the first time since 1993.

Safe to say, the jump was mistimed.

In last year's Appalachian State preview, I talked about how difficult it is to time the jump to FBS. The decision is often made following a run of success, but there's a two- or three-year delay between the decision and the jump. And in that time, between new recruiting cycles and potential new coaching hires, you often begin to slide before you even reach the next level. Just ask UMass or Western Kentucky, which went from FCS heavyweights to welterweights just in time to become FBS bantamweights, for a while at least.

It appeared Appalachian State had gotten the timing wrong as well. The Mountaineers were the heaviest of FCS heavyweights and waited until the moment the Moore era faded to decide. They had their worst FCS season in ages in 2013, then moved looked horrific for half of 2014. They gave up 52 points to Michigan. They lost to Southern Miss. They lost their first two Sun Belt games (to first- and second-year FBS teams) by a combined 81-35. They gave up 55 points and lost to Liberty.

The Mountaineers began 1-5, grading out as one of the worst teams in FBS. They had gotten everything wrong.

And then it all went right.

2014 Schedule & Results

Record: 7-5 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 104
Date Opponent Opp. F/+ Rk Score W-L Percentile
Performance
Adj. Scoring
Margin
Win
Expectancy
30-Aug at Michigan 54 14-52 L 0% -67.4 0%
6-Sep Campbell N/A 66-0 W 79% 18.7 100%
20-Sep at Southern Miss 110 20-21 L 7% -33.7 39%
25-Sep at Georgia Southern 57 14-34 L 7% -34.7 0%
4-Oct South Alabama 89 21-47 L 1% -58.1 0%
11-Oct Liberty N/A 48-55 L 10% -30.5 68%
18-Oct at Troy 126 53-14 W 75% 15.4 100%
1-Nov Georgia State 122 44-0 W 83% 22.7 100%
8-Nov UL-Monroe 97 31-29 W 23% -17.2 67%
15-Nov at Arkansas State 66 37-32 W 27% -14.1 44%
22-Nov at UL-Lafayette 72 35-16 W 68% 11.1 98%
29-Nov Idaho 112 45-28 W 35% -9.3 93%

Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
S&P+ 21.8 103 34.3 103
Points Per Game 35.7 26 27.3 72

2. The proverbial light switch

I spent a greater than normal amount of time reading local newspapers and ASU fan sites to try to figure out how the second half of last season happened. Young teams can often improve in-season, and sometimes a nice win or two can serve as a catalyst. But between October 11 and October 18, Appalachian drastically changed from one of the three worst teams in FBS to a top-70-caliber squad.

  • Average Percentile Performance, first 6 games (record: 1-5): 17% (5%, sans the Campbell game)
  • Average Percentile Performance, next 6 games (record: 6-0): 52%

A week after losing to Liberty, ASU whomped Troy on the road. The Mountaineers did the same to Georgia State at home in the snow. And after tossup wins over ULM and Arkansas State (in Jonesboro!), ASU went to Lafayette and trounced a Ragin' Cajun team that was in its fourth consecutive nine-win season. A cruise-control win over Idaho assured ASU of what seemed like an impossible winning record.

That a young offense got better isn't surprising. But the mid-season turnaround -- which feels like an understated word to use -- was spurred by the defense.

  • Appalachian State defense, first 6 games: 427 yards per game, 6.6 yards per play, 34.8 points per game (sans Campbell: 494 yards per game, 7.3 yards per play, 41.8 points per game)
  • Appalachian State defense, next 6 games: 268 yards per game, 4.1 yards per play, 19.8 points per game

So what did the local papers and fan sites have to say about the 180-degree turn? Basically, it just -- happened. Instead of almost getting pressure on quarterbacks, ASU got pressure on quarterbacks. Instead of misplaced aggression, there was well-placed aggression. Instead of almost making a big play but allowing one instead, the opposite happened. Green freshmen and sophomores became veterans. ASU got a step faster.

This is how it always works in your head. The switch gets flipped, and a young unit becomes a seasoned unit that realizes its potential. But it rarely happens like this.

The second half drastically changed the outlook of ASU's program. Instead of fighting through a two- or three-win season with a young team and hoping to build traction for 2016, the Mountaineers enter 2015 with 20 returning starters (10 on both sides of the ball) and a second string almost fully intact from a team that looked like one of the two best in the Sun Belt in late-October and November. Instead of hoping to get to .500 within a couple of years, ASU is plotting a conference title run.

And it's hard for me to tamp down that optimism much. While the stats say ASU was the No. 104 team in the country for the season, the turnaround was both drastic and sustained, and almost every reason for that turnaround returns this fall.

Offense

FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.93 26 IsoPPP+ 98.8 70
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 44.0% 46 Succ. Rt. + 95.2 87
FIELD POSITION Def. Avg. FP 33.2 121 Def. FP+ 93.1 123
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.6 47 Redzone S&P+ 99.6 66
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 16.9 ACTUAL 21 +4.1
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 27 75 81 70
RUSHING 18 94 93 92
PASSING 74 51 62 51
Standard Downs 88 82 84
Passing Downs 54 82 41
Q1 Rk 97 1st Down Rk 71
Q2 Rk 80 2nd Down Rk 69
Q3 Rk 58 3rd Down Rk 86
Q4 Rk 42

Quarterback

Note: players in bold below are 2015 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.

Player Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Comp Att Yards TD INT Comp
Rate
Sacks Sack Rate Yards/
Att.
Taylor Lamb 6'2, 200 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7833 181 295 2381 17 9 61.4% 8 2.6% 7.7
Kameron Bryant
23 43 254 4 2 53.5% 2 4.4% 5.4
J.P. Caruso 6'1, 200 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8016
Daniel David 6'1, 192 Fr. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8366

3. Taking the job and running with it

Appalachian State had a good idea of what it wanted to be offensively. Co-coordinators Dwayne Ledford and Frank Ponce crafted a run-first scheme that kept pressure off of freshman Taylor Lamb, and the Mountaineers were just good enough on the ground to open up solid passing opportunities downfield.

With running backs Marcus Cox and Terrence Upshaw combining for 31 carries per game and five yards per carry, Lamb was able to ease into the first-string job after overtaking 2013 starter Kameron Bryant. Lamb started slowly, completing 60 percent of his passes in his first four games against FBS competition, but averaging 9.8 yards per completion with four touchdowns and four interceptions.

But as the run game found traction, and as the defense began putting the offense in more favorable field position and scoreboard situations, Lamb found himself capable of taking advantage. In the last four games, he completed 64 percent, averaged 15.1 yards per completion, and threw eight touchdowns to three picks. Opponents began to adapt to the heavy dose of Marcus Cox -- after averaging 7.8 yards per carry against Liberty, Troy and Georgia State, he averaged 4.9 per carry in the final four games -- but Lamb was able to make them pay for their distraction.

Running Back

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Rushes Yards TD Yards/
Carry
Hlt Yds/
Opp.
Opp.
Rate
Fumbles Fum.
Lost
Marcus Cox RB 5'10, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7783 256 1415 19 5.5 5.4 41.0% 8 6
Terrence Upshaw RB 5'10, 200 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8152 112 573 4 5.1 5.7 36.6% 1 1
Taylor Lamb QB 6'2, 200 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7833 70 518 4 7.4 6.4 51.4% 1 0
Ricky Fergerson RB 5'8, 185 Sr. NR N/A 38 292 3 7.7 10.0 44.7% 0 0
Eric Davidson RB 5'10, 200 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) N/A 20 78 0 3.9 1.4 35.0% 0 0
Kameron Bryant QB
14 63 1 4.5 6.7 35.7% 1 0
Simms McElfresh WR 5'10, 180 Sr. NR N/A 6 25 2 4.2 2.5 50.0% 0 0
Josh Boyd RB 5'10, 180 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8194







4. And running and running

That Lamb, Cox, and Upshaw all return, not to mention four starters from the line, tells you ASU's identity isn't going to change much. Cox had a bit of a fumble problem, but the recipe worked. The opponent-adjusted stats above show you that ASU's run game really wasn't that amazing (94th in Rushing S&P+), but it was successful enough to set Lamb up to succeed (51st in Passing S&P+).

Perhaps Lamb is ready for a heavier burden, but with the depth in the running game -- not to mention the fact that weather can be a dicey in Boone, N.C. -- I wouldn't expect much to change. If it does, it's because the receiving corps is too exciting not to feed.

Possession man Simms McElfresh was Lamb's primary target, catching 24 passes (for just 238 yards) in the first four games. But as the season wore on, players like Malachi Jones (12 catches for 201 yards in the last four games), Montez McGuire (nine catches for 166 yards against ULM, ASU and UL) and star freshman Shaedon Meadors (nine for 181 in the last four) emerged as serious threats. And by the end of the year, defenses had to account for up to five scary targets while still focusing on the bludgeoning Cox and Upshaw. The numbers shifted in ASU's favor, and ASU put up bigger numbers.

Receiving Corps

Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Targets Catches Yards Catch Rate Target
Rate
%SD Yds/
Target
NEY Real Yds/
Target
RYPR
Malachi Jones WR-X 6'2, 210 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) N/A 65 36 585 55.4% 20.2% 60.0% 9.0 137 8.9 76.9
Simms McElfresh WR-M 5'10, 180 Sr. NR N/A 63 42 484 66.7% 19.6% 54.0% 7.7 -20 7.7 63.6
Montez McGuire WR-Z 6'1, 215 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7806 39 25 386 64.1% 12.1% 41.0% 9.9 84 10.2 50.8
Bobo Beathard WR-Z 5'10, 185 Sr. NR N/A 33 17 202 51.5% 10.3% 60.6% 6.1 -13 6.1 26.6
Marcus Cox RB 5'10, 200 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7783 24 16 180 66.7% 7.5% 37.5% 7.5 -12 7.3 23.7
Shaedon Meadors WR-X 6'2, 180 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8339 21 15 287 71.4% 6.5% 66.7% 13.7 109 12.6 37.7
Isaiah Lewis WR-X 5'10, 175 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7894 19 13 92 68.4% 5.9% 63.2% 4.8 -63 4.7 12.1
Tacoi Sumler WR-M
18 13 142 72.2% 5.6% 33.3% 7.9 -12 6.4 18.7
Barrett Burns TE 6'4, 235 Jr. NR N/A 17 14 129 82.4% 5.3% 52.9% 7.6 -33 7.9 17.0
Terrence Upshaw RB 5'10, 200 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.8152 9 8 63 88.9% 2.8% 44.4% 7.0 -29 6.9 8.3
Jaylan Barbour WR 5'10, 165 So. 3 stars (5.6) 0.8500 4 2 40 50.0% 1.2% 75.0% 10.0 15 9.1 5.3
Dante Jones WR-M 5'11, 180 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7646 4 2 25 50.0% 1.2% 50.0% 6.3 0 6.1 3.3
Drew Bailey TE
3 1 2 33.3% 0.9% 66.7% 0.7 -12 0.6 0.3
Michael Moll TE 6'1, 225 Jr. NR N/A 1 1 20 100.0% 0.3% 0.0% 20.0 9 N/A 2.6
Nikia Cathey WR 5'9, 177 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8338
Zireycus Letman WR 6'3, 195 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8167
Mock Adams WR 6'4, 187 Fr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.8156
Collin Reed TE 6'3, 230 Fr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7719

Offensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 101.2 2.95 4.19 41.3% 70.9% 18.7% 170.2 2.8% 4.4%
Rank 65 62 4 39 39 57 8 20 18
Player Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. Career Starts Honors/Notes
Kendall Lamm LT 42 2014 1st All-Sun Belt
Alex Acey RG
33
Graham Fisher C
29
Shaq Counts LG 6'2, 275 Sr. NR N/A 24
Will Corbin RT
20
Davante Harris RT 6'6, 275 Sr. NR N/A 16
Jesse Chapman C 6'1, 275 Sr. NR N/A 12
Parker Collins LG 6'3, 295 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 10
Beau Nunn RT 6'4, 290 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 10
Colby Gossett RG 6'6, 315 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7000 7
Jamie Collmar RG 6'2, 295 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7805 0
Alex Taylor OL 6'9, 294 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7959
Victor Johnson OL 6'5, 260 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7938
Bo Alexander OL 6'5, 285 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7633

5. Losing four starters and returning four starters

Because of drastic injuries in 2012-13, ASU returned six starters on the line last season. In all, eight returnees had combined for a ridiculous 143 career starts before the season even began. And thanks to a couple of exciting youngsters overtaking veterans on the two-deep, ASU finished 2014 with 10 players having started at least seven games.

ASU finds itself in an odd position. Four players who combined for 124 career starts have left, but the Mountaineers can still claim four returning starters. And when you see that ASU's line stats were, on average, better than any of the other offensive stats, we'll say the line will remain a strength.

Defense

FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE
Raw Category Rk Opp. Adj. Category Rk
EXPLOSIVENESS IsoPPP 0.92 102 IsoPPP+ 81.4 114
EFFICIENCY Succ. Rt. 39.0% 38 Succ. Rt. + 96.5 82
FIELD POSITION Off. Avg. FP 30.7 51 Off. FP+ 98.7 87
FINISHING DRIVES Pts. Per Trip in 40 4.7 103 Redzone S&P+ 85.0 121
TURNOVERS EXPECTED 17.7 ACTUAL 19.0 +1.3
Category Yards/
Game Rk
S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 25 110 83 115
RUSHING 45 98 66 111
PASSING 22 114 102 117
Standard Downs 103 62 117
Passing Downs 112 112 110
Q1 Rk 94 1st Down Rk 81
Q2 Rk 118 2nd Down Rk 98
Q3 Rk 91 3rd Down Rk 114
Q4 Rk 76

6. It just -- happened

Full-season averages don't tell us much about this defense. For the season, coordinator Nate Woody's D was an aggressive unit, aiming to limit efficiency and risking big plays to do so.

The ratio of good to bad shifted midway through. The average tackles for loss per game did not change -- 38 in the first six games, 38 in the last six -- but ASU seemed to sacrifice aggressiveness against the run to protect against the pass. Their sack rate nearly tripled, from 3.7 percent over the first half to 9.9 percent.

End Ronald Blair emerged as a pretty scary weapon (one sack in the first four games, two in the next four, three in the final four), but ASU's strength was in attacking from any direction. Blair was the only player with more than 3.5 sacks, but five had at least two, and nine had at least 0.5.

The unit matured. Woody found himself with effective options to use.

7. All the experience in the world

Basically, all of those options return. Backup end Deuce Robinson is gone, as are early-season contributor Brandon McGowan and starting corner Joel Ross. That's it. Of the 22 players on the season-ending two-deep, 20 are back.

That's not the entire story. ASU was so young that it's still pretty young; only two of the six returning regulars on the line are seniors, the top five returnees at linebacker are sophomores or juniors, and of the six returning DBs with at least 10 tackles, only one is a senior. So ASU is probably going to return about nine defensive starters in 2016, too.

And while Satterfield has signed quite a few high-two- and low-three-star recruits over the last couple of years, he has the luxury of easing them into action. That is, unless some of them force their way, like linebackers Eric Boggs and Devan Stringer and defensive backs A.J. Howard and Latrell Gibbs did last year.

Defensive Line

Category Adj.
Line Yds
Std.
Downs

LY/carry
Pass.
Downs

LY/carry
Opp.
Rate
Power
Success
Rate
Stuff
Rate
Adj.
Sack Rate
Std.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Pass.
Downs

Sack Rt.
Team 92.9 2.69 4.23 37.7% 59.0% 22.7% 101.9 6.4% 8.1%
Rank 95 34 127 50 19 22 64 31 51
Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Ronald Blair DE 6'4, 275 Sr. NR N/A 12 34.0 5.4% 13.0 6.0 0 1 0 0
Nathaniel Norwood DE 6'2, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7000 12 22.0 3.5% 5.5 3.5 0 0 0 0
Olawale Dada DE 6'0, 235 Jr. NR N/A 8 14.5 2.3% 5.5 1.0 0 1 1 1
Deuce Robinson DE
12 11.5 1.8% 4.0 3.0 0 0 0 0
Tyson Fernandez DT 6'2, 330 Jr. NR N/A 10 10.0 1.6% 1.5 0.5 0 0 0 0
Stephen Burns DT 6'2, 260 Sr. NR N/A 12 10.0 1.6% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Darian Small DT 6'2, 325 Jr. NR N/A 12 7.0 1.1% 0.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Thomas Bronson DL 6'3, 245 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) N/A 4 3.5 0.6% 1.0 1.0 0 0 0 0
Curtiss Benton DL
4 3.0 0.5% 1.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Alanmicheal Harkness DE 6'3, 235 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7979
Myquon Stout DT 6'1, 260 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7659
Antonius Sims DE 6'3, 250 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7826







Linebackers

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
John Law ILB 6'0, 235 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8245 12 68.5 10.8% 6.0 2.0 1 4 0 1
Kennan Gilchrist OLB 6'2, 210 Jr. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7733 12 33.5 5.3% 6.5 3.5 0 0 1 0
Eric Boggs ILB 6'3, 235 So. 2 stars (5.2) 0.7383 12 30.5 4.8% 2.5 1.0 0 1 1 0
Devan Stringer OLB 5'11, 195 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7705 10 27.5 4.3% 6.0 2.0 0 3 0 0
Rashaad Townes OLB 6'2, 205 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) N/A 9 22.0 3.5% 4.5 0.0 0 0 0 0
Brandon McGowan ILB
6 19.5 3.1% 2.0 0.0 0 2 0 0
D.J. Ward ILB 5'11, 235 Sr. NR N/A 12 19.5 3.1% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Osvaldo Sombo OLB 6'2, 235 Sr. NR N/A 12 16.0 2.5% 1.0 0.0 0 0 1 0
Tucker Bell ILB
12 4.0 0.6% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Toronto Thomas ILB 6'0, 235 Jr. NR N/A 8 3.5 0.6% 0.5 0.0 0 1 1 0
Kevin Walton OLB 6'0, 185 Sr. NR N/A 12 3.0 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Dustin Anderson OLB 5'10, 175 Jr. NR N/A 6 3.0 0.5% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
George Vinson ILB 6'0, 220 So. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7729 8 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Bill Cecil ILB 6'0, 205 So. NR N/A 12 2.0 0.3% 0.0 0.0 0 0 0 0
Caleb Fuller ILB 6'0, 225 So. NR N/A 2 1.5 0.2% 1.0 1.0 0 1 0 0
Okon Godwin OLB 6'2, 230 RSFr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8059
Dezmin Reed OLB 6'2, 230 Jr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7893
Akeem Davis OLB 6'2, 200 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7954

Secondary

Name Pos Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Rivals 247 Comp. GP Tackles % of Team TFL Sacks Int PBU FF FR
Doug Middleton FS 6'0, 205 Sr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7200 12 64.0 10.1% 6 0.5 4 6 0 0
A.J. Howard SS 5'11, 185 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7844 12 51.5 8.1% 2.5 0 0 2 1 0
Joel Ross CB
12 35.5 5.6% 2.5 1 3 3 0 0
Latrell Gibbs CB 5'10, 170 So. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7000 12 31.5 5.0% 0 0 2 4 0 0
Alex Gray FS 6'3, 210 Jr. NR N/A 12 19.0 3.0% 0 0 0 1 0 0
Dante Blackmon CB 5'11, 185 Jr. 3 stars (5.5) 0.7800 12 10.5 1.7% 0.5 0 1 0 0 0
Treyon Garnett FS 6'1, 195 So. NR N/A 9 10.0 1.6% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Aaron Krah CB 5'11, 185 Sr. 2 stars (5.3) N/A 12 7.0 1.1% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Jordan Ford CB 6'2, 190 Jr. NR N/A 3 4.5 0.7% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Brandon Pinckney DB 6'0, 185 So. 2 stars (5.2) N/A 10 2.5 0.4% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Nic Shriner SS
7 2.0 0.3% 0 0 0 0 0 0
Mondo Williams CB 5'11, 175 Jr. 2 stars (5.3) 0.7719
Desmond Franklin DB 6'2, 190 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.8056
Josh Thomas S 6'0, 205 Fr. 2 stars (5.4) 0.7967








8. Pass rush was key

ASU mostly has the size necessary to play within a 3-4 structure and not get shoved around; Ronald Blair is listed at 275 pounds, and two of the top three returning tacklers are 325 pounds or bigger. Returning inside linebackers are to a man listed at 235 pounds, and while the OLBs are a bit on the light side -- more like nickelbacks -- this gives the Mountaineers a base for defending the run and speed to get to the passer.

But they better get to the passer. Because when they didn't, bad things tended to happen. ASU's secondary was capable of taking advantage of errant throws from pressured QBs -- exciting safety Doug Middleton had six tackles for loss and 10 passes defensed -- but the Mountaineers gave up a ton of big plays. Aggressiveness often backfired.

Maturity should help; Howard and Gibbs are no longer freshmen, and there's at least one senior leader in Middleton. But if ASU is less effective at getting to the quarterback, the secondary might not be good enough to make up the difference.

Special Teams

Punter Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Punts Avg TB FC I20 FC/I20
Ratio
Bentlee Critcher 6'1, 190 Jr. 41 40.7 2 9 12 51.2%
Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Kickoffs Avg TB OOB TB%
Bentlee Critcher 6'1, 190 Jr. 44 55.7 19 1 43.2%
Zach Matics 6'2, 195 Sr. 33 58.8 8 2 24.2%
Place-Kicker Ht, Wt 2015
Year
PAT FG
(0-39)
Pct FG
(40+)
Pct
Bentlee Critcher 6'1, 190 Jr. 34-38 6-8 75.0% 1-2 50.0%
Zach Matics 6'2, 195 Sr. 18-19 1-3 33.3% 0-2 0.0%
Returner Pos. Ht, Wt 2015
Year
Returns Avg. TD
Isaiah Lewis KR 5'10, 175 So. 15 20.3 0
Bobo Beathard KR 5'10, 185 Sr. 11 21.6 0
Bobo Beathard PR 5'10, 185 Sr. 9 7.2 1
Isaiah Lewis PR 5'10, 175 So. 2 0.0 0
Category Rk
Special Teams F/+ 128
Field Goal Efficiency 126
Punt Return Efficiency 91
Kick Return Efficiency 82
Punt Efficiency 128
Kickoff Efficiency 126
Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency 35

9. Worst. Special teams. Ever.

ASU was lucky in terms of injuries; five of the top seven linemen, five of the top eight linebackers and each of the top six defensive backs played in all 12 games. If you've been reading this week's other Sun Belt previews, you've seen that teams like Idaho and Georgia State weren't nearly that steady.

If you're looking for a red flag, realize that injury luck evens out over time, and that if special teams coverage units were any indication (because backup DBs, LBs, and WRs tend to fill coverage units), the underbelly of the ASU defense was incredibly shaky.

Punter Bentlee Critcher averaged 40.7 yards per punt and had a few downed inside the 20, but ASU was still last in the country in Brian Fremeau's punt efficiency rating. Opponents averaged a ridiculous 13.7 yards per punt return with two touchdowns. Kickoff coverage was almost as bad, Critcher missed four PATs, and fellow place-kicker Zach Matics could only make PATs. The return game was something approaching mediocre but wasn't good enough to be considered a strength.

ASU had what was by far the worst special teams unit in the country last year. Critcher, Matics, and all the return men are back, but a) that isn't necessarily a good thing, and b) coverage absolutely must improve if ASU is to entertain conference title ambitions.

2015 Schedule & Projection Factors

2015 Schedule
Date Opponent Proj. Rk
5-Sep Howard NR
12-Sep at Clemson 14
26-Sep at Old Dominion 108
3-Oct Wyoming 113
? Arkansas State 66
? Georgia Southern 57
? Troy 126
? UL-Lafayette 72
? at Georgia State 122
? at Idaho 112
? at South Alabama 89
? at UL-Monroe 97
Five-Year F/+ Rk -28.0% (110)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 97 / 117
2014 TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin* -2 / 0.8
2014 TO Luck/Game -1.2
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 20 (10, 10)
2014 Second-order wins (difference) 7.1 (-0.1)

10. Every game but Clemson is winnable

Injuries luck could backfire, and while the second half of the season tends to be a little more predictive than the first, ASU's full-season numbers still matter. And that special teams unit was just so bad.

Still, it's hard to ignore how good ASU was over the final six games; this wasn't some "they looked good for two weeks" situation. The ASU that we saw in November is the one we'll probably see for a decent portion of 2015, and barring an impressive run of injuries, the Mountaineers will have a perfect schedule for making a Sun Belt run.

The three best SBC teams on the schedule (according to last year's ratings) all visit Kidd Brewer Stadium, and three of the four road opponents ranked 97th or worse, as did three of four non-conference opponents. If ASU is able to establish a top-80 level of play -- better than last year's but a step down from the level of the last six games -- the Mountaineers should threaten to win 10 games.

It's amazing to type this. A year ago, I thought ASU was a couple of years from respectability, even within the Sun Belt, and the results of the six games more than reinforced that line of thinking. Now ASU is one of the safer ones in the Sun Belt.