Cameron Marshall will lead the ground attack for ASU (Photo by Norm Hall/Getty Images)
Matching the increasing optimism surrounding the Arizona State football team in 2012 are the number of question marks seen up and down the roster.
Whether it's personnel losses, the installation of new systems, or breaking bad habits, the uncertainty surrounding ASU will dog them all year long until the Sun Devils are able to answer decisively.
In the always fun style of the over/under, this week's installment of the 5-Pack Preview series will put down a number for five critical areas for Sun Devil success in 2012.
So here we go...over, under or push? Which are you taking?
Team Rushing Yards: 2,000
Only once since 2003 have the Sun Devils topped 2,000 rushing yards as a team (2006 - 2,545). In some years, such as last season, it was due to a pass happy scheme. In others, it was simply because the team wasn't very good at it.
The 2012 team will have no choice but to be effective on the ground. For starters, their new offensive scheme will be built on running the ball om around 60% of their plays. Another reason will come from behind center, where ASU will trot out their fifth new starting quarterback in the last five seasons. As the cliche goes, a good running game is a quarterback's best friend. As if that weren't reason enough, the wide receiving corps is almost entirely unproven, and will need time to develop.
Thankfully, the team has one of the nation's best backs in Cameron Marshall. The senior was named to the Maxwell and Doak Walker Award watch lists, and has a chance to secure his legacy as one of ASU's most productive runners with a strong 2012. Behind him will be great depth, with Kyle Middlebrooks, Deantre Lewis, James Morrison, and two newcomers, D.J. Foster and Marion Grice. There should be plenty of carries to go around.
Combined Sacks + Tackles for Loss: 120
As we've covered frequently, perhaps the most important on-field change for ASU this season will come on defense, where the years of bend-but-don't-break are being replaced with an Ivan Drago-ish "I must break you" mentality.
Over the last four seasons, the Sun Devil defense has lacked a punch. Over that span, they've never ranked higher than 49th in the nation in sacks, and they reached a four-year low in 2011 in tackles for loss (TFL) with 76. It should come as little surprise that the ASU run defense also allowed 149 yards-per-game on the ground, by far the most during that span.
The combined number of sacks plus TFL will be a key figure to watch. Last year, ASU ranked a pedestrian 58th among FBS teams with 101, 55.5 behind national leader Cincinnati. With the disruptive power of the new scheme and Devilbacker position, a good leap by ASU to reach a total of 120 in that category will go a long way.
National Rank in Penalty Yards Per Game: 80th
In two out of the last three seasons, ASU has ranked 120th in the nation in penalty yards-per-game. In other words, dead last. On the bright side, should they finish 120th again, they won't be in last place, as four new teams join the FBS in 2012.
Since Day 1 of his tenure, Todd Graham has preached discipline in every aspect of on and off the field conduct. While a radical end result would be a bit much to ask for in one offseason, seeing a moderate jump to be positioned outside of the bottom quarter of teams, would be a favorable start and should help yield many on-field benefits.
Field Goal Percentage: 75%
The key misses against UCLA and Washington State obscured an otherwise solid season from ASU kicker Alex Garoutte. Outside of those nightmarish early-November games, Garoutte was 13 of 18 in his debut season, 15 of 22 total.
On the whole, he made 68.2% of his field goal attempts, a fine mark for 1972, but not 2012. He'll need to build upon his late season successes and his growth during spring ball to display greater consistency. Hitting 75% of his kicks should be a major asset to an ASU team that will be in a number of close games.
Road Wins: 2
From 2008 through last season, ASU played 22 road games. They won five. That's a .227 winning percentage.
One of the primary reasons for that failure was the team's lack of discipline, something that the team is strongly addressing. If the team is hoping to get to a bowl game in 2012, they will need to post some key road wins. Yes, plural.
The schedule will be tough. Their road slate contains Missouri, Cal, Colorado, Oregon State, USC and Arizona. Talent-wise, ASU has a realistic chance in at least three of those, maybe four. If they can take the "over" in this category, they should be able to post enough wins within the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium to go bowling.
Previous season preview entries in our 5-Pack series are here