Finally the bye week is over, and the Sun Devils are prepping for a game, and it's a big one. After what Stanford did to Arizona State twice last year, this is a big statement game for the boys in maroon and gold, and it could go a long way in determining the Pac-12.
So we'll start with a quick one-question roundtable before we get into our regularly scheduled game-week coverage. The question for our staff: The big picture- what does ASU need to do the rest of the season to succeed? And knowing what you know now about this team, define success the rest of the season.
Justin Emerson: Managing Editor (@J15Emerson)
Nick Krueger: Managing Editor (@NickPKrueger)
Jason Galvin: Columnist (@Jason_Galvin)
Shane Theodore: Staff writer (@shane_writes)
Connor Pelton: Staff writer (@ConnorPelton28)
Emerson: Success would be the continued development of defensive players while stringing together a couple wins for the rest of the season. This team is going to fight for a spot in the Pac-12 title game, but the schedule may be just a little too much to sneak into the game. There's not one game left on the schedule you can chalk up as win. Maybe Utah, but the Utes beat UCLA on the road. Maybe Washington, but Seattle is a tough place to play. Maybe Washington State, but that air raid offense could have a field day with Arizona State's secondary.
Stanford and Arizona. Those are two games that would be huge for the Sun Devils: Stanford because of what happened last year, and Arizona because Arizona. Mike Bercovici has proven that next year will be competitive with him as quarterback, and if young defensive players continue to improve, the Sun Devils could realistically hope to be back in the Pac-12 title game. If this year's squad goes 8-4 with wins against Stanford and Arizona with positive signs from key players on defense, I don't think you could ask for too much more.
Krueger: The first order of business should be to get the running game back on track and find some offensive balance again once Taylor Kelly returns to the field. Looking back over the past three weeks, Arizona State should be counting their blessings to be where they're at right now. We know this isn't anything close to resembling the Pac-12 from last season, the amount of parity is incredible, and it's impossible to give the Sun Devils any automatic wins or losses the rest of the way.
The maroon and gold should attempt to execute a proportional response in order to put themselves in a position to succeed in 2015. That's not to say success isn't still coming this season, but the odds of Arizona State making another Pac-12 title game don't seem to be in their favor given Stanford and Notre Dame are still left on the schedule. And no matter how much the Sun Devils don't want to admit it, Arizona is proving to be a tough team to beat this season too. Utah also beat a UCLA team that embarrassed Arizona State
Success in my mind now means fighting against the parity and losing no more than two games the rest of the way to finish 9-3. If they can find themselves ranked at the end of the season, that's only another positive for the team. The Sun Devils had their prayers answered last week, or else Arizona State would be a much different position right now. The uncertainty on the ground and without knowing where Kelly is truly at in terms of his health makes this a tough judgement call. If all returns to normal against Stanford, I think 9-3 is a fair measuring stick.
Galvin: Success for the remainder of the season has as much to do with player development as it does wins and losses for me. The Sun Devils are not done losing football games (I'm not sure anyone in the Pac-12 is, honestly). Could they still win the South? Sure. Could they win the conference? I guess. And that would be great. But a successful remainder of the season is more about three things: developing the young talent on the roster, winning a bowl game and preparing the NFL caliber upperclassmen for that opportunity.
The bowl game is important for the mentality of the team going into next season. Let's just say Arizona State stumbles late in the year once again, maybe losing to Arizona or Oregon State, or even in the conference championship game. They still have to be better prepared for the bowl game, and go out and show everyone that this team is ready to compete for championships in 2015. A lot of that will have to do with how well Graham develops players on both sides of the football. The defense is going to have most of its players back in 2015, and getting those players prepared to take the next step in the spring is crucial. Building depth on defense is also important. On offense, continuing to develop playmakers at receiver and running back - in the event D.J. Foster and Jaelen Strong decide to jump to the pros - is going to need to be a big focus as well.
Finally, it's important to give players like Strong, Foster, Jamil Douglass and Taylor Kelly all of the support and preparation possible. All four would be drafted, if they declared, this year, with Strong a likely first rounder and Douglass sure not to slip past the third or fourth. I still think Kelly, despite missing time with an injury, is going to be considered in the middle rounds if he proves healthy again, as he showed improved arm strength early in the season and seems to be operating the offense at a more complex level. His athleticism will go a long way towards getting him drafted, too.
If Arizona State can accomplish these three things while staying competitive in every game and winning 9-10, it will be a successful season, and one in which Todd Graham and his staff can build on heading into 2015.
Theodore: For the remainder of this season to be considered a success, the Sun Devils need to hold home field, beat Arizona and a win in a bowl game would be extra. Games at Washington and Oregon State are going to be tough, but home tilts against Utah and Wazzu are reasonable wins. For Arizona State to hold home field in those games, plus a win in Tucson, would be a very successful regular season. A bowl win would be icing on the cake.
Ideally, we'll see the defense improve throughout the rest of the season. What we can take out of this season is hopefully that the quarterback next year and the defense will be ready.
Pelton: The first thing this team needs to do is go back to the basics on defense. Todd Graham's defense is dependent upon getting pressure on the quarterback, but this defensive line is just not talented enough to do so consistently against these huge Pac-12 lines. The focus should be more on not giving up little nickle and dime passes that extend drives and slowly kill you. I hope the team used the bye to work on taking better angles against receivers and tackling once they meet the ball-carrier.
On the offensive side of the ball, the ground game needs to improve. Opponents should have to respect the passing game with Taylor Kelly returning next week, so hopefully that gives D.J. Foster some room to work. You can't compete for a Pac-12 title with 35 rushing yards per game.
I think a successful season would mean nine wins and a return to the Holiday Bowl (or something higher). Depending on who the other two losses come against and what happens throughout the rest of the conference, the team might be in contention for another Pac-12 championship game berth. I think those are some realistic and good goals. The question marks at quarterback, running back, the entire defense, and problems with timeouts have me doubting that a run at one of the New Years's six games is possible. Still, 9-3 would be a solid season that the team could be proud of.