Will the 2014 Sun Devils become the reincarnation of 2008?
In 2013, the Sun Devils were dominant from the start of the season through November, posting a 10-2 record and point differential of +227. Arizona State was dominated by a more physical Stanford team in the Pac-12 Championship game, lost to the Texas Tech Red Raiders in the ensuing Holiday Bowl. The bowl game was a particularly tough loss because Arizona State was a 14-point favorite, which made the loss one of the biggest upsets of the 2014 bowl season.
Within the context of all Sun Devil football seasons, 2013 was exceedingly successful. Despite anticlimactic losses in postseason play, the 10 wins were the most since 2007. The similarities between the 2007 and 2013 season don't stop at win totals. The 2007 Sun Devils, led by first year coach Dennis Erickson, also ended their season with an apathetic double-digit loss in the Holiday Bowl.
The Sun Devils are hoping these parallels don't continue into 2014. After his promising debut season, Erickson led his Sun Devils to an uninspiring 5-7 record 2008. Erickson was never able to replicate his initial success and was dismissed after the 2012 season.
This fall, the Sun Devils are returning six offensive starters from 2013. The post-2007 Sun Devils brought back eight, but the players they lost weren't the reason they underachieved. The 2008 Sun Devils regressed because of which positions they lost.
In 2007, the offensive line was an issue, even though the offense as a whole played well. The 2007 Sun Devils surrendered 55 sacks, the highest total in school history. The loss of standout center Mike Pollack and both starting tackles depleted an already weak unit up front. The offensive line departures killed the team, and the offense was significantly worse despite retaining its starting quarterback, Rudy Carpenter, and receivers Chris McGaha and Michael Jones.
According to Football Outsiders, the 2007 Sun Devils ranked 17th in the nation in Offensive Fremeau Efficiency Index (OFEI), a metric that evaluates the efficiency of an offense based on field position, opponent and baseline performances among other factors. The 2008 Sun Devils dropped to No. 95 in OFEI.
This season's team is retaining fewer offensive starters, but the personnel losses will not have the negative impact they had on the 2008 offense. The offense returns three of last season's starting five on the line, including standouts Jamil Douglas and Vi Teofilo. The addition of Auburn transfer Christian Westerman should also ensure this unit does not become a weakness.
The departure of Marion Grice is not ideal for the Sun Devils, but DJ Foster, who spent a great deal of last season as a slot wide out, is talented enough to competently replace and potentially exceed Grice's production. Aside from Grice, the Sun Devils will return all of their impact players on offense. And unlike the 2008 Sun Devils, they are not entering the season with any glaring offensive weaknesses.
The defensive attrition will be more impactful than this season's offensive losses. After turning in an outstanding 2013 season, the Sun Devil defense lost nine starters. Of those nine starters, six were honored with either first or second- team All-Pac-12 honors.
In 2008, the Devils did regress somewhat on defense but the difference in performance wasn't terribly significant. According to Football Outsiders, the Sun Devils dropped from No. 22 in the country to No. 40 in Defensive Fremeau Efficiency Index, a defensive version of the OFEI statistic.
The pass rush has been the focal point on defense since Todd Graham took over as head coach two seasons ago, and during those two seasons, the Sun Devils racked up 91 sacks. The loss of all four starters on the defensive line is immensely significant for a team that relies heavily on pressuring the quarterback.
If there is any reason to believe the Sun Devils defense will not depreciate, it is because of Todd Graham and his defensive system. Graham has done a solid job of extracting production from his talented front seven. It is very possible that his system is one of main reasons Arizona State amassed such prodigious sack totals over the past two seasons. This season will be a good litmus test for future seasons, in that it will help determine if Graham's system can be successful without players like Will Sutton and Carl Bradford wreaking havoc on offensive lines.
It is unknown how reliant Graham is on his star pass rushers, but it does appear that Graham gets more production out of his players than Erickson. During his tenure at Arizona State, Erickson's teams struggled with penalties, specifically personal fouls, which implies the teams he coached lacked discipline on the field. The most prominent example of this is Vontaze Burfict. Burfict, a highly regarded recruit from California, was flagged for personal fouls incessantly and his performance was quite underwhelming in his final season. Two years into his own tenure, Graham has managed to cut the penalty yards dramatically and his players all appear to play to their potential.
Graham's aggressive system paired with his value as a coach should ease the transition into their retooled defense. However, regression should still be expected because of the talent lost and the inexperience of the front seven. Expect the drop in defensive efficiency to be comparable to the drop in 2008, which is not terribly severe.
Strength of Schedule
Another factor of significance when comparing the 2007-08 seasons to the 2013-14 seasons is strength of schedule. Between the 2007 and 2008 seasons, according to Football Outsiders, the Sun Devil's strength of schedule eased from No. 21 in the country to No. 42.
This appears counterintuitive because the Sun Devils lost significantly more games with an easier schedule, and for the same reason, it also seems irrelevant. What is important here is the discrepancy between 2007 and 2013. Last season, the Sun Devils strength of schedule ranked No. 1 in the country. This figure jumps off the page. While some regression in wins can be expected due to attrition, it may be offset if the schedule in 2014 is easier.
At the surface, the 2014 season seems appears eerily similar to 2008: The preceding seasons mirror each other in win totals and post-season results. The 2014 Sun Devils are actually losing a greater quantity of starters than the 2008 team. While this does create an ominous outlook, better coaching, a lack of offensive weaknesses and a strong schedule the season prior can curb the negative impact of the starters lost. Slight regression should be expected, but the 2014 Sun Devils should be significantly more successful than they were in 2008.