Arizona State enters their bye week 4-1 and sitting atop the Pac-12 South, looking down on the rest of the division. Had you told me this at the beginning of the year, my reaction would have similar to this.
This is a team that I thought would four game the whole season and now the Sun Devils are just two wins away from becoming bowl eligible in Todd Graham's first year in Tempe.
So, how exactly did ASU get to this point and what should we expect in the final seven games of the season?
Let's start by looking back to Graham has completely changed the culture of this program is such a short amount of time.
Many were skeptical of Graham when he first arrived on campus. He has since silenced those critics by getting ASU to play sound, disciplined football. However, the Sun Devils are nowhere close to where Graham envisions this program. Yes, he's talked Pac-12 and National Championships, but that's not what I mean. The smallest, minute mistakes irritate Graham to no end, just listen to his press conferences.
That, to me, is by far the biggest change from last year to this year.
Listen, ASU is not the best team in the conference, they probably are not the best team in the Pac-12 South. But, the Sun Devils seemed to be improving every week and learning from their mistakes. That starts and ends with Graham. And people are beginning to notice.
Of course, we cannot talk about ASU's fast start without mentioning Taylor Kelly, Chris Coyle and Will Sutton.
Kelly was an after though in August. The redshirt freshman now leads the Pac-12 in passing efficiency (166.3), ranks 22nd in the nation in total passing yards (1,292) and has a ridiculous 9.2 yards per completion. No one is going to say Kelly is dazzling, but he is effective and accurate, two things Graham loves. Plus, the offense just runs smoother when he is taking the snaps (the Michael Eubank experiment is border-lining on a disaster at this point). I am still interested to see how Kelly responds against better opponents, like Oregon, Oregon State and USC.
Coyle has become Kelly's favorite target, mainly because the system calls for more involvement from the tight ends. Dennis Erickson never utilized that position. In Erickson's final 25 games, tight ends caught a combined eight passes. Coyle leads the Devils 26 catches for 338 yards and two touchdowns. Needless to say, it's nice to see the tight end become a staple in the ASU offense again.
Sutton's improvement is far less surprising, but I do believe he has (finally) reached his potential. Hell, you can argue he has exceed it . If you are handing out awards right now, Sutton has to be the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, and it's not even close. He is third in the nation and leading the Pac-12 with 6.5 sacks and also leads the conference in tackles for a loss with 10.0.
Not only has Sutton been great, but the entire Sun Devil front-seven is playing out of its mind. Chris Young, Carl Bradford, Brandon Magee and Junior Onyeali continue to make plays week in and week out. There ability to consistently get to the quarterback as taken pressure of a below-average secondary that got torched last season.
Still, there are plenty concerns surrounding the Sun Devils.
ASU is still susceptible to the run. Outside of the Utah game (sorry, NAU doesn't count), the Devils are having trouble stopping the run. Jeff Tedford let the defense off the hook by continuing to throw the ball, despite the fact that Isi Sofele and CJ Anderson were gashing the Sun Devils for big gains. Illinois had no option but to run and Josh Ferguson still had a 100-yard game. You can't help but wonder what De'Anthony Thomas or Silas Redd might do in a few weeks.
Another area that concerns me is the Devils problems inside the 20. ASU ranks 88th in the country in red zone efficiency. Now, some of that can be contributed to replacing Kelly or Eubank. But some of it is also a result of turnovers. There's no question ASU's schedule is back-loaded (#2 Oregon, #25 UCLA, @ #14 Oregon State, @ #13 USC in four straight weeks), so converting on those trips to the red zone will be very critical the remainder of the season.
ASU's running game is starting to disappear a little bit. Think about this for a quick second, Cameron Marshall has only 21 more rushing yards than Kelly (164-143). DJ Foster has been a bright spot and is proving how explosive he can be, but ASU will have to average more than 2.9 yards per carry, like they have over the last three games.
The bottom line is ASU has not faced the stiffest competition. Illinois, Utah, Cal and even Missouri have all performed below expectations. So while 4-1 was unheard of at the beginning of the year, it's not that surprising when you look back. Will find out what these Sun Devils are made off by the end of the month. ASU certainly has the talent to challenge USC and UCLA for a spot in the Pac-12 Title Game and continue to surprise some folks along the way. But if the Devils do fall off a bit, a bowl game is certainly obtainable now.
And that would certainly exceed everybody's expections.