ASU preview: Sun Devils looking to get back on track after back-to-back losing seasons

TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State coach Todd Graham received contract extensions after each of the past four seasons, keeping his contract length at the original five years.

This summer, Arizona State President Michael Crow and athletic director Ray Anderson opted not to give Graham an extension, a decision the coach had no trouble with after a pair of losing seasons.

“If you’re 5-7, I don’t really think that you should get an extension,” Graham said during preseason camp. “I do have a good contract, a five-year contract with over four years left on it with a great investment and commitment from Dr. Crow and Ray, but we’re in the performance business. I signed up for it so I have no problem with that.”

Graham once had Arizona State’s program performing like a sports car, leading the Sun Devils to three straight bowl games and a pair of 10-win seasons.

The Sun Devils have been stuck in neutral the past two seasons, going 6-7 and losing in the Cactus Bowl in 2015 before finishing 5-7 last season.

Arizona State’s offense, once one of college football’s most prolific, started to sputter the past two seasons and the attacking defense became susceptible to big plays, ranking among the worst in the FBS each of the past two seasons.

Another losing season and Graham may not only get passed over for another extension, he may be looking for a job.

“If you look at and see the investment this university has made to me, it’s been remarkable and I’m very grateful for that and grateful for the opportunity we have here, but you have to perform,” Graham said.

A few things to look for from Arizona State in 2017:

THE DEFENSE: Graham likes to play an attacking defense, with lots of blitzes to put pressure on the opposing offense. The scheme worked the first three seasons with the Sun Devils ranking among the national leaders in tackles for loss, but it has backfired the past two seasons as teams have reeled off one big play after another against ASU. Graham demoted his friend and defensive coordinator Keith Patterson, bringing in former SMU head coach Phil Bennett to run the defense. Arizona State ranked last in the FBS in pass defense the past two years and is hoping a rebuilt secondary can change that.

QUARTERBACK: Manny Wilkins proved to be a dynamic, defender-hurdling force as a sophomore last season, but had a string of injuries that caused him to miss two games and play banged up for two months. Wilkins is the returning the starter, but will be pushed by Alabama transfer Blake Barnett . Wilkins opened preseason camp as the starter and Graham said Barnett will have to beat him out to take it over.

RUN GAME: While the quarterback situation is up in the air, at least a little, the Sun Devils should be solid on the ground. Seniors Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard were not nearly as productive last season as they were in 2015, but that was in part because Arizona State found itself constantly having to play catch-up because of its defense. If the offensive line stays healthy, expect Ballage and Richard to return to form. Freshman Eno Benjamin turned a few heads in camp.

KEY GAMES: Arizona State opens at home against New Mexico State on Aug. 31 and has two potentially tough nonconference games against San Diego State (Sept. 9) and Texas Tech (Sept 16). The Sun Devils open the Pac-12 season against Oregon and have road games against Stanford on Sept. 30, Utah on Oct. 21 and UCLA on Nov. 11 before closing the season against rival Arizona at home on Nov. 25.

PREDICTION: The Sun Devils were picked fifth in the Pac-12 South in the preseason media poll, but could be better than that if the defense is better and the quarterback play is steady.