Sun Devils hoping to rebound this season
TEMPE, Ariz. (AP) Arizona State coach Todd Graham made bold statements before the 2015 season, touting the Sun Devils as national title contenders.
After those aspirations fell flat, Graham has changed the notes this season.
No boasting, no bravado. Just play hard and do the talking with actions on the field.
''The key for us is getting back to playing Sun Devil football,'' Graham said.
Graham wasn't the only one to predict big things for the Sun Devils last season. Coming off consecutive 10-win seasons, Arizona State became a sleeper pick in the national-title conversation.
Those predictions disappeared by the fourth game and the season sputtered away with a three-game conference losing streak.
Arizona State still made a bowl game for the fourth straight season under Graham, but lost to West Virginia in the Cactus Bowl just 10 miles from its campus in Tempe.
This season could be just as difficult.
The Sun Devils will start a quarterback – which one is still up in the air – who has never thrown a collegiate pass, have to rebuild their offensive line and have questions in the secondary of a defense that was wrecked by big plays a year ago.
Unless they come together quickly and get some breaks along the way, this could end up being a rebuilding season. Of course, Graham has found a way to win wherever he's gone, so don't count them out of a bowl game just yet.
A few more things to look for from Arizona State in the 2016 season:
QUARTERBACKS: Except for his first season in the desert, Arizona State has been steady at quarterback since Graham's arrival. Taylor Kelly won the job and kept it for three years, then Mike Bercovici took over last season after filling in for an injured Kelly the year before. This season, the Sun Devils have no quarterbacks on their roster who have thrown a collegiate pass. Arizona State started with a four-man race, but that could be down to two after an injury to redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins. Sophomore Manny Wilkins has worked with the first team in camp, but redshirt freshman Brady White change things if he plays well heading into the season.
FINISH, FINISH, FINISH: The Sun Devils could have had a completely different outcome to their 2015 season had they been able to finish games. Arizona State had a difficult time holding second-half leads last season and lost three games by a combined 11 points. Win those and it would have been nine wins, not six. The Sun Devils must do a better job closing out this season to have success.
DEFENSIVE STOPS: Arizona State has played an attacking-style defense since Graham arrived, using blitzes and pressure up front to create havoc in the opposing team's backfield. The Sun Devils' plan backfired last season as they were repeatedly hit for big plays, causing ASU to be the nation's worst pass defense, allowing 337.8 yards per game. Arizona State lost three starters in the backfield and Graham is hoping to get better pressure from a four-man front rather than blitzing so often. Defensive end JoJo Wicker could be the key to that with his explosiveness off the ball.
KEY GAMES: Oct. 1 at USC; Oct. 29 at Oregon; Nov. 10 vs. Utah; Nov. 25 at Arizona.
SEASON OPENER: Sept. 3 vs. Northern Arizona. Facing their smaller in-state rival could allow the Sun Devils to gain confidence right out of the gate. With a difficult conference schedule, Arizona State could use some to get rolling.
PREDICTION: 6-6. The Sun Devils have a lot of questions and an unproven quarterback. Playing in the difficult Pac-12, that could be tough to overcome.