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Cal Football

A (Slightly) Too Early Opponent Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

July 22, 2019
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Weird things can happen in college athletics. But, for the most part, odd occurrences are not self-inflicted. That’s what made the firing of Todd Graham and hiring of Herm Edwards a major head-scratcher. When Graham was hired to coach the Arizona State Sun Devils in 2011, the Sun Devils hadn’t had a winning season in the previous four seasons. In his first season, Graham led ASU to an 8-5 record, including a bowl game win. The next two seasons were both 10-win seasons, totaling the same amount of double-digit win seasons the program had seen in the previous 26 seasons.

Sure, things didn’t go great after 2014. The next three seasons, the Sun Devils went 6-7, 5-7, and 7-6 respectively. But when Graham was let go after those three seasons, the Sun Devils had a third-year starting QB in Novato-native, Manny Wilkins and a projected first-round draft pick receiver in N’Keal Harry. Not giving Graham one more season was odd. Replacing him with Edwards, who hadn’t coached since being fired by the Kansas City Chiefs in 2008 was odder. Edwards only previous college coaching experience was as a defensive backs coach at San Jose State, which was a three-year stint. His record as an NFL head coach? Some 20 games under .500.

That’s a head-scratcher of a hire.

Regardless, Edwards silenced the critics a bit, leading the Sun Devils to a 7-5 regular-season record and a bid to the Las Vegas Bowl, which ended up in a 20-31 loss to Fresno State.

Still, that’s not to say Edwards has been a smashing success. Despite returning the Wilkins/Harry duo and having Eno Benjamin, a 1,600-yard rusher, the offense didn’t really improve from Graham’s final season. Wilkins’ number dropped slightly from 3,270 passing yards and a 142.6 passer rating in 2017 to 3,025 yards and a 141.2 passer rating. His rushing yards, however, did increase from 282 to 452. And with a large crop of returning talent on defense, there was improvement, but compared to what the Sun Devils had, it was an underwhelming improvement.

This season, ASU returns 52% of its offensive production from last season. If the offense looks familiar to Cal fans, that’s because Rob Likens is the offensive coordinator and has very much taken the Sonny Dykes Air Raid approach that he learned while coaching under Dykes at Louisiana Tech and Cal. Edwards, however, has traditionally been a run-first coach and that was reflected last season with a fairly balanced offensive approach.

Despite returning about half of the offense’s production and a solid line with a couple of all-conference honorable mention linemen, there are significant holes left by Wilkins, Benjamin, and Harry. The QB battle will likely come down to junior Dillon Sterling-Cole and two true freshmen in Joey Yellen and Jayden Daniels, the freak athlete and top-40 talent out of San Bernadino.

On defense, ASU returns 81% of its production to a slowly improving group. Defensive coordinator, Danny Gonzalez comes from the Rocky Long coaching tree and runs a 3-3-5 defensive package. Up front, things changed a bit last season, but expect ASU to always roll with five DBs. That package kind of reflects the on-field results last season. The Sun Devils were good at minimizing big yardage plays, but that’s about it. Opponents were able to convert third-downs at a 42% clip and the Sun Devils ranked 46th in Havoc rate. 

Despite losing safeties Jalen Harvey and Demonte King, who were key cogs in preventing big plays, ASU does get back some key pieces that could make life on Pac-12 offenses tough. Leading the group is sophomore linebacker Merlin Robertson, who recorded five sacks and 8.5 TFLs last season. Robertson highlights a young, but talented crop of playmakers for the Sun Devils defense.

Projection: Cal Bears 13, Arizona State Sun Devils 6

To be clear, Cal is not projected to win this game by the preseason FPI or S&P+ calculations, although it’s a virtual tossup. The FPI (ESPN’s Football Power Index) gives the Sun Devils a 56.2% chance of winning and the S&P+ has a 50-50 outcome with a zero-point margin. ASU is projected slightly better than Ole Miss in the FPI ratings. But, Cal has this game in Berkeley, which will help and despite some unproven performers in key roles on offense for both teams, Cal’s players are a little less unproven. Perhaps one of ASU’s new QBs will step up more than expected, but until that happens, it’s tough to see them come into Berkeley and put much on the board.

See the other opponent previews:

UC Davis

Washington

North Texas

Ole Miss

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A (Slightly) Too Early Opponent Preview: Arizona State Sun Devils

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