Mailbag: Rethinking Arizona State

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To the notes!

Kevin from San Antonio writes: With the first half of the season in the books, Arizona State sits at 5-1, 3-0 in the Pac-12. What is your updated prediction on how they'll finish and where they'll end up during bowl season?

Ted Miller: Can we wait until next Friday?

The reaction of Arizona State fans has been interesting. My mailbag is full of excited fans. And some oddly angry and profane trolling. But it's clear the fanbase is raising a hopeful eyebrow at the Sun Devils.

First off, welcome back.

Second, you might want to put a "cautiously" in front of your optimistic. Just to be safe.

Arizona State has looked great so far, other than the loss at Missouri. A 5-1 start has been impressive, and it might get the Sun Devils into the top-25 this week.

But there needs to be some qualification here.

  • The Sun Devils have not only not beaten an FBS opponent with a winning record, they haven't played one. Missouri, which didn't have its starting quarterback against ASU, is 3-3, 0-3 in the SEC and coming off a loss to Vanderbilt.

  • The combined record of the five teams the Sun Devils have beaten: 10-19.

  • The second-half schedule is far more taxing. It features four teams with a winning record -- three that are presently ranked in the top-11 -- as well as 3-3 Arizona.

  • The combined record of the six teams the Sun Devils have yet to play: 23-10.

Further, the Sun Devils were 5-1 last season against a far more difficult first-half schedule -- recall wins against USC and Missouri. They finished 6-6 and Dennis Erickson got fired.

So the eggs are there. Just don't call them chickens yet. If for no other reason than karma. The football gods hate overconfidence and premature celebrations.

All that said ... how can you not be impressed? So far this has been a disciplined, efficient unit that is playing well on both sides of the ball. Moreover, the future looks bright when many of your best players aren't seniors.

As for the schedule, other than the poor outing at Missouri, the Sun Devils have taken care of business by treating inferior foes with ruthlessness. I view the blowout against Utah and 10-point road win at California as quality victories, no matter the Utes and Bears present records.

So where do I think the Sun Devils end up? I'd say 8-4 or 9-3. I'd say that probably gets the Holiday or Sun Bowls. And, obviously, if Arizona State upsets No. 2 Oregon on Thursday, that projection would change in an upward direction.

It's fair to say that new coach Todd Graham is well-ahead of schedule with his reclamation project.

Now, changing gears a bit, I know it is typically hopeless to try to answer the gadfly element of the Pac-12 blog. But I will try on one issue.

The idea that at any point Kevin or I trashed Todd Graham, as some have noted in the comment section, is not just wrong, it's absurd. The opposite is actually true. The Pac-12 blog has been the biggest apologist for Graham since the day he left Pittsburgh after a single season amid national recrimination.

Here's some reading. One. Two. Three. Four. Five. Six. Seven.

Nicholas from Pullman, Wash., writes: do you think that Mike Leach and Washington state can turn the season in the right direction. If so how?

Ted Miller: To be honest, no, I don't see Leach and the Cougars turning the season around. The schedule isn't getting any easier, and this team has issues on both sides of the ball.

Many of us -- yeah, me -- thought Leach's offense would be a great fit for the returning personnel. But it hasn't been for whatever reason, see an offense that ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in scoring and ninth in yards per game.

In some ways, Leach's first year stands in stark contrast to Graham. Whereas Graham's culture change seemingly has been embraced in the locker room, Leach's apparently has been resisted. Whereas Graham's schemes have seemed good fits for the Sun Devils' returning -- and new -- talent, that hasn't been the case for Leach in Pullman.

Leach, it appears, is going to need some time to recruit his sorts of players to fit his schemes. That surely is disappointing to hear for Washington State fans. But Leach's strong track record should be some consolation. He's going to get things going. It just might take three seasons to see a big step up in the Pac-12.

Jason from Portland writes: I have to take issue with how great BYU's rushing defense is being presented. I get that they may be solid, but when you take a look at the competition they have faced and the running games of those teams, it's a little hard to justify being overly awed of the Cougars. They are 4-2, with losses to Utah and Boise State, and wins over Wazzu, Hawaii, Utah State and Weber State. Weber is a FCS school. Utah State is 64th in the nation in rushing. Boise? 78th. Utah? 112th. Hawaii? 114th. Wazzu? 118th. Hardly a pack of rushing powerhouses, yes? On top of that, Weber is 0-6 on the season with two losses to FBS schools and four more to FCS schools. Scoring points of any kind is not their forte. This doesn't mean BYU doesn't have a good rush D? It just provides a little perspective that they haven't been remotely close to challenged by a running game of any kind. This isn't to say they won't shut down OSU's running game (ranked 106), but they also haven't been tested by quality runners of any kind. Just saying.

Ted Miller: Fair enough. I still think the BYU defense is pretty salty.

James from Portland writes: For a long time I was deeply mystified as to why Darron Thomas would make such a risky move as to declare for the draft. That was before Mariota took the field. Given what we know about Chip Kelly and how Mariota's season has been so far, do you think that DT took his chances in the draft because he didn't think he could win the starting QB job back?

Ted Miller: I know where you're coming from, but I don't think so. If Darron Thomas had returned, I'm pretty certain he would have been the starting quarterback this fall.

Thomas led the Ducks to an unbeaten regular season and the national title game as a first-year starter in 2010. He won the Rose Bowl the following year. While he certainly was a flawed quarterback, the Ducks' offense thrived with him behind center. My impression is that Chip Kelly liked his moxie.

Might Kelly have created packages for Marcus Mariota (or Bryan Bennett, for that matter)? Possibly. That's the sort of thing he does. But it's hard for me to believe Thomas would have been beaten out.

Chris from Illinois writes: Bro, you are usually so good about not only giving me optimism but keeping me grounded with my Oregon State Beavers... But I am so disappointed with you.. You, being the unbiased, well rounded writer you are, failed to even mention an Oregon State defender on you Pac-12 DPY watch list. And well, it's a shame, because arguably the two best defenders in the conference play for the orange and black and you didn't even give them a mention. Scott Crichton has 6 sacks this season, and has essentially dominated in every game. Jordan Poyer... I could probably stop there, but for the sake of my argument 4 INTs, 1 sack, maybe best cover corner in the nation, and certaintly worth consideration in the Pac-12 DPY. Ted... My man, what happened?

Ted Miller: You are probably right and I am probably wrong.

While I'm trying to keep the number of players on the list down, both Crichton and Poyer should have been included. And Washington cornerback Desmond Trufant, too.

And Oregon linebackers Michael Clay and Kiko Alonso.

See. Hard to keep the number of names down.