ARIZONA STATE (8-5, 5-4)
MVP: Taylor Kelly stunned many when he won the starting quarterback job in the fall. What looked like a question mark turned into stroke of genius by new head coach Todd Graham. Kelly was one of the most efficient quarterbacks in the country and a driving force behind ASU's successful first year under Graham. He completed a school record 67.1 percent of his throws for 3,030 yards with 29 touchdowns to just nine interceptions. He also rushed for 516 yards and a touchdown while finishing ninth in the country in efficiency and second in the conference. Defensive tackle Will Sutton seems to be the obvious choice. But ASU's defense is very high-risk, high reward. And more often than not it was the offense -- operated with calculated efficiency by Kelly -- that was the difference in games. You take Sutton off the team and ASU is still probably a six-win team going to a bowl game. Take Kelly off and the Sun Devils are likely home in December.
What went right: A lot of new coaches make promises. They aren't always kept. Graham promised discipline, and he delivered. He promised an exciting offense, and he delivered. He promised an up-tempo, aggressive defense, and he delivered. The Sun Devils ranked second in the Pac-12 in scoring offense, tied for fifth in scoring defense and they capped the season by winning the Territorial Cup and subsequently blasting Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl -- their first bowl win since 2005. It was ASU's first winning regular season since 2007. They produced the league's Defensive Player of the Year, Morris Trophy winner and All-American in Sutton and they were one of the most disciplined teams in the country (after finishing last in 2011) in terms of penalties. And if anyone saw the way they used their running backs in the screen game and in space, you have to be excited about the future of this program.
What went wrong: The Sun Devils accomplished a lot, but a lot of what was accomplished was against weaker competition. They were 0-2 versus teams in the final AP poll and just 3-4 against teams that finished with a record of .500 or better. They can only play the team that lines up in front of them, so we can't knock them too hard, but you look to the way they fell apart when Sutton was injured against Oregon combined with the ill-fated trips to Missouri, Oregon State and USC and you see a team that was good, but not yet elite. The UCLA loss was especially stinging because they blew multiple leads and allowed the game-winning drive at home. The UCLA win propelled the Bruins to the South Division title and ultimately left the Sun Devils looking up in third place in the division.
Outlook for 2013: At the completion of ASU's blowout win over Navy, there was room for cautious optimism about the Sun Devils next season. When Sutton announced he was returning, cautious optimism gave way to full-fledged jubilance. The Sun Devils will definitely be a major player in the South -- and they'll get a chance to prove themselves on the national stage with a ramped-up schedule that includes Notre Dame and Wisconsin. They miss Oregon -- one of the teams that thoroughly whopped them in 2012, but add Stanford. That Sept. 21 showdown at The Farm could be a meeting of the two best defensive fronts in the conference. There's reason to feel good about what ASU did in 2012 and there's also reason to think that upping the win total to nine or 10 games isn't unrealistic.