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An Absurdly Premature Assessment of: Arizona State

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A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the too-long interim.
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The least you should know about Oregon...
2006 Record
7-6 (4-5 Pac Ten/T-Fifth)
Past Five Years
36-27 (20-21 Pac Ten)
Returning Starters, Roughly
17 (8 Offense, 9 Defense)
Best Player
ASU’s backfield had more than 2,100 total yards returning from its 2005 backfield in Keegan Herring and Rudy Burgess, but junior college transfer Ryan Torain was the starter by the third game and wound up with 1,229 yards on 5.5 per carry. He stroked Cal and Oregon for big gains early and Arizona and Hawaii late, and only USC among opposing defenses really held Torain in check once he was firmly in the lineup, though large, turnover-fueled deficits (see left) very often did their part to minimize his contributions.
Aside from its reputation for steroids, point-shaving, dirty, dirty cheerleaders and all things simultaneously sunny and sleazy, Arizona State is haunted by one eternal question: who first called its teams the "Sun Devils"? Arizona was not a state until the 1930s, and the school was still a normal college playing basketball in high school gyms when the student body was swayed to replace "Bulldogs" with the infinitely cooler "Sun Devils" in 1946. Not as geographically cool in the Southwest of the mid-forties as "Arizona State Teacher’s College Nuclear Mutant Killers," mind you, but better than "Bulldogs." There are no bulldogs in this unforgiving desert hell! We’re the devils! The school immediately moved to offset its demonic moniker with its private booster club, the Sun Angel Foundation (get it?), founded in 1947, though generous parties may still join the Devil’s Domain.

The selection of teams for these previews, SMQ would like to point out up front, is completely random. This may only be an issue because, two weeks into the process, an inordinate number of Pac Ten teams (the People's Republic of Arizona State today is the conference's third out of just seven overall) has come up for scrutinizin'. Without revealing the highly sophisticated methods to his prognostication madness, SMQ will only admit there could be a reason for this imbalance, but it's not intentional and it shouldn't continue.

Anyway, onward...

What's Changed: Nominally, the head coach, but make no mistake: whichever figurehead may be placed "above" him to serve as the public face of the program, the People's Republic is justly governed by a player-led junta headed by popularly-elected quarterback and el Presidente Rudy Carpenter. Dennis Erickson is a solid choice for Carpenter's volatile disposition, not only because his record indicates he is more likely to recognize the victory of Carpenter's dictatorship of the proletariat and ease the intasquad meddling that helped cost Koetter his position, but because he's demonstrated at Miami and then Oregon State an ability, even amid sometimes chaotic circumstances, to maximize a program's potential (as well as, anecdotally, its reserves of Old Charter; he could take solace in aspiring to be a sort of coaching Churchill, or at least Ulysses Grant).

Hey, kid, what am I, a lightweight? You fill that glass up to about here. Then top me off.
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What's the Same: Not to question the glorious leader, but seventeen starts into his career, Carpenter's still a question mark: unconscious as a freshman, when he led the nation in passing effieciency, averaged 356 yards with a 17:2 TD-INT ratio and was Insight Bowl MVP, to crushingly average after beating Keller for the starting job last year, when suddenly his yards dropped almost in half and interceptions soared (14 in 13 games). Sophomore slump, etc., the real Rudy Carpenter will be standing up now as a veteran, one way or another, with all of two career victories (vs. Rutgers in 2005 and Nevada last year) over winning teams. That can't improve unless he is personally better.

Taking My Time: Ryan Torain was a tremendous JUCO addition at running back, and 2005 near-1,000 rusher Keegan Herring continued to play pretty well in a reserve role, too, but there wasn't much opportunity for handing off in conference play because the Sun Devils fell so far behind so quickly in so many games. ASU was at least two touchdowns back in the first half of four different games, and by as many as four touchdowns. Most of the games against Cal, USC, Oregon and Oregon State were spent scrambling from early deficits caused by turnovers of all varieties, a couple failed fourth down attempts, and, at Cal, a punt return for touchdown. Up 10-3 at the half against Hawaii in the bowl game, the Devils were down two touchdowns by the start of the fourth quarter. The defense wasn't bad - not good, certainly, just mediocre most of the time - 160;but the team was extremely adept at giving up a lot of points very quickly. This is only partly because Carpenter was occasionally adept at giving up interceptions very quickly, but the circumstances didn't help his cause any.

Tradition Never Graduates. Good Players, On the Other Hand...: After five years of Shaun McDonald and then Derek Hagan doing record-breaking things at receiver, part of the dip offensively was on the inconsistent wideouts, none of whom caught more than 20 passes or had more than one game with at least four grabs; tight end Zach Miller was by far the leading receiver with 50 catches, and is about to be paid handsomely for it by the football-playing football professionals putting football teams on the football fields of the National Football League. Terry Richardson and Rudy Burgess, the leading returning receivers from `05 and the leaders through the first three games last year, were both out with injuries before the end of September, and neither would catch another pass the rest of the season.

Who will take Miller's catches? Burgess will be back; there's nothing very exciting about Mike Jones' or Chris McGaha's performances as they were constituted last year, or about Carpenter's, for that matter, but the Devils' track record in terms of explosiveness the four previous years leaves the passing game an open book.

Overly Optimistic Coming-and-Going Spring Chatter: Scottsdale native Loren Howard was a freshman all-American and then all-Big Ten at Northwestern before an injury cost him the first half his 2004 campaign. He transferred home to ASU right before the start of the 2005 season, sat out the requisite season, then missed all of last year with a quadriceps injury he suffered at a local camp. He was granted a sixth year of eligibility by the NCAA, but Howard informed Erickson Tuesday he wouldn't be back in football, having never seen the field for ASU:

"We had a long conversation," Erickson said after practice. "He's decided not to play. Those injuries, all the things he's had to deal with over a long period of time. It's just not worth it for him to play. I totally agree, and I know our doctors do. It's just not good for him to play. He needs to get on with his life."

Another longtime injury absence was back at practice on the other side of the line, though: Zach Krula told the Arizona Republic he was "glad to be back among familiar faces," but not very many of them remain since Krula last started at guard in early 2005 (Krula's bio points this out in the way of offensive line stats: "during the three games in which he played [in 2005], ASU's offense gained an average of 630.7 yards-per-game of total offense and scored an average of 48.7 points." So watch out for "big, talented" Zach Krula).

Arizona State on YouTube: Ever wonder what it would be like to attend school in the desert paradise of Arizona State University? A guy who looks kinda like SMQ's friend Taylor shows you exactly what in a brief "day in the life" segment that opens something called Every Sun Devil:

Exciting, huh? ASU should add "expend excessive effort for disappointing Facebook message" to the 102 things every Sun Devil should experience before some poor, homebody student misses out on that.

See also: The official Sun Devil Laws for ASU football (so that's where that fight song comes from! - ed.), and a few fan-drafted amendments; Arizona State's most popular indigenous tradition: the Tempe 12 Girls in a bikini contest and their2006-07 calendar shoot. (Yes, this famous ASU student has a video on YouTube, if you're wondering - of course you were, if you haven't found it already - but after some consideration SMQ decided the end of that borderline clip is not even safe for linking).

Best-Case: The non-conference games  - San Jose State, Colorado, San Diego State, all at home - aren't automatic, but given Colorado's 2-10 futility of late, they're close. They're also followed by the softer components of the Pac Ten, which will make a 7-0 start entering an open date and home game with Cal not all that unlikely. Even if ASU loses three of the tougher five from there, it could win nine; manage to beat both Oregon and UCLA on the road, it could hit ten for the first time since the near-miracle undefeated regular season in 1996. The Holiday Bowl is a reach with Cal in the picture, but maybe...the Sun?

Worst-Case: ASU almost lost last year's opener with Northern Arizona, for crying out loud, which makes vastly improved San Jose State a potential harbinger of months of pain out of the gate. Colorado, Washington State, Washington, Oregon, UCLA and Arizona are all reasonable toss-up games from there. It's not reasonable to assume, even in the worst-case, that the Devils will lose all of those games, but if they come up, say, 2-4, things could bottom out at 4-8. That's much worse than the middling bowl bids that got Koetter canned.

Non-Binding Forecast: Eh, off two straight seven-win years, same old. The only result that would really matter would be a Holiday or (more likely) Sun Bowl match with Nebraska, only to give Keller and Carpenter a chance to try to outduel one another and inevitably ending with Keller gutting his rival at midfield while Rudy implores his suddenly not-very-loyal teammates for help as he writhes in the dust, before Keller falls to his knees and envisions meeting his wife and child in field of high-contrast wheat. Or something like that. Anyway, even another 4-5 conference mark would probably be good for eight wins and the Sun Bowl, whatever cruel fate awaits.