Arizona State's last Pac-12 South champ has lessons for 2021 (2024)

TEMPE, Ariz. — As the final seconds ticked away, Arizona State coach Todd Graham ran on the field at the Rose Bowl and raised his right hand. On Nov. 23, 2013, the Sun Devils defeated UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South Division title.

They had a made significant leap in Year 2 under Graham, jumping from eight wins to the Pac-12 championship game. As coach Herm Edwards prepares for his fourth season in Tempe, the Sun Devils are positioned for a similar leap.


Nine offensive starters return, including quarterback Jayden Daniels. Defensively, everyone returns. The Sun Devils are positioned to contend. The Athletic’s Stewart Mandel ranked them No. 25 in his early preseason Top 25. But to win the South, Arizona State might need to look back and follow the blueprint from 2013.

Here are five qualities that boosted those Sun Devils.

1. Explosiveness

In 2013: This team could score. The Sun Devils averaged 39.7 points per game, which ranked second in the Pac-12 and 10th in the FBS. They put up 50-plus points six times, including 62 on USC, which got Trojans coach Lane Kiffin fired on the trip home to Los Angeles.

This was Mike Norvell at his best. The young offense coordinator had a creative play list and the talent to pull it off. (It’s also worth noting that all but one assistant from Graham’s 2012 staff returned.) Norvell had a dual-threat quarterback in Taylor Kelly, a smooth running back in Marion Grice, a versatile playmaker in D.J. Foster and a clutch wide receiver in Jaelen Strong.

Kelly threw for 3,635 yards (with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions) and rushed for 608 more. Grice ran for 996 yards, missing the season’s final three contests with a foot injury. Foster rushed for 501 yards and caught 63 passes, while Strong had 1,064 receiving yards in his first season out of junior college. Behind that firepower, Arizona State finished with 86 plays of 20-plus yards, which tied for seventh nationally.

Under Edwards: Although the Sun Devils have had explosive moments over the past three seasons, few would describe them as an explosive team. Under coordinator Rob Likens, Arizona State averaged 29.9 points in 2018 and 24.8 points in 2019. That and a decent defense will get you to the Sun Bowl. (Note: In 10 years, only two Pac-12 champs have averaged fewer than 30 points.)


After the 2019 season, Edwards fired Likens and brought in Boise State coordinator Zak Hill. The Sun Devils put up 40.3 in four games last fall, which is a promising start, but 2021 will be the true test. In Year 2 of Hill’s system, the Sun Devils should have an experienced quarterback in Daniels, two talented running backs in Chip Trayanum and Rachaad White and what could be their best offensive line in years. (By the way, although White’s style mirrors Grice, his versatility mirrors Foster.) They just need their young crop of receivers to step up and make plays.

2. Health and experience on the offensive line

In 2013: This is huge. On their way to the South title, the Sun Devils started the same five guys for all 14 games. They were:

LT Evan Finkenberg, fifth-year senior
LG Jamil Douglas, fourth-year junior
C Kody Koebensky, fifth-year senior
RG Vi Teofilo, third-year sophom*ore
RT Tyler Sulka, fourth-year junior

It wasn’t the Pac-12’s best front, but it was dependable. A four-year starter, Finkenberg was an All-Pac-12 first-team selection. Douglas, an all-conference second-team pick, was on his way to 40 consecutive starts. By the time he graduated, Teofilo would match him. The line gave up a lot of sacks — Kelly’s habit of extending plays sometimes led to losses — but the Sun Devils averaged 191.36 rushing yards per game, which ranked 40th nationally.

Under Edwards: With four starters set to return, this should be the first time Arizona State has had real continuity up front. The Sun Devils returned three starters in 2019 but spent the first few weeks trying to find the right combination. Offensive line coach Dave Christensen eventually started two true freshmen in hopes it would pay off in the future. That day might be here, with Mike Cavanaugh now running the unit.

The NCAA’s decision to grant players an extra year of eligibility because of COVID-19 helps significantly. The Sun Devils started the same five all four games last season. Sophom*ore left guard Dohnovan West was an All-Pac-12 first team selection, and left tackle Kellen Diesch (a graduate transfer from Texas A&M) played much better than expected. This is the best Arizona State’s front has looked in a long time.


3. A dominant defender

In 2013: Every strong defense needs someone to be feared. Someone who’s circled at the top of the scouting report. Someone who must be gameplanned against. For the South champs, this was Will Sutton.

The two-time Pac-12 Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year, Sutton was by no means a one-man band — Arizona State had six defensive players earn All-Pac-12 recognition — but he was the focal point of Graham’s aggressive style. As a junior the previous season, Sutton produced 10.5 sacks and 20 tackles for loss, earning consensus All-America honors. As a senior, he attracted more attention and those numbers dipped to four sacks and 13.5 TFLs, but he still was a force.

Under Edwards: The Sun Devils return their entire defense. Three players in the defensive backfield — seniors Chase Lucas, Jack Jones and Evan Fields — should be All-Pac-12 candidates. But junior linebacker Merlin Robertson needs to be the enforcer. He’s the one who can elevate the entire unit. In 2018, Robertson was the Pac-12’s Defensive Freshman of the Year. In 2019, he slipped. In four games last season, Robertson flashed all-conference form. Arizona State will need more in 2021.

4. Turnover margin

In 2013: Graham harped on this nearly every day. “Ball security.” This season, it paid off. In 14 games, Arizona State had a 1.07 turnover margin, which ranked seventh nationally. With Sutton and rush specialist Carl Bradford producing pressure, quarterbacks didn’t have much time to throw. When they did, it didn’t always turn out well.

The Sun Devils forced 33 turnovers (fifth in the nation) and picked off 21 passes (third). They returned five of those interceptions for touchdowns. On offense, Arizona State lost 18 turnovers (31st nationally). All season, they lost only six fumbles (tied for 12th).

Under Edwards: The Sun Devils are right there. Over the last three seasons, they’ve ranked 11th, sixth and first nationally in turnover margin. In 2020, they had 13 takeaways and lost just five turnovers. Consistent pressure on the quarterback, which Arizona State showed last season, will help this season’s cause.

5. Early tests

In 2013: Arizona State’s first-half schedule was brutal. The Sun Devils hosted Wisconsin, visited Stanford, hosted USC and met Notre Dame in Texas — all before the second week of October. They finished that stretch 2-2. At the time, no one knew what to make of this team. Stanford had beaten the Sun Devils 42-28 but led 29-0 at halftime. A beatable Notre Dame team had escaped 37-34.


But that tough start prepared Arizona State for the conference season. The Sun Devils beat Colorado 54-13 on Oct. 12 and didn’t lose for the rest of the regular season, closing with seven consecutive wins, four on the road, including the South clincher at UCLA.

Under Edwards: Arizona State played a home-and-home against Michigan State in 2018-19. (COVID-19 wiped out last season’s nonconference games.) Next season the Sun Devils are scheduled to host Southern Utah and UNLV before traveling to BYU, which finished 11-1 in 2020 but loses talented quarterback Zach Wilson, who finished eighth in Heisman Trophy voting. It’s not the difficult stretch Arizona State faced in 2013, but even Graham admitted he wasn’t sure he’d do that again.

(Photo: Christian Petersen / Getty Images)

Arizona State's last Pac-12 South champ has lessons for 2021 (1)Arizona State's last Pac-12 South champ has lessons for 2021 (2)

Doug Haller is a senior writer based in Arizona. He previously worked 13 years at The Arizona Republic, where he covered three Final Fours and four football national championship games. He is a five-time winner of the Arizona Sportswriter of the Year award. Follow Doug on Twitter @DougHaller

Arizona State's last Pac-12 South champ has lessons for 2021 (2024)
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