Posted on June 29, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. In the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
Off the field allegations have stolen some of the spotlight from what might be the best roster Arizona State has had since its 2013 Pac-12 South Championship team.
And on paper, the 2021 version of the Sun Devils could be even better.
But the NCAA investigation into alleged recruiting violations has the potential to derail a season that otherwise may bring the program to the edge of the College Football Playoff.
If true, those allegations could result in substantial penalties from the often arbitrary enforcement Committee, and—according to some analysts—could even cost Herm Edwards his job.
Navigating through that distraction becomes obstacle Number One for Edwards and his staff.
If they are able to do it successfully, the Sun Devils arguably have the talent to not only win the South, but also to claim a Pac-12 title and challenge for an invitation to the 2022 College Football Playoff.
The administration in Tempe allows the NCAA investigation to run its coarse without taking any preemptive actions, providing the coaching staff with the support it needs to focus on the season.
Although playing in only four games last year, the Sun Devil offense led the Pac-12 in points per game and its defense topped the charts in points allowed per contest.
And returning 15 starters, the expectations are even higher.
It all starts in the backfield. Chip Trayanum, Rachaad White, and Daniyel Ngata combined for 11 touchdowns as the ASU rushing attack led the Conference in yards per game during the 2020 season.
Each returns with another year of experience under his belt, setting the stage for another strong season.
The run game’s strength is arguably derived from Jayden Daniels. Entering his third year, the quarterback’s willingness to run the ball, and accuracy when throwing, opens the door for his backs to exploit.
The combination is deadly and figures to propel Arizona State to the top of the Pac-12.
Mix in an experienced defense that’s continually improved under Antonio Pierce, and the Sun Devils have the talent to return to the Pac-12 Championship Game for the first time since 2013.
If everything clicks, ASU could be knocking on the door of the Playoff with a victory over the North Division champion.
Worst Case Scenario
The continually evolving reports of recruiting violations during the NCAA imposed COVID dead period is too damaging for the ASU administration to stomach, resulting in the termination of Edwards and Pierce before the season begins.
The loss of the leaders send the campaign into a tail-spin, as opponents sense the weakness on the Sun Devil sideline and play with an extra sense of urgency week-in and week-out.
The shock of the coaching change rears its head against BYU, with additional defeats to UCLA, Stanford, Utah, USC, and Washington.
Though the year ends with victories over Oregon State and Arizona, the 6-6 record and bowl appearance is bitter medicine that leaves the fanbase with a grudge against the NCAA—one that lasts decades.
But assuming the administration in Tempe holds steady, a shock-loss to either Stanford, UCLA, or BYU that results in an eight-win season is arguably the floor for the Sun Devils in 2021.
What Should Happen
Pending an early decision from the administration, Daniels and the ASU defense should lead the team to a nine or 10-win season.
The returning talent on both sides of the ball is enough to expect nothing worse than a second-place finish in the South.
And the three former 4-star transfers, combined with the four 4-star freshmen recruits, should boost an already loaded roster.
The end result should be a battle with Utah and USC for the divisional championship.
The matchup with the Utes is a tough challenge in Salt Lake City, but the contest against the Trojans is favorable in Tempe.
The X-Factor in the race might turn out to be the road game in Seattle. If the Sun Devils win two out of those three, the South should be theirs.
And behind a rushing attack that projects to lead the Pac-12 once again, ASU might just get it done.
What Must Happen
Daniels’ career touchdown-to-interception ratio is among the best in all of college football. His skill in taking care of the ball has led some to label the sophomore quarterback a dark-horse Heisman candidate.
Daniels’ continual development might seem like a given, but the success of Arizona State’s season begins and ends with his play.
Interceptions in pivotal moments could be the difference between a South championship and a third-place finish.
The California-native has proven his worth through two seasons, but the spotlight has never been brighter.
If Daniels has the best season of his career, it’s going to be tough for anyone to beat ASU.
The running backs in Tempe stand out from a roster otherwise loaded with talent.
Trayanum and White figure to combine with Daniels to light up opponents on the ground, setting the tone from the opening play from scrimmage.
And under second-year offensive coordinator Zak Hill’s system, the trio should have even more success on the ground this season.
Perhaps most importantly, four starters return along the offensive line.
Led by Dohnovan West, the unit figures to once again power the Pac-12’s leading rushing attack with the addition of North Carolina transfer Triston Miller.
Yet, the Sun Devil defense as a whole might be its greatest strength. Chase Lucas, Evan Fields, Merlin Robertson, and Jermayne Lole lead their respective position groups on a defense that lacks any apparent weaknesses.
And LSU transfer Travez Moore should add even more talent along the line.
After leading the Pac-12 in points allowed per game, the combined strength under Pierce’s command is arguably why expectations are so high in Tempe this season.
The lack of experience at the wide receiver position is arguably the only weakness on the entire Arizona State roster.
The unit has young talent, including three former 4-star recruits, and the program has a track record of putting players at the position into the NFL.
But after the recent departures of Frank Darby, Brandon Aiyuk, and N’Keal Harry, there isn’t a defined leader to point to.
Utah transfer Bryan Thompson has been added to the mix, as has tight end and Oklahoma transfer Jalin Conyers. And four-star freshmen wideout Junior Alexander should get an opportunity.
Still, only one returning receiver on the ASU roster had more than one touchdown last season, and just two had 100 yards receiving or more.
If Arizona State is going to win the South, a heavy-hitter must emerge.
The administration and coaching staff’s handling of the NCAA investigation, and subsequent media reports, might be the difference during the upcoming season.
Additional stories figure to be published as Week One approaches, ratcheting up the pressure on the administration to take action.
It’s no secret that teams under investigation tend to perform worse due to the off-the-field noise, especially when individual coaches or players are singled out.
At the same time, media reports have the potential to invigorate an already motivated roster.
If Edwards and his staff are able to develop the “Us vs. Everybody” mentality, the distractions off the field could turn to success on it.
The season begins with cupcake matchups against Southern Utah and UNLV, followed by the first test of the season on the road against BYU. A 3-0 mark in nonconference play is a clear expectation.
Pac-12 play starts with winnable games against Colorado, UCLA, and Stanford.
With an opening slate like that, it’s not unreasonable to predict a 6-0 start, and a Top 10 ranking by mid-October.
But things get tough with a month-long stretch featuring battles with Utah, USC, and UW, with a showdown against Washington State sandwiched in the middle.
Anything can happen, but this stretch figures to define the success of the season. A 3-1 record in those contests could be the ticket to the Championship Game.
The year ends with a road game at Oregon State and the traditional Territorial Cup rivalry in Tempe.
Barring an unforeseen injury to Daniels or quick action by the Arizona State administration, an eight-win season could be the floor in 2021.
And if things go as some expect, the Sun Devils could emerge with as many as 10 wins and a Pac-12 South Championship to their names.
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