Pac-12: Arizona State Sun Devils

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
William Mancebo/Getty ImagesTaylor Kelly put seven touchdowns up on overmatched Washington State.
We're looking at some of the top individual performances in the Pac-12 in 2013.

Up next: Kelly orders a 7-up.

Who and against whom: Arizona State quarterback Taylor Kelly was a one-man wrecking crew in the Sun Devils’ 55-21 Halloween win over Washington State in Pullman.

The numbers: Kelly completed 22 of 31 passes for 275 yards with five passing touchdowns to go with 66 rushing yards and two scores on the ground.

A closer look: It was Kelly’s second five-touchdown performance of the season and the third of his career. The Sun Devils opened the game by scoring touchdowns on three of their first four possessions. The first two came on Kelly runs, the first from 7 yards out and the second from 6 yards. Then he connected on touchdown passes to Jaelen Strong, D.J. Foster, Richard Smith and Chris Coyle before the first half ended. His fifth passing touchdown and seventh total TD went to Foster in the third quarter. It matched the Pac-12 season high for touchdowns responsible for. Oregon’s Marcus Mariota (five passing, two rushing) against Colorado was the only other player to account for seven scores in a game this season. The victory was No. 3 in a seven-game win streak to close out the regular season for the Sun Devils.

Top 2015 targets: Pac-12 

February, 6, 2014
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After several of the top 10 West region recruits from the Class of 2014 got away from Pac-12 teams, the conference will look to clean that up with the 2015 group. It's off to a strong start, as the only two committed prospects among the top 10 are headed to UCLA and USC. The 2015 class in the West region is loaded and there will be huge commitments from any of the 52 ESPN Junior 300 prospects in the West, but there's no surprise that the top five Pac-12 targets are the top five uncommitted prospects in the region.


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Signing day wrap: Pac-12

February, 5, 2014
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While it was a terrific day for the Pac-12 overall, USC stole the signing day spotlight on Wednesday, hitting for the cycle in landing its top four targets.

The day began well for new coach Steve Sarkisian, as three-star cornerback Lamont Simmons (Jacksonville, Fla./Raines) faxed over his signature, but that was only an appetizer for the Trojans. With 19 scholarships available this year -- NCAA sanctions limited the Trojans to just 15 scholarships in this class and USC was able to roll four unused rides over from the 2013 class -- Simmons took the class to 16. Left on the board were a trio of Southern California ESPN 300 prospects in No. 9 overall prospect, cornerback Adoree' Jackson (Gardena, Calif./Serra), No. 24 overall prospect, athlete John "JuJu" Smith (Long Beach, Calif./Poly) and No. 67 overall prospect, offensive guard Damien Mama (Bellflower, Calif./St. John Bosco).

[+] EnlargeJohn
Kelvin Kuo/USA TODAY SportsJohn "JuJu" Smith was part of a huge signing day for USC.
Sarkisian and the Trojans were able to land all three, giving USC one of the best signing days of any program in the country. The signings give USC 19 additions in the 2014 class, including nine ESPN 300 pledges, one ESPN JC 50 prospect and impact players on both sides of the ball. There is really no way to overstate how well Sarkisian and the Trojans closed on signing day, posting what amounted to a perfect day.

The Trojans wound up with the No. 1 class in the Pac-12, but the rankings in the conference were bunched at the top.

Stanford made a huge run late, landing commitments from all six recruits it targeted over the past two months. The Cardinal added signatures from ESPN 300 defensive end Solomon Thomas (Coppell, Tex./Coppell) -- at No. 25 overall, the highest rated Stanford addition since ESPN began its rankings in 2006 -- and three-star cornerback Terrence Alexander (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian). Though the Cardinal lost a late commitment from defensive end Uriah Leiataua (Compton, Calif./Dominguez), it was a very strong visit and a terrific class headed to the Farm.

Alexander wasn't the only recruit from John Curtis Christian to commit to the Pac-12, as Oregon and UCLA took their biggest commitments of the day from that program. The Ducks landed ESPN 300 safety Mattrell McGraw, while UCLA picked up its lone signing day commit in Kenny Young.

Oregon missed out on Smith and defensive tackle Trey Lealaimatafao (San Antonio/Earl Warren) but was able to land safety Khalil Oliver (Meridian, Id./Rocky Mountain) in a battle against Washington.

UCLA coaches will likely be disappointed with the day. Although the Bruins did reel in Young, UCLA missed on Thomas, No. 1 overall wide receiver Malachi Dupre (River Ridge, La./John Curtis Christian) and the Southern California trio, which made matters worse for Jim Mora & Co. by committing to the Trojans. UCLA brought a very good recruiting class into signing day and did a good job of holding onto everybody, but the Bruins took some big swings at some big prospects across the country and didn't get the results they were hoping for.

Arizona State slid a few spots in the national rankings, but the Sun Devils did everything they could on signing day. Todd Graham brought a relatively full class into the day and was able to add two huge signatures in ESPN JC 50 prospects defensive tackle Dalvon Stuckey (De Funiak Springs, Fla./Pearl River CC) and cornerback Kweishi Brown (El Cajon, Calif./Grossmont). The Sun Devils were also able to hold onto another junior college standout in wide receiver Eric Lauderdale (Fayetteville, Ga./Saddleback College), who received a significant late push from Florida.

Arizona was relatively quiet. The Wildcats brought in a huge list of verbal commitments and didn't lose anybody off the top of the class, landing five ESPN 300 prospects. Defensive tackle Marcus Griffin (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue) was the big addition, as the big lineman selected Arizona over Cal, Mississippi State and Washington State.

Oregon State grabbed a signature from offensive guard Kammy Delp (Pomona, Calif./Diamond Ranch), who will play defensive tackle for the Beavers. Utah announced defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei (South Jordan, Utah/Bingham) as a part of this class after he attempted to sign with the Utes in 2013.

Washington's big addition came Tuesday night in the form of ESPN 300 safety Bishard "Budda" Baker (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue), but Chris Petersen and the Huskies also received a signing day commitment from intriguing 6-foot-5 receiver Brayden Lenius (West Hills, Calif./Chaminade). The Washington State Cougars closed with their second four-star commitment in this class, safety Deion Singleton (Paco, Wash./Chiawana).

But the day in the West belonged to USC, which jumped from No. 4 in the conference to landing the Pac-12's top 2014 recruiting class. Nationally, the Trojans moved from No. 24 to No. 15 overall.

Stanford (15th), Arizona State (21st) and Arizona (23rd) all finished among the top 25 recruiting classes in the nation.

Bold predictions: Pac-12 

February, 4, 2014
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If the past several years are any indication, it's always fairly safe to expect something unexpected on signing day. From supposed locks signing elsewhere to supposed flips staying put, signing day wouldn't be signing day without the accompanying element of surprise.

With that being said, we look ahead to Wednesday and offer five predictions as to how the Pac-12 will fare.


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Biggest flips: Pac-12 

February, 3, 2014
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Many of the biggest flips relating to Pac-12 teams came fairly early in the process, which means there might not be much chaos on signing day when it comes to recruits flipping commitments. However, as with every year, flips will help and hurt a number of conference programs come Wednesday, and we take a look at the five biggest in the Pac-12 during this recruiting cycle.


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Pac-12 class rankings analysis 

January, 29, 2014
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In the final updated ESPN recruiting class rankings before national signing day, six Pac-12 schools remain among the top 40 classes in the country, and all are within striking distance of claiming the top spot in the conference. Arizona State remains No. 1 in the conference and No. 17 in the nation, and Stanford made a big jump for the second straight week, moving to No. 2 in the Pac-12 and No. 19 overall. Arizona slid one spot with Stanford's move, checking in at No. 21, and USC and Oregon remain tightly bunched at Nos. 24 and 25, respectively. UCLA rounds out the group from the Pac-12 at No. 28.


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Most important targets: Pac-12 

January, 28, 2014
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With only eight days before national signing day, it truly is crunch time for coaches and recruits alike for the 2014 class. In the Pac-12 especially, a number of spots remain available in a majority of classes. This week, we take a look at the most important uncommitted target for each conference program.

Arizona: DT Marcus Griffin (Bellevue, Wash./Bellevue)
6-2, 299 pounds
Three-star prospect

The Wildcats jumped into the process late for Griffin but made enough of an impression that the big lineman took an official visit to Tucson last weekend. Griffin will announce on signing day from a group that consists of Arizona, Cal, Mississippi State and Washington State. While the Wildcats have a full class at this point, it looks as though they'd like to add one more big body along the defensive line and Griffin is one of the top defensive tackles in the region, regardless of commitment status.


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Pac-12 Top 25 for 2013: No. 14

January, 27, 2014
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Our countdown of the Pac-12’s Top 25 players from the 2013 season continues.

You can review our 2013 preseason Top 25 here.

No. 14: Taylor Kelly, QB, Arizona State

2013 numbers: Completed 62.4 percent of his throws for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns to 12 interceptions, giving him an adjusted QBR of 74.2, which ranked 24th nationally. He also rushed 173 times for 608 yards and nine touchdowns.

Preseason ranking: No. 12

Making the case for Kelly: Statistically, it was a split year for Kelly. He threw for more yards and ran for more yards than he did in 2012. But his interceptions were up and his completion percentage was down. He had fewer passing touchdowns but ran for eight more touchdowns than he did in 2012. With all that said, Kelly was still a better quarterback in 2013 than he was in 2012. He showed a greater command of Mike Norvell’s scheme and the addition of Jaelen Strong to the offense clearly was a significant boost to the passing game. He earned second-team all-conference honors -- which speaks to how the rest of the coaches view him. There were a lot of big numbers put up by quarterbacks in 2013, though it was Kelly who guided ASU to the league’s No. 2 scoring offense (39.7 points per game). His efficiency numbers could be better, but the fact that he’s coming back next season instantly makes ASU one of the most potent offenses in the conference.

The countdown:
No. 15: Ifo Ekpre-Olomu, CB, Oregon
No. 16: Deone Bucannon, S, Washington State
No. 17: Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
No. 18: Shayne Skov, LB, Stanford
No. 19: Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
No. 20: Trevor Reilly, DE/OLB, Utah
No. 21: Sean Mannion, QB, Oregon State
No. 22: Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington
No. 23: Hroniss Grasu, C, Oregon
No. 24: Josh Huff, WR, Oregon
No. 25: Myles Jack, LB/RB, UCLA

Pac-12 class rankings analysis 

January, 22, 2014
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With just two weeks until signing day, this week's updated class rankings illustrate just how close the gap is between the top teams in the Pac-12. Arizona State again checks in at No. 1 in the conference and now sits at No. 17 in the nation. Behind the Sun Devils, five more Pac-12 teams are within 10 places, as Arizona is No. 20, USC is No. 22, Stanford is No. 23, Oregon is No. 24 and UCLA rounds out the Pac-12 entrants at No. 27.

Trending up: Stanford


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Signing day could unfold in a number of ways where the Pac-12 is concerned, as six programs still have a legitimate chance to land the conference's No. 1 class and five of the top eight West region prospects are still uncommitted with legitimate interest in Pac-12 programs. Closing in on two weeks until the first Wednesday in February, here are five Pac-12 storylines to keep an eye on for signing day:


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While a number of big-name players opted to stick around for another year of Pac-12, most notably Oregon QB Marcus Mariota, UCLA QB Brett Hundley and Oregon State QB Sean Mannion, the conference was hit hard by early defections.

Here's the complete list of Pac-12 players who entered the NFL draft despite remaining eligibility.

Ka'Deem Carey, RB, Arizona
Carl Bradford, LB, Arizona State
Brendan Bigelow, RB, California
Richard Rodgers, TE, California
Khairi Fortt, LB, California
Kameron Jackson, CB, California
Viliami Moala, DT, California
Paul Richardson, WR, Colorado
De'Anthony Thomas, RB/WR, Oregon
Colt Lyerla, TE, Oregon (was kicked off the team in October)
Terrance Mitchell, CB, Oregon
Brandin Cooks, WR, Oregon State
Scott Crichton, DE, Oregon State
David Yankey, OG, Stanford
Cameron Fleming, OT, Stanford
Ed Reynolds, S, Stanford
Xavier Su'a-Filo, OG, UCLA
Dion Bailey, LB, USC
Marqise Lee, WR, USC
George Uko, DT, USC
Marcus Martin, C, USC
Xavier Grimble, TE, USC
Jake Murphy, TE, Utah
Bishop Sankey, RB, Washington
Austin Seferian-Jenkins, TE, Washington


Pac-12 class rankings analysis 

January, 15, 2014
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video Not only are there six Pac-12 programs in the updated class rankings, all six are among the top 30 in the country. Arizona State still has the conference's top class at No. 16 overall, while Arizona checks in at No. 20. Oregon and USC are back-to-back at Nos. 23 and 24, after the Ducks rose two places and the Trojans three. UCLA is a close No. 5 in the conference at No. 26 overall. The Bruins were the biggest risers among all schools this week, jumping seven places to overtake Stanford, which checks in at No. 6 in the Pac-12 and No. 29 overall.

Trending up: UCLA


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Season wrap: Arizona State

January, 15, 2014
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Arizona State had a good season that had a bad ending.

The Sun Devils finished 10-4 against one of the nation's toughest schedules and won the Pac-12 South Division in coach Todd Graham's second year. They finished ranked 21st in the nation. They beat four teams that ended up nationally ranked. They beat archrival Arizona for a second consecutive season. They were effective on both sides of the ball.

But, golly, that was a horrible performance against what should have been an outmanned Texas Tech team in the National University Holiday Bowl. That shocking 37-23 whipping reminded the Sun Devils that they haven't not yet arrived.

You can read our graded review of Arizona State here.

Offensive MVP: Quarterback Taylor Kelly took a step forward as a junior to become one of the nation's best quarterbacks. He completed 62 percent of his passes for 3,635 yards with 28 touchdowns and 12 interceptions. He also rushed for 608 yards and nine scores. He ranked 25th in the nation in ESPN.com's Total QBR measure of a quarterback. There's certainly room for him to get better in 2014, but he skillfully guided an offense that ranked among the Pac-12 and national leaders in 2013.

Defensive MVP: While defensive tackle Will Sutton's numbers were not as spectacular in 2013 as 2012, he still was one of the nation's dominant defensive players. That's why he won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year again this year. He finished with 48 tackles, 13.5 tackles for a loss, four sacks and four passes defended. He was named a first-team All-American by the Associated Press.

Best moment: The Sun Devils’ 58-21 stomping of rival Arizona surely warmed the hearts of Arizona State fans everywhere. The Sun Devils dominated from bell-to-bell, leading 30-7 at the half, as Graham improved to 2-0 against Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, with whom he doesn't share a warm relationship. Retaining the Territorial Cup also gave the Sun Devils a seventh win in a row and 10th of the season. Further, the victory earned the Sun Devils home-field advantage for the Pac-12 title game, though, of course, that didn't end up mattering.

Worst moment: The Holiday Bowl was just awful, far more embarrassing than the two losses to Stanford or even the curiously uninspired performance against Notre Dame. The defense looked helpless, allowing Texas Tech freshman Davis Webb to pass for 410 yards and four touchdowns, while the offense was sloppy and out of sync against a mediocre-to-poor defense. The coaching wasn't that great either, something that was acknowledged by Graham after the game. A prime example of that would be the horrible clock management at the end of the first half which probably cost the Sun Devils a touchdown.
Welcome to the mailbag, which nine out of 10 dentists agree has no bearing on your oral health.

Bobby in Phoenix writes: Mark May said the following yesterday: "I heard through the grapevine, not publicly, but privately, Todd Graham was lobbying like heck to get the Texas job," May told Burns and Gambo on Arizona Sports now on 98.7 FM Tuesday. "Chew on that one, Arizona State Sun Devils fans." I heard it from not one, but two of our reporters at ESPN, that he was lobbying to get that job. It was another one of his 'dream jobs.' Any comments? My thought would be that if not one, but TWO ESPN reporters knew about this they would... umm.... report it? When will his Pitt bias stop seeping through everything he says and Todd Graham and ASU?

Kevin Gemmell: I didn’t hear May’s comments or the interview, so I can only go off of what you said. But there is certainly a gut reaction when the rest of the country hears the name Todd Graham, they instantly think villain.

You know what’s funny is when Brady Hoke left San Diego State after two seasons, he did the exact same thing -- he sent a text blast to the players and that was that. He got on a plane and never returned to San Diego. He was lauded as a hero and treated like Caesar returning from Germania when he got to Ann Arbor. No one cared about how he left SDSU.

But this one stuck with Graham and probably will stick with him for a long time. It’s fascinating how perception and public opinion shapes who we celebrate and who we demonize.

I got to spend a lot of time with Graham this season -- including four days behind the scenes. I was given complete access to everything -- player meetings, coaches meetings, I sat with Graham, offensive coordinator Mike Norvell and the quarterbacks at the team dinner and was with the coaches for their final huddle 10 minutes before kickoff of the Wisconsin game. (I even went out the Tillman Tunnel with the team, and I can tell you that was one of the greatest moments of my career). In my time with Graham, I learned he’s the exact same guy behind closed doors as he is in front of a microphone. I really doubt he’s going to put on a four-day show -- and maintain it -- for little ole’ me. If he did, give him the Academy Award.

Is it possible he could jump ship sometime soon? Of course. The guy can coach. That’s why he keeps getting hired. And he hires great coaches to coach alongside him (Gus Malzahn, Chad Morris, Mike Norvell, etc.).

He’s always going to have the Pitt stigma that follows him. Maybe it’s deserved. Maybe it’s time to let it go. Either way, I like his style. I like his schemes. And l like his accountability. After the Holiday Bowl, he put it all on himself. That’s what a coach is supposed to do.

I’ve been lied to plenty by coaches. That comes with asking questions they don’t want to answer. But I’ve also had coaches be totally honest and stand by their word. My gut tells me Graham likes the spot he’s in and he likes the support he’s getting from the administration.


Wayne in Mesa, Ariz. writes: Why was the Pac-12 Championship Game for 2014 moved back to a Friday night? I can understand TV ratings a bit, although the 2013 game had a great Saturday evening time slot. As for attendance, the Saturday date allows for better attendance and more time for the buzz to build up -- as the incredible atmosphere in and around Sun Devil Stadium this past fall would attest!

Kevin Gemmell: Go to your living room. On your coffee table, you’ll probably see a black, rectangular object with many different buttons. Push the one that says “power” and a talking picture box will come to life, projecting real life sounds and images.

Do not be scared or attempt to interact with these moving pictures. They can’t see or hear you.

FOX has the Pac-12 championship game this year, as well as the Big Ten title game the next day. So, yes, it’s TV driven.

I think there is something to be said about being the first game of championship weekend. You get the national audience (at least those who choose to stay up) all to yourself. But from a fan perspective -- especially those attending the game -- it can be a hassle. You have to deal with work and traffic and chances are it won’t be a full stadium -- which never bodes well for the conference.


John in New York writes: USC-UCLA, Stanford-USC, Oregon-Washington, Oregon-Oregon State, Arizona-Arizona State. I'd be really interested to know how you'd rank these particular rivalries, from top to bottom?

Kevin Gemmell: Ranking rivalry games is a fairly futile exercise, because rivalries will always mean more to the folks who have a vested interest in the outcome. Try convincing an Arizona fan that the Apple Cup is more important than the Territorial Cup.

Case in point, I grew up in the Bay Area under the umbrella of the Cal-Stanford rivalry. And though I didn’t attend either school, I consider it one of the greatest rivalries there is because that’s what my personal experience is. Just as I think Will Clark is the greatest baseball player ever and it’s a shame that he’s not in the Hall of Fame.

But I also understand, given the way the Stanford-USC rivalry has played out over the last half decade, that game certainly qualifies as a rivalry. Same for Oregon-Washington and the budding UCLA-Arizona State rivalry.

I know folks are trying to make a rivalry out of the Utah-Colorado matchup. That makes sense, considering both joined the league at the same time. But rivalries aren’t artificially created. They just happen. Colorado fans will always have a bitterness for Nebraska, just as Utah fans will always consider BYU their rival.

The only reason to rank rivalries is to stir the pot and drum up some artificial controversy to give folks a reason to troll and flame.

Which is why Arizona-Arizona State is the best rivalry of all time and always will be. Discuss.


Michigan Trojan in Ann Arbor, Mich. writes: Kevin and Ted … Though I hope they get drafted and have successful NFL careers, I am a little puzzled by the early exits of Xavier Grimble, Dion Bailey, George Uko, and especially Marcus Martin (and possibly Hayes Pullard and Josh Shaw) at USC. Marqise Lee is a sure-fire 1st round pick so I cannot argue with his leaving. But the others, especially guys like Grimble and Martin, were poised to have big years, with lots of exposure that could have made them locks in the second or third round, or possibly surprise first round picks. I know some of them were redshirts, and will technically have their degree in May, but if the NFL is their first stop in terms of profession, why not maximize your potential? Most of these guys will be fourth-round picks at best, and probably have to fight to make a practice squad if they go undrafted. Do you think some of this has to do with what Sarkisian is trying to do at USC, in terms of revamping the defense, and bringing in different position coaches? I also have heard that guys were impressed by the somewhat unexpected success of early-entry guys like undrafted Nickell Robey at the next level. The exodus probably sets SC football back a few wins next year, but again, as individuals, I hope they succeed beyond expectations at the next level.

Kevin Gemmell: It’s obviously different for every guy, so there is no one magic bullet answer. Sometimes it has to do with money. Sometimes it has to do with a coaching change. And sometimes guys simply don’t want to be in school anymore.

I do think USC players are a special exception. The college experience probably hasn’t been a great one for them when you look at the ups and downs of the program the last few years. Most of these guys came in when the sanctions were announced or right in the middle of them. They had bowl bans. They had a disastrous 2012. They saw three different head coaches in 2013.

Can you really blame some of them for wanting to get out and make a little money?

Robey is a fine example of a guy who went undrafted, but had a huge year for the Bills. If I’m his friend and former teammate, that gives both hope and false hope. There’s the thought that if I don’t get drafted, I can still do what Robey did. But for every Robey, there are dozens of other guys who find themselves either on practice squads or boning up on their “ehs?” in the Canadian League. And yes, there is at least one player from a Pac-12 school on every CFL roster, except Montreal (I checked).

I do think a new coaching staff probably had something to do with it as well as the fact that Clancy Pendergast isn’t coming back. For those defensive guys, it would be their third coordinator in the last two years. That’s frustrating. So, and I’m just speculating here, in their eyes if they have to adjust to a new coaching staff, they might as well get paid in the process.


Ryan in Palo Alto, Calif. writes: More math: You wrote: "So the likelihood of the Pac-12 winning all nine games -- even though it was favored in all nine -- seemed highly unlikely. "Actually probability alone (and not underdog motivation or favorite complacency) makes your statement true. Assume for sake of argument, the Vegas line said each Pac-12 team had an 80 percent chance to win. (Of course, different lines for each team and I have no idea what line corresponds to an 80 percent win chance, but useful thought experiment). The chances of all nine teams winning still comes out to only about 13.4 percent.

Kevin Gemmell: This is why Pac-12 blog readers are the life of all social gatherings.

Will Arizona State take a step back?

January, 14, 2014
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It flew a little under the radar on Monday that Arizona State linebacker Carl Bradford entered the NFL draft because a pair of Pac-12 All-Americans -- Arizona RB Ka'Deem Carey and Stanford OG David Yankey -- also announced they'd be going pro.

[+] EnlargeTaylor Kelly
Mark J. Rebilas/USA TODAY SportsWith the loss of key defensive starters, Arizona State may have to rely on QB Taylor Kelly and its offense to carry the load in 2014.
But Bradford's departure, though far from unexpected, is a big deal for the defending South Division champions, who now must replace nine starters and three key backups from its strong 2013 defense.

In fact, the Sun Devils will have only two of their top 11 tacklers, safety Damarious Randall and linebacker Salamo Fiso, back in 2014. The other returning starter is nose tackle Jaxon Hood.

Further, when we say "nine starters" we pretty much mean the 2013 defense's nine best players: Bradford, DT Will Sutton, S Alden Darby, LB Chris Young, CB Robert Nelson, DE Gannon Conway, CB Osahon Irabor, DE Davon Coleman and LB Anthony Jones.

Tackles, sacks, interceptions -- just about all the production from Todd Graham's aggressive, blitz-happy defense will be gone next fall.

While we are relentlessly raining on Arizona State's parade -- hey, want to talk about the Holiday Bowl? -- we'll also point out that the offense won't go unscathed, as it loses five starters, including two offensive linemen, tight end Chris Coyle and RB Marion Grice.

Here's the part, however, where we type "… and yet."

While the defense almost certainly will take a step back, and might require some scheme tweaks to fit the inexperienced personnel, the Sun Devils should have the firepower on offense to pile up points in high-scoring offensive slugfests, starting with QB Taylor Kelly and WR Jaelen Strong probably being the top returning pass-catch combination in the Pac-12.

Versatile RB D.J. Foster is a more than adequate replacement for Grice, while the offensive line should be solid, led by Jamil Douglas, who seems ready for his star turn.

As for the defense, it will be time for several promising young players to step up, such as linebackers Chans Cox, Carlos Mendoza and Viliami Latu and defensive lineman Corey Smith, cornerback Lloyd Carrington and safety Viliami Moeakiola.

Further, the development of defensive end Marcus Hardison could be critical. Graham expected the touted JC transfer to have a big impact this past fall but as often happens when touted JC players arrive, he wasn't ready for the demands of Pac-12 football -- in practice or games. That said, he showed improved gumption over the latter part of the season and certainly has the physical skills to be an impact player on the line.

UCLA, which also loses some key guys from its defense but has a lot of playmakers coming back on both sides of the ball, is the clear favorite in the Pac-12 South heading into 2014. USC will be a bit of a mystery in Year 1 under Steve Sarkisian. It lost some key players but has plenty of talent, though little depth, coming back. Arizona is looking for a new quarterback and running back, but it also could be in the mix.

Where do the defending champions fit in? Hard to say. Next fall will be a good test of the recruiting for which Graham has been generally receiving good reviews. The good money is on the Sun Devils finding a way to thrust themselves into the mix, even with a completely rebuilt defense. It helps that the schedule starts out gently -- Weber State, New Mexico and Colorado -- before a a brutal four-game gauntlet -- UCLA, USC, Stanford and Washington -- that likely will determine the ultimate trajectory of the season.

Don't count the Sun Devils out, only you probably should expect a few more high-scoring shootouts in Tempe next fall.

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