Other than a 24-20 loss at Missouri in the middle of September, the Sun Devils were extremely tough to beat early in the season. After posting convincing victories against Northern Arizona (63-6), Illinois (45-14), Utah (37-7), California (27-17) and Colorado (51-17), Arizona State was sitting with a 5-1 record and a spot in the national rankings. Then the Sun Devils ran into Oregon and were dropped 43-21, beginning a four-game losing streak that soured any chances at a Pac-12 championship berth. Arizona State still ended the season well with wins in the last two regular-season games, including a 41-34 win at Arizona.
At 7-5 prior to the postseason the Sun Devils had already guaranteed their first season above .500 since 2007, but a 62-28 win over Navy in the Fight Hunger Bowl, gave the team just its fourth season of at least eight wins in the last 15 years, as Graham's approach obviously worked.
OFFENSE: Taylor Kelly is one of the more talented players in the conference and he will once again lead the Sun Devils at quarterback. Though Kelly doesn't possess the makeup of a traditional pocket passer, his ability to improvise and make plays on the run, both passing and moving the ball with his legs, creates a wrinkle to the Sun Devils' offense that is tough to stop. In 2012, Kelly threw for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns against just nine interceptions, while completing 67.1 percent of his pass attempts. He also rushed for 516 yards and a score.
Kelly is not the only player on the roster for which versatility is a strength. Running backs D.J. Foster and Marion Grice are about as dangerous in the passing game as they are taking handoffs and slashing through the line. Grice rushed for 679 yards and 11 touchdowns but was also second on the team with 41 receptions which went for 425 yards. His eight touchdown receptions were also a team-high. Foster didn't get into the end zone as frequently (six total touchdowns), but did accumulate 1,026 total yards on 140 touches.
The three-headed backfield of Kelly, Grice and Foster should once again give opposing defensive lines fits after the Sun Devils ranked 25th nationally in rushing last season (205.4 ypg).
Leading pass catcher Chris Coyle will also be back to add further depth to the offense. Coyle is one of the best tight ends in the country and will likely coast to all-conference honors if not more. Coyle caught 57 passes for 696 yards and five scores last season. Kevin Ozier averaged 15.4 yards per reception and of his 21 catches, five went for touchdowns. Expanding on that type of production will be key for an unproven receiving corps.
There are three starters returning on the offensive line but both guard spots will be taken up by players, Sil Ajawara and Vi Teofilo, without starting experience. Tackles Jamil Douglas and Evan Finkenberg and center Kody Koebensky will therefore need to be leaders.
DEFENSE: The success of the offense was more of a nice surprise than something that was expected. Graham's ability to transform the Sun Devils into a defensive power was more anticipated, and thanks to strong play up front, went smoothly. The Sun Devils ranked second in the Pac-12 and 27th nationally in total defense (350.8 ypg), while the 51 sacks as a team trailed only Stanford in the league.
Will Sutton was the major lynchpin for the punishing pressure that Arizona State often put on teams. Sutton enjoyed a stellar campaign in which he recorded 13 sacks and a Pac-12 leading 23.5 tackles for loss. Sutton is on a short list of All-American candidates this season with the lone challenge for the senior being living up to the hype.
"I try to be the best I can be and be myself and go out there and compete for myself and for my teammates and try to accomplish something that's never been done here before," Sutton said of his expectations this season.
Sutton will get additional help from defensive end Carl Bradford who had 11.5 sacks and 20.5 tackles for loss. A number of other players, including Freshman All-American Jaxon Hood, on the defensive line are returning with starting experience.
Someone will need to take over as the leader of the linebacking corps with Brandon Magee and his team-leading 113 tackles gone. Bradford can play outside linebacker as well as defensive end. Joining him will be Steffon Martin who had just 27 stops last season. Chris Young plays the hybrid SPUR slot and is coming off a season when he had 82 tackles, 14 of which came for loss. He should see playing time all over.
The Sun Devils were the third best passing defense in the country last season (167.9 ypg) but with just cornerback Osahon Irabor and safety Alden Darby back the group may be less formidable. Darby is still a strong player as he had 60 tackles and three interceptions last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Two kickers spent time as the starter for the Sun Devils last season. Neither was particularly impressive though with Jon Mora going 9- for-12 on field goal attempts, while Alex Garoutte, who attempted all but two extra points, went 6-for-11 on field goals. Both will be back this year. Matt Haack will come into his freshman season needing to replace Josh Hubner, who averaged 47.1 yards per punt last season.
Robert Nelson is slotted to take over as the primary returned after Jamal Miles left the team to graduation.
OUTLOOK: Mistakes were severely limited in 2012 under Graham as the team had a plus-six turnover margin and committed just 4.2 penalties per game. As a result, the Sun Devils' talent was able to shine through and carry Arizona State. Now a Pac-12 South Division crown is within the Sun Devils' sights.
"We're looking forward to the 12 opportunities we have ahead of us and put that into a 13th and 14th game," Graham said. "Our goal is to play 14 ball games, and I believe our team can do it and they have a great belief in each other so we don't concern ourselves with stuff like that."
Three of the first four games on the schedule are at home for Arizona State though the lone road game is a trip to face Stanford. Dates against Wisconsin and USC will also be tough tasks early on. A neutral site game against Notre Dame to open up October should also be a stern test. In the second half of the season, Arizona State plays most of its tough games at home (Washington, Oregon State, Arizona) with a trip to face UCLA the only realistic road block.
Enjoying such success in his first season means Graham will be expected to push the Sun Devils even further. With multi-talented players across the offense and one of the nation's best defenders threatening opposing signal callers, the Sun Devils have the talent to win the Pac-12 South, get to the conference championship game and perhaps get a chance to smell the roses.