Sun Devil Science: 21 Keys for 2021 – Part One
With Spring ball now in the rearview mirror for the Sun Devils, this time of year officially signals for ASU fans to look ahead to the Fall and the much-anticipated 2021 season for Arizona State.
It remains to be seen where the national prognosticators pick ASU in terms of projected Pac-12 standings, but it is a reasonable expectation that a fair amount of them will select the Sun Devils as the preseason favorite in the South division and some may even tag the Devils as the conference champion.
Regardless of the views rendered by the national media, the outlook by the fan base is undoubtedly as high as they have been since prior to the 2015 season when ASU was labeled a dark horse contender in the College Football Playoff race.
Many fans feel this year’s squad should produce with relative ease the program’s fourth 10-win total of the 21st century while others are steadfast in their belief that this could be ASU’s most accomplished group since its famed 1996 team.
Yet, the question persists: What incremental steps will ASU have to accomplish over the 2021 season to live up to – or even exceed – the hype?
In the first of a two-part, 21-key series, I break down 10 high-level areas Arizona State will have to affirmatively address in order to ultimately label the 2021 season a success.
1: Win a Minimum of Nine Games
Comin’ in hot, let’s just address the elephant in the room – the win total.
As offseason predictions come and go over the next several months; we’ll see if I’m the minority or not with this opinion, but I’m not of the view that 2021 is “Rose Bowl-or-Bust” for Arizona State, and not only that, but it may also not necessarily be “South Title-or-Bust” for the Devils, either.
To me, the minimum expectation to categorize the 2021 season, not as a disappointment but as at least some level of a satisfactory year is an overall total of nine wins. Now then, that win count doesn’t necessarily cement the season as an unquestioned success, but depending on how it’s constructed, it should prevent the year from being designated a disappointment.
A nine-win season might not be met with a spotless approval rating and a ticker-tape parade, but it shows at least a one-game improvement over ASU’s win total in 2018, which itself was a one-game improvement over the win total for year one under Herm Edwards. Even though that is the slightest degree of true tangible improvement, it is still a measure of progress, nonetheless.
Naturally, the makeup of the eventual wins and losses will impact the reactionary feelings as well, as not all losses are created equally. In the minds of some, a very anticipated prediction for three of the losses for the Sun Devils could come during a home contest versus USC, road games at Washington and at Utah, with a fourth loss to be named later. If that scenario materializes and ASU notches nine victories – including a fifth-straight Territorial Cup game – fans should stamp an overall seal of approval on the 2021 season, even if it’s not an incredibly emphatic one.
Now then, a 9-0 start followed by four consecutive losses, which, for let’s say hypothetically, collectively cause ASU to see its South division title hopes vanish, cough up the Territorial Cup to Arizona (taking place in Tempe no less), and exit the year with a bowl defeat? That would more than likely cause mass indigestion among Sun Devil fans, even though the win total mirrors the previous scenario.
By comparison, an eight-win finish, however, it’s composed, would trigger more than a feeling of displeasure among the fan base. Seven or fewer wins would constitute a tangible step back from the 2019 season, a colossal disappointment considering ASU’s experience and projected talent.
On the more positive side of predictions, for Sun Devil fans, 10-win seasons are so generally rare that any outcome that includes double-digit wins – even if it follows a second or third-place divisional finish as it did in 2014 – should be met with open arms.
2: Improve in the South
Surely this is a pretty obvious statement, but it’s tough for a Pac-12 team to expect to compete for a conference title if it struggles within its own division.
This may come as a surprise – I know it did for me – but ASU has not defeated a Pac-12 south opponent other than Arizona since beating UCLA on Nov. 10, 2018. The Sun Devils dropped matchups with USC and UCLA in 2020 and were 1-4 within the division in 2019 with losses to Colorado, Utah, UCLA, and USC. In all, ASU has suffered back-to-back losses against Colorado, UCLA, and USC and hasn’t beaten Utah since 2018.
For ASU return to the Pac-12 championship game for the first time since 2013; this aspect will have to improve dramatically. From 2012-19, only once (Arizona, 2014) has the South division winner had more than one loss in divisional play. In that same span, three South champions had just one division loss while four of them – including ASU in 2013 – went undefeated against their division foes.
Therefore, if the expectation is to win the division, history tells us ASU likely can afford no more than one loss to its South opponents.
3: Beat the Beatable Teams
Of the 11 losses suffered by ASU under Herm Edwards in 2018-19, four came against teams that ultimately finished with a losing record – three of which took place in 2019 alone – Colorado (2018 and ’19), Oregon State (2019), and UCLA (2019). UCLA technically constitutes a fifth such loss if we count the 2020 season, as the Bruins finished 3-4 on the year.
Seemingly for every euphoric peak of upsetting a high-ranked team like Oregon in 2019, there is a punch-to-the-gut valley such as the aforementioned losses to the likes of Colorado, Oregon State, and UCLA.
To put this into perspective, ASU is one of only six Pac-12 programs to be bowl eligible in both 2018 and 2019, joining California, Oregon, Utah, Washington, and Washington State. Across those two campaigns, California suffered three total losses to teams that finished with a losing record, Washington and Washington State had two such losses, Oregon had one, and Utah did not lose to a single team in either year that ended with a record below .500. Again, ASU notched four such defeats.
Including the 2020 season, ASU has not played a full year without suffering at least one defeat to a team that ended the year with a losing record since 2015.
Another angle to this topic, from 2016-19, ASU has lost a grand total of eight games to teams that finished with a poorer record than the Sun Devils had for that particular year (even if that ‘poorer’ record was still a winning mark).
Yet another spin, since joining the Pac-10 Conference prior to the 1978 season, ASU has posted 10 seasons with at least nine wins – a benchmark some would agree is the minimum win total necessary to consider the upcoming 2021 season any measure of success. Only three times total among those 10 seasons has ASU lost to a program that finished with a losing record – Washington State in 1978, Arizona in 2004 and the infamous Oregon State road contest in 2014. ASU also tied Washington State in 1986, a Cougar squad that finished with a losing record that year.
Bottom line – for ASU to reach its potential this season, it absolutely has to stop losing games to the likes of what UCLA, Colorado, and Oregon State have been of late, whether that means those specific squads or others that end the year with losing records.
4: Territorial Cup Champions x 5
Neither team in this rivalry has won five straight matchups since Arizona did so in 1982-86 and ASU hasn’t achieved this feat since it reached a nine-game win streak over the Wildcats in 1973.
True, memorable seasons for ASU such as 1982 and especially in 1986 – and even above-average seasons like 1997, 2004, and 2014 – ended with losses to the ‘Cats, but unless first-year head coach Jedd Fisch orchestrates one of the most amazing turnarounds in recent college football history, the Sun Devils will be listed as comfortable favorites to retain the Territorial Cup. When it’s all said and done, even a nine-win season (or greater) will be at least somewhat tarnished if ASU suffers its first defeat to Arizona since 2016.
Moreover, it would be a massive gut punch if Arizona were to do as it did in the 1980s and not only upset the Sun Devils but strip their in-state rivals of a chance at a conference title along the way.
5: Capitalize Against the Winless
In 2020, there were eight FBS teams that played at least five total games en route to a winless season: Louisiana-Monroe (0-10), Kansas (0-9), Vanderbilt (0-9), Northern Illinois (0-6), UNLV (0-6), Arizona (0-5), Bowling Green (0-5) and Florida International (0-5). ASU plays two of those teams – UNLV and Arizona – in 2021.
To relive the 2008 loss to UNLV would be similarly catastrophic in terms of wrecking the 2021 season as it did that year for Dennis Erickson’s second-year squad. Although all bets are always off when it comes to the Territorial Cup game, any outcome that officially labels 2021 a success must include a fifth straight win over the Wildcats.
6: Sweep the (Non-Conference) Leg (of the Schedule)
Southern Utah wrapped up a 1-5 spring football record with its final game on April 10, with its matchup with ASU now coming less than five months later, on September 2nd. Though this contest under any circumstances should result in a wide margin win for the Sun Devils, it remains to be seen if any further disadvantages fall upon Southern Utah as a result of having played a fair chunk of games this spring as opposed to having played them in the Fall of 2020.
UNLV, as mentioned, a winless team last year, and a program that won four or fewer games eight times from 2010-19, arrives in Tempe on week two. Though players on the current Sun Devil roster were in early elementary school grades the last time these two teams faced each other, Arizona State fans undoubtedly still have a bone to pick with UNLV after the horrific loss suffered by the Devils in Tempe in 2008.
One of the premier programs outside the Power Five leagues in 2020, BYU will have to seamlessly replace a host of talented players to be able to come anywhere near the level of play, the Cougars showed with likely high first-round 2021 NFL Draft pick Zach Wilson at quarterback last season.
This matchup should not expect to be the proverbial pushover win for the visiting team, but for ASU to have the type of season that allows them to truly contend for a division or conference title wins in games like this are an absolute must.
Former conference foes when the two programs were in the Western Athletic Conference in the 1960s and ‘70s, ASU and BYU surprisingly have only played five times since the Sun Devils left the WAC after the 1977 season and have not faced one another since 1998.
To sweep the non-conference slate – capped off by downing a historically proud team in BYU – would be the first true box ASU can check as an incremental win on its path to the overall goals for 2021.
From 2008-2019, ASU swept its non-conference slate on only three occasions – 2014 (Weber State, at New Mexico, Notre Dame), 2016 (Northern Arizona, Texas Tech, at Texas-San Antonio) and 2019 (Kent State, Sacramento State, at Michigan State).
7: Close Out Close Games
Of the 30 ASU contests to date played under head coach Herm Edwards, NINETEEN (or 63 percent) have been decided by one score – my goodness, the chaos of being a Sun Devil fan! – and ASU has a 9-10 record in those games. ASU had nine one-score games in 2018, eight in 2019, and two of the four games played in 2020.
It is a little too simple-minded to merely suggest that the Sun Devils should win every game by a comfortable score, but if ASU tempts fate to the frequency of about two-thirds of its matchups as it has the past three seasons, the opportunity for a double-digit win, becomes less and less plausible.
Granted, a high total of one-score games in any given season can also be viewed as a mark of a team that is competitive week-in, week-out, alas it also shows an inability to “step on the throat” of opponents – especially since ASU has a losing record in such games in the past three seasons.
For reference, of the 10 abovementioned seasons since 1978 in which ASU finished with at least nine victories, the program also had a low total of two one-score games in 1981 and a high of five in 2014, with either three or four one-score games across the remaining seven seasons.
It’s definitely unrealistic to think ASU will completely avoid tightly contested games, but history suggests that keeping that one-score total under one-third of the overall games played is a key to a high-quality season – a feat that at least in theory, at this point in time could be conceivable given the fact that ASU’s 2021 schedule likely features no more than two or three teams that will be ranked in the preseason top-25.
8: One Loss (or Undefeated) at Home
Over the 20-year span between 2000-19, ASU had four seasons with at least nine wins (2004, 2007, 2013, 2014). Across that same time period, the Sun Devils recorded five seasons with one or none home losses – all four previously mentioned seasons along with 2018, a year in which ASU was in contention for the Pac-12 South title into the very late stages of that campaign. Every other season from 2000-19 included two or more home losses (The Sun Devils played just one home game in 2020) suffered by ASU, and coincidentally, none of those remaining seasons met or exceeded nine wins.
Since the 1986 season, ASU has only had four seasons with either one loss or none on the road – one in 1986, 1997, and 2007 and zero in 1996 – showing how rare it is for any Arizona State team to have fewer than two defeats away from Sun Devil Stadium. Using this simple trend, to aim for nine or more overall victories on the year, it stands to reason that the Devils can afford to suffer no more than one tick in the loss column for games played in Tempe, especially since ASU has had its share of issues on the road in the past several years.
ASU’s seven home opponents, in order, are Southern Utah, UNLV, Colorado, Stanford, Washington State, USC, and Arizona. Naturally, USC jumps off the page as the toughest opponent, though ASU has not beaten Colorado at any venue since 2017, nor has it beat Stanford since 2014 – though, it bears mentioning, the Sun Devils and Cardinal have only played twice from 2015-2020.
9: Become Road Warriors (What a Rush!)
Sure, it’s the classic chicken-and-the-egg situation that winning on the road results in more overall wins, but the numbers speak for themselves as far as the need to win on the road in order to put together an above-average win total.
From 2001-19, ASU has only had three seasons with winning road records (including regular-season neutral site games but not including bowl games) and wouldn’t you know it, those three seasons are the only 10-win outputs in that timeframe: 2007, 2013, and 2014.
To reach this goal, away games at UCLA, Oregon State, and BYU have to land in the win column for the Devils since matchups at Utah and Washington are likely to present a much greater challenge to ASU.
ASU has not won at UCLA since the 2015 game when Kalen Ballage capped the game with his memorable pile-pushing touchdown in the game’s waning moments. The Sun Devils have alternated wins and losses at Oregon State over the past four matchups dating back to ASU’s nightmare defeat in 2014 – and, of course, Arizona State won in Corvallis in 2020. The Devils have also dropped their past two games in Seattle, with the last road win at Washington coming in that heavy wind affair in 2014.
The Sun Devils also have lost two of their past three regular-season road non-conference games – as well as three of the last five and seven of the past 10. To date, since the start of the 2007 season, the only regular-season road games in non-conference play that ASU has won have come at New Mexico (2014), UTSA (2016) and Michigan State (2019), with losses at Georgia (2009), Wisconsin (2010), Illinois (2011), Missouri (2012), neutral-site games versus Notre Dame (2013) and Texas A&M (2015), at Texas Tech (2017), and at San Diego State (2018).
If ASU accomplishes the goal in the previous category and has no fewer than one home loss, if it wins at least three of their five road games, that combination will equate to at least a 9-3 regular-season record.
10: Beat LA
Needless to say, this goes hand-in-hand with the previous requirement to drastically improve its success within the division, but ASU’s distinct recruiting emphasis in California can plausibly be fortified with a win or, better yet, a sweep over the SoCal squads that are the hometown teams for so many of Arizona State’s prime recruiting targets.
Each year under Herm Edwards – and every season dating back through the 2016 campaign – ASU has lost a road game in Southern California, be it to USC, UCLA, or the 2018 defeat at San Diego State.
The Sun Devils this season play at UCLA and host USC, and though the Trojans undoubtedly will be predicted in the preseason to be the tougher opponent of the two; ASU hasn’t won in Pasadena since 2015.
ASU’s final record and potentially the program’s ability to maximize its 2022 recruiting efforts, even in regions outside the Pac-12, might hinge on the outcomes of the two matchups with the Los Angeles teams.
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