With recruiting behind us and most schools in the swing of spring drills (the last of the bunch kick off next week), the Pac-12 blog thought it would be fun to examine each team's chances of winning its respective division.
This is not whether the team of the day can win the Pac-12. And we're not predicting any winners. Rather, this is our take on the team's chances of winning the North or South.
Buy or sell Arizona State winning the South?
Buy: I haven't decided yet if I'm picking the Sun Devils to win the Pac-12 South. We still have a few months before the media poll. But it's hard for me to come up with reasons why they shouldn't be No. 1 in the division.
I like the offense -- not just the players -- but the ingenuity behind it. I like the multiple ways Mike Norvell uses the running backs in the screen game and split out in the slot. The mismatches are abundant when you get Marion Grice and D.J. Foster in space.
I like the fact that they are digging deeper into the playbook this spring because they have a returning quarterback in Taylor Kelly who was so efficient in his first year as a starter and looks to be even better in his second year. I like that they have depth at quarterback and they went out and got some big wide receivers who should be able to get separation.
And, of course, it's hard not to like the defense -- headlined by the returning Pac-12 defensive player of the year and Morris Trophy winner in Will Sutton. And let's not forget about Carl Bradford, who was fourth in the league in sacks last season with 11.5 and second only to Sutton in tackles for a loss per game. With so much attention being given to Sutton this season, look for Bradford's numbers to skyrocket.
The question mark for the Sun Devils is the schedule. A four-game stretch early on that includes Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame is really going to test what this team is made of. If they can come out of that at 4-0, 3-1 or even 2-2, it will be a huge confidence boost for this team moving into the second half of the season -- when they close out with Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona.
The South figures to be an exciting race right up until the end of the season. But when you look at what ASU has in its arsenal, it's hard not to like them.
Buy: Kevin and I already talked about how the second guy in this can't just go, "Ditto." But Kevin correctly touched a lot of bases.
I go back and forth between the Sun Devils and UCLA as the Pac-12 South Division front-runner. Both look like top-25 teams.
Both are solid at quarterback and have an All-American coming back to lead strong defensive fronts. Both give some pause in the secondary. Both have some questions at receiver. The Sun Devils are much better at running back, the Bruins a little better at linebacker. Both offensive lines seem solid. Heck, both must replace good punters.
So there's a lot to like about Arizona State heading into 2013. The biggest question is the schedule. It's entirely possible the Sun Devils could be a whole lot better next fall than 2012, but only win eight or so regular-season games. Yet if things fall into place, this also could be a 10-win team.
The key is the nonconference schedule, but perhaps not as you think. A visit from Wisconsin and game with Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium -- read: a road game -- are sandwiched around a trip to Stanford and home date with USC. Those conference games are infinitely more important to Arizona State than the nonconference games, because the name of the game here is winning the South Division. Ergo: At least splitting the conference dates is the priority compared to beating the Badgers and Fighting Irish.
I realize that's not genius analysis, and that the Sun Devils will prepare to win each and every week. The point is this: Win or lose versus Wisconsin and Notre Dame, Arizona State needs to be focused and mentally tough. The results against the Badgers and Fighting Irish -- celebration or sadness -- can't distract from what immediately follows.
Say the Sun Devils start 4-0 or 3-1. They can't get full of themselves. Just as a 1-3 start won't doom the season, particularly if that one win comes against South Division rival USC.
So my "buy" here is about more than returning talent. It posits a belief in coach Todd Graham, his staff and the new, more disciplined culture in the locker room. It's a statement of belief that the Sun Devils will hit mid-October still focused on the immediate task at hand instead of thinking big picture, one way or the other, which would be a kiss of death to a promising season.