by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

We conclude our TGS conference previews for the 2018 College Football season with a look at the South half of the Pac-12. As usual, teams are listed in their predicted order of finish, with 2017 straight-up, spread, and “Over/Under” (O/U) records included.

Usually, we’re not too keen on fired coaches who immediately land jobs elsewhere. Those situations often turn predictably sour; recall Ty Willingham’s disastrous run at Washington after he was hired right on the heels of his Notre Dame dismissal.  Enlisted soon after walking the plank at Florida, Ron Zook’s tenure at Illinois was not much to remember save for one good year. And, in the pro ranks, it sure didn't work well for Chip Kelly the year after he was fired by the Eagles, meeting the same fate with the 49ers (more on Kelly in a bit). So, we have a few natural reservations about Kevin Sumlin’s hire at Arizona (2017 SUR 7-6; PSR 5-8; O/U 9-4) after Texas A&M hit the eject button on him late last November. (Sometimes these sorts of moves do work, however, as seems to be the case at Miami with Mark Richt.) But what matters in Tucson, at least out of the blocks, is how much better a fit Sumlin might be than Rich Rodriguez, who gifted UA an excuse to get rid of him when some misconduct charges arose after the season, providing the opportunity the “cigars” were looking for to shove Rich-Rod out the door, even though the Wildcats were pretty entertaining last season. In defense of Sumlin, he has been a pretty consistent winner at both Houston and A&M (87-43 career record) and he didn’t stink things up at College Station. What he couldn’t do, however, was approach the success of his debut year with the Ags when, fresh with a wide-open offense imported from Houston, Sumlin caught the SEC off-guard with QB Johnny Manziel. Soon, however, the Sumlin offense was not so novel and A&M developed a predictable pattern of fast starts and slow finishes in the SEC, which eventually cost Sumlin his job. He indeed had raised expectations too high after his first season at Kyle Field.

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In Tucson, however, they’re hoping Sumlin can have the type of success he did in his maiden voyage at A&M with Manziel. That’s also because electric jr. QB Khalil Tate is not only on a short list of serious Heisman candidates after bursting upon the scene last fall, but also openly campaigned aministrators (via his Twitter account) to hire Sumlin and not Navy’s Ken Niumatalolo. So, we’re going to assume this is going to be a pretty good relationship between coach and QB this fall. Tate, a threat to score on every play, rushed for 1411 yards and a staggering 9.2 ypc, while also passing for almost 1600 yards, despite not starting until Game Six of the 2017 season! Of course, in Game Five he came off of the bench to replace injured Brandon Dawkins and responded with 327 rush yards, which set an FBS record for a QB. Before the season concluded Tate had rushed for 200+ yards twice more and paced a school-record 534-yard rush assault in a 49-28 romp past Oregon State. The Cats would lose three of their last four (including a wild Foster Farms Bowl vs. Purdue) but it was hardly the fault of Tate. Thanks to him, UA ranked 3rd nationally in rushing (309 ypg), and though the Cats were bottom in Pac-12 thru the air, they weren’t one-dimensional like Army, passing for better than 180 ypg, and the top three pass-catchers are back, led by WR Shun Brown (43 receptions and 6 TDs LY). After aerial routes were mostly limited to quick-hitters and long balls LY, Tate showed he could stay in the pocket if needed in spring as Sumlin’s sidekick, progressive o.c. Noel Mazzone (hired by Sumlin at A&M two years ago from UCLA), accelerated Tate’s learning curve in regard to making reads. Spring results were most encouraging. Morever, Tate also has a well-established RB diversion in soph JJ Taylor (847 YR LY).

Now, the bad news. The “D” wasn’t very good last season, though nine starters are back, including everyone in the back seven. Sumlin has kept on d.c. Marcel Yates from the Rich-Rod regime, and several defenders who were thrown into the fire as frosh a year ago are now a year older, stronger, and wiser. The Cats, mostly undersized on the DL in the Rodriguez years, now have a bit more size and depth up front, and three of those frosh who were starting last year are at the LB spots; one of them, OLB Tony Field, led UA in tackles (104) last fall. Seniors CB Jace Whitaker and S Demetrius Flanigan-Fowles are three-year starters in the secondary. And keep in mind some of the poor numbers on the “D” last year were at least partly due to pace of Cat games that became hyper-speed once Tate got into the lineup.

The schedule, however, is the best news for the Cats, as they miss North powers Washington and Stanford, and get top South competitor USC and possible North contender Oregon, plus rival ASU in the Territorial Cup, all at Tucson. Two of the four Pac road games are at Oregon State and Wazzu, picked at the bottom of the North.  And the non-league portion is hardly terrifying, with a downgraded BYU in the opener before Sumlin returns to his old stomping ground for a game at Houston, preceding Big Sky Southern Utah. The slate unfurls as smooth and straight as I-10 headed north to Phoenix.

Spread-wise, note Sumlin was notorious for quick starts at A&M, covering his last four openers, and a combined 7-1 vs. the line in his first two games of the season since 2013. On the other hand, Sumlin’s Aggies often folded up like a tent down the stretch in the SEC, and were 4-16 vs. the line their last five games of the season since 2014. The latter sounds familiar to Cat backers, as Rich-Rod was 1-9 vs. the points his last five games of the campaign the past two years. For UA's sake, this trend has got to change!

We find Clay Helton kind of refreshing. An unlikely steward, perhaps, of the grand legacy of football at Southern Cal (2017 SUR 11-3, PSR 4-10, O/U 6-7-1), Helton might be the most unpretentious coach we have met in recent years at conference media days. His “aw shucks” demeanor is a long way from the many well-polished self-promoters that populate the major college coaching ranks. And he’s certainly not the after-dinner speaker that long-ago Trojan HC John McKay was. Indeed, if Helton were to write a book, one gets the sense it might be about barbeque or how to use a weed-whacker, not some typical “Be a Winner!” production. Like his dad Kim, a football lifer and once the HC for the Houston Cougars, there is nothing flamboyant or boisterous about Clay; brother Tyson, the o.c. at Tennessee, is the outgoing one in the family. All Clay has done since taking over, first on an interim basis, then a permanent one from Steve Sarkisian in 2015, is win consistently; he’s 27-10 SU with the Trojans, not quite Pete Carroll-like, but looking like a much-better fit than predecessors Lane Kiffin and Sarkisian.

Having said that, the Cardinal & Gold boosters are a tough crowd to please, and they measure coaches by national titles at the corner of Jefferson & Figueroa. And Helton looks a bit farther away from that in 2018 than a year ago when eventual Jets first-round pick QB Sam Darnold was still in the fold. This fall, the Trojans are very green in the pilot’s chair, though true frosh JT Daniels, from prep powerhouse Mater Dei in Orange County, is one of the most ballyhooed recruits in recent memory after winning the Gatorade National Player of the Year last season. Most expect Daniels to be taking snaps sometime in the fall, but he got a later start as he had yet to enroll for spring practice, which might have temporarily put him behind holdovers soph Matt Fink and RS frosh Jack Sears (who was Darnold’s successor at San Clemente High) to start the season Sept. 1 vs. UNLV. Offensive coordinator Tee Martin must also replace his top rusher (Ronald Jones, after 1550 YR LY, left early and was a 2nd-round pick of the NFL Bucs) and top receiver (Deontay Burnett, 86 catches LY and also leaving early for the NFL, though undrafted; Titans camp this summer), the first time since 1980 that SC will be replacing its top passer, runner, and pass-catcher in the same year. Still, the school of Mike Garrett, O.J., and Marcus Allen is rarely short of RBs, and soph Stephen Carr flashed lots of potential as a frosh. Meanwhile, WR Tyler Vaughns returns after snaring 57 of Darnold’s passes last fall, and true frosh Amon-Ra St. Brown was rated the top prep receiver last year by some recruiting services. The cupboard is far from bare. Plus, four of five starters return along an OL to help out the new QB and RBs.

SC also lost some playmakers on the stop end but d.c Clancy Pendegast, with plenty of NFL experience, is expert at bringing pressure (Troy’s 46 sacks tied with Clemson for nation’s best last fall). Note however that Pendergast is minus LY's sack leader DE Rasheem Green (another early defector to the NFL; Seahawks’ 3rd-round pick) as well as disruptive OLB Uchenna Nwosu (2nd round Chargers); even at SC, filling the gaps of NFL defenders is not easy. True, srs. OLB Porter Gustin and ILB Cameron Smith are likely to hear their names called in the draft next April, and several blue-chip frosh are ready if needed. Still, Pendergast’s frisky but often-gambling CBs got burned too often last season, and the secondary is minus the leadership of S Chris Hawkins (Seahawks camp this summer). Most troubling is how many offenses moved freely vs. the Trojan "D" a year ago; improvement is needed on the stop end if SC wants to seriously contend for national honors.

Then there’s the schedule. Some concerned Troy backers are a bit worried about the UNLV opener as it precedes an early Pac-12 showdown vs. Stanford and a major intersectional vs. Texas, both of those two on the road and dangerous assignments even without having to break in a new QB. Before the end of September, SC must also travel to expected Pac-South top challenger Arizona. In other words, there’s not much time for Helton to figure out his QB situation or plug any holes on his defense, as the Trojans might have to readjust their sights to the Holiday or Sun Bowl by Columbus Day if they don’t hit the ground running in September.

Spread-wise, SC has been a bit overvalued lately, and Helton enters 2018 having covered only 4 of his last 15. Maybe that’s why some of the boosters are a bit surly. Helton is also only 5-11 vs. the line his last 16 away from the Coliseum (which, by the way, has undergone a renovation since last year...you might not recognize the old saucer this fall!).

If looking for a recent sports analogy to Utah (2017 SUR 7-6; PSR 10-3; O/U 6-7), we might offer the NHL Minnesota Wild. Before Utes HC Kyle Whittingham orders a hit on us for suggesting he reminds of Bruce “The Thumb” Boudreau, consider the similarities: winning teams, playoff berths and bowls almost every year, and often some wins in those in the postseason, but no championships. Indeed, for the latter, Utah hasn’t won one since it was still campaigning in the Mountain West back in 2008; since moving to the Pac-12 in 2011, the Utes have yet to win a South crown, though they’ve come close. Last season was about as frustrating as it could get in Salt Lake City, as Utah’s 4-0 start would quickly evaporate with a couple of close losses to Stanford and USC (the latter a particularly brutal 28-27 punch-in-the-gut when Whittingham gambled, some might say needlessly, on a 2-point conversion try in the last minute that failed). Only gifted UCLA and its non-defense on Nov. 3 did Utah win in a 7-game midseason stretch and needed to beat Colorado in the finale just to get bowl eligible. Which Whittingham did for the 11th rime in 13 seasons before beating a crippled West Virginia in the Dallas Bowl.

At a minimum Utah should get back to a bowl, and maybe a good one this fall, as much of a very capable, 30-ppg offense returns. Seven starters, in fact, including jr. QB Tyler Huntley, the Utes’ version of Eric Staal who last fall surprisingly emerged as Whittingham’s pick over presumed starter Troy Williams and proceeded to pass for over 2400 yards despite missing three games due to injury. This fall, Whittingham and o.c. Tony Taylor want Huntley to be a bit more judicious on his madcap scrambles out of the pocket when he tries to turn into Earl Campbell...and hence an injury risk. Waiting in the wings is ballyhooed frosh Jack Tuttle, a California product. For traditional running, the Utes have punishing jr. RB Zack Moss, who gained 1173 YR in 2017 including a combined 346 in the last two games vs. the Buffs and Mountaineers. Four starters are also back along a typical big and ornery OL, though there is some concern with a relatively undistinguished receiving crew whose projected four starters combined for only 83 catches last fall. If drives stall, there’s always sr. PK Matt Guy, a former Groza Award winner who booted 30 of 34 FG tries last fall.

Whittingham, a defender in his playing days as was his dad Fred, who had a long NFL career, has no need for a shot-stopper like Devan Dubnyk, and usually fields hard-nosed stop units that annually boast of a big and physical DL, with many graduates playing on the next level. Junior DE Bradlee Anae (7 sacks LY) might be the next NFL draftee, with the usual Polynesian bulk (Leki Fotu & Pita Tonga both 300 lbs.+) at the DT spots. Defensive coordinator Morgan Scalley, in his 11th season on staff, thinks he might have one of his best secondaries, topped by honors candidate jr. CB Julian Blackmon (4 picks LY), though he’s one of only four returning starters on the platoon. Still, the only surprise would be a Whittingham “D” that’s not robust.

The schedule has made a one-year change with blood rival BYU the final game this season, though it will move back to its normal mid-September slot in upcoming years. We’ll find out how far along this Whittingham edition is on Sept. 15 when Washington visits Salt Lake City. That was another bitter loss (33-30) for the Utes last season. One break is that expected top Pac-12 contenders USC and Arizona both visit Rice-Eccles Stadium. Utah has a chance to finally break through and win the South, but we suspect it will probably be another close-but-no-cigar year for Whittingham...as it was for the Wild during spring when again falling short in the Stanley Cup playoffs.

Spread-wise Whittingham enjoyed his best season a year ago (10-3 vs. line) and continued stellar work as an underdog (now 12-4 the last four seasons). If the Utes get to another bowl (which we expect), note Whittingham is 10-1 SU and 8-3 vs. the line in the postseason.

It’s about time that UCLA (2017 SUR 6-7; PSR 4-9; O/U 8-5) decided to step up in the college football arms race and become a player. All it took is one interested and well-heeled alum to become the new Bruins kingmaker. If the name Wasserman sounds familiar to movie-goers it should; Lew Wasserman was one of the all-time Hollywood power brokers. His grandson Casey is not only continuing the family business as head of Wasserman Media, but has also become the UCLA near-equivalent super-booster to Boone Pickens at Oklahoma State. It was Casey who not only helped fund a glorious new campus football center that bears the family name, but was also the driving force behind the badly-needed buyout of HC Jim Mora after the latest loss to USC and the hiring of Chip Kelly, who spent last year cooling his jets as a TV analyst after becoming the first pro head coach to be dismissed from jobs in back-to-back seasons since George Allen in 1977-78. Of course, prior to his pro sojourn that eventually went sour with the Eagles and 49ers, Chip enjoyed wild success at Oregon between 2009-12, compiling a 46-7 record with the Ducks. So they’re more excited in Westwood than they’ve been almost since the days of John Wooden, and it’s not lost upon Pac-12 insiders that getting the Bruins and their potential as a glamour team back up to speed is crucial for a conference whose national perception and reputation has sagged markedly in recent years.

No matter, some discriminating Pac-12 observers are suggesting the Uclans pump the brakes a bit. They reckon that Kelly had plenty of one-time advantages in Eugene, namely a staff that had been put together by predecessor Mike Bellotti, a huge lead in the college arms race (a gap that has since closed) as funded by Oregon alum and Nike founder Phil Knight, and a space-age offense that at the time caught most foes off balance.  All no longer unique edges for Chip.  Moreover, whereas Kelly had fewer restrictions on his recruits at Oregon, the Bruins’ academic requirements eliminate some of the players Chip used to squeeze into the Webfoot program.

Still, the glass half-full crowd in Bel Air and other environs around West LA cannot wait to see if Kelly can resurrect the old Oregon system, as Chip will be looking to re-start a sluggish infantry and re-calibrate just about everything on the attack end. What looks to be a perfect fit at QB for the super-speed Kelly spread, true frosh dual-threat Las Vegas product Dorian Thompson-Robinson, is still pretty green, and while he likely takes over sometime this fall, odds are that all-name holdover soph Devon Modster, who sounds like he should instead be hanging out with Clarence Williams III and Peggy Lipton, probably takes the snaps in the opener vs. Cincinnati at the Rose Bowl. Another option is Michigan grad transfer Wilton Speight, who has experience but is a bit slow afoot and thus seems a more awkward fit into the Kelly offense. The RB pair whose names could be mistaken for strikers at the recent World Cup, Soso Jamobo and Bolo Olorunfunmi, might not have been properly utilized in LY’s offense that tried too hard to accommodate QB Josh Rosen, who as expected left early for the NFL (Cardinals 1st-round pick). Four-star frosh WR Kyle Phillips is likely to play right away and complement sure-handed jr. Theo Howard (56 catches LY), while jr. TE Caleb Wilson was on his way to a big season last fall before a season-ending injury. If there are any weaknesses on an OL that returns just two starters, maybe the quick Kelly tempo can camouflage them (at least to a degree).

We haven’t talked yet about defense because we just don’t know what to say about what at times looked like the worst stop unit we had seen in a long time a year ago. The Bruins were so bullied at the point of attack that it seemed a repeat of the days Bill Barnes' UCLA would be manhandled by brutally physical Syracuse teams in the late 50s and early ‘60s; the Bruins allowed almost 37 ppg and ranked dead last in national rush defense at a staggering 287 ypg, and were abused consistently. Kelly’s new d.c. Jerry Azzinaro (with Chip at Oregon and his NFL stops) will be switching to 3-4 alignments this fall, reasoning that he has most of his talent at the LB spots. Soph ILB Mique Juarez was a 5-star recruit who left the team last year but has returned, and could help. There is some seasoning in the secondary with srs. CB Nate Meadors and SS Adarius Pickett both honors candidates. Former Iowa State HC Paul Rhoads, a noted defensive specialist, now coaches the DBs.

Kelly is already a heavy favorite in his debut game against the aforementioned Bearcats but it’s the next games at Oklahoma and at the Rose Bowl vs. Fresno State that should provide a better barometer on early progress. UCLA again gets stuck with Washington as one of the rotating North foes, and Kelly will try to break a 10-game Bruin losing streak to Stanford, which has gleefully bullied UCLA in recent years. And the Bruins must face the Tree the week after they try to break a 3-game losing streak to hated crosstown USC. Maybe Kelly can get to a minor bowl, but UCLA fans are thinking the payoff for this hire comes in 2019 and beyond.

Spread-wise, Mora closed his Bruins career with an underwhelming 18-32-1 spread mark the past four seasons, not to mention losing 11 in a row straight-up away from the Rose Bowl. That’s where Kelly could come in handy off the bat, as his Oregon teams were a solid 13-6 vs. the line as a visitor.

Will the real Colorado (2017 SUR 5-7; PSR 3-9; O/U 5-7) please stand? Are the Buffs the team that stormed out of nowhere to win the Pac-12 South in 2016 and watch HC Mike MacIntyre win National Coach of the Year honors? Or is CU the side that slipped back to its familiar spot at the foot of the South table and out of the bowl mix in 2017? Many in the Rockies still trust MacIntyre, who has elevated a program that was at rock bottom after the Jon Embree disaster earlier in the decade; after all, this was a coach that won 11 games at San Jose State in 2012 (technically, it was 10, as he had been hired in Boulder and left for his new job before the Spartans won the Military Bowl over Bowling Green, but let’s not get too picky here), which by us ought to qualify for some sort of exhibit at the College FB Hall of Fame in Atlanta. “Coach Mac” also signed a contract extension thru 2021 after the big breakthrough in 2016. But they’re a bit worried in this granola haven that even MacIntyre might not be able to sustain success at Folsom Field, recalling how previously respected sorts such as Gary Barnett and Dan Hawkins could not make it work for the Buffs after succeeding elsewhere. There is also the matter of Coach Mac’s roots in the South, which has led to constant back-channel chatter that he might eventually end up somewhere in that region (various Vanderbilt boosters dream of Coach Mac, a Dore alum, returning to Nashville, where his dad George was HC in the ‘80s). We’ll see.

Looking for a change on the attack end after o.c. Brian Lindgren left for Oregon State, Coach Mac has entrusted co-o.c. and former Buff WR Darrin Chiaverini with play-calling duties. Authorized to jazz up the strike force, Chiaverini will be stewarding a decidedly up-tempo attack that was first on display in spring. The addition of QB coach Kurt Roper (well-respected, though he was fired as South Carolina's o.c. last year) is the other important new cog, tasked with helping the decision-making process of jr. QB Steven Montez (2975 YP & 18 TDP last fall). Pac-12 sources are tending to downplay only three starters returning on offense, first because Montez is an established leader at QB, and second because the RB corps doesn’t figure to miss departed Phillip Lindsay as Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian (with 2153 career YR with the Hokies) should seamlessly assume overland chores and perhaps flourish in the new go-go offense. Plus, big target sr. WR Juwan Winfree came on strong down the stretch last year, and fleet Texas Tech transfer Tony Brown is also in the receiver mix. There are questions along an OL that returns only 2 starters and surrendered 38 sacks, but some of that was on Montez, who was often loathe to dump the ball away, a skill that new assistant Roper will likely hone this fall.

The “D” will need to bare its teeth, too, after leaking a lot more than desired en route to poor ranks vs. the run (109th) and overall (110th). After sage d.c. Jim Leavitt left for Oregon following 2016, the platoon sagged under successor D.J. Eliot, who is feeling some pressure this fall. Moreover, the top performer from 2017, CB Isaiah Oliver, left early for the NFL and was taken in the 2nd round of the draft by the Falcons. Six starters are back but no job is safe as Coach Mac hit the juco ranks looking for reinforcements; one of those JC transfers, OLB Davion Taylor, could make an immediate impact. Much is also expected from touted DE Terrance Long and CB Chris Miller, both RS frosh.  And if all else fails, there's always Ralphie the buffalo, the ultimate intimidator, available as a last resort. 

Coach Mac has won three straight and four of five vs. nearby Colorado State, again the opening week foe in Denver, though most eyes are on a revival of a once spirited Big 8/Big 12 rivalry with Nebraska, which resurfaces the next week in Lincoln. It would be no surprise if the Buffs get back to another bowl, but the “D” could not slow quality foes last season, and upside is probably limited until the stop unit responds as it did under Leavitt in 2016.

Spread-wise, MacIntyre has won big in the past, and entered last season on a 15-6 streak vs. the number, but like much of everything else in 2017, the Buffs underachieved (3-9) vs. the line. Coach Mac was also 29-16 as a dog in six previous seasons at SJSU and Boulder before dropping 5 of 6 in that role a year ago.

It is not unprecedented for a coach to be hired out of the broadcast booth. Look at the Oakland Raiders, who have brought back Jon Gruden to coach this season after a decade in the Monday Night Football booth. A generation ago, Dick Vermeil left CBS for the St. Louis Rams a full 15 years after his “burnout” retirement from the Eagles. Legendary Bud Wilkinson, who had run for the US Senate and worked several years as ABC’s color analyst on college football, was a shock hire by the St. Louis Cardinals in 1978, also 15 years after his last coaching job at Oklahoma. Bob Davie was at ESPN and out of coaching for ten years between his gigs at Notre Dame and New Mexico. But more perplexing that any of those, perhaps, is the decision of Arizona State (2017 SUR 7-6; PSR 7-5-1; O/U 6-7) to hire Herm Edwards from his NFL analyst job in Bristol for ESPN to return to the sidelines ten years after he last coached with the Kansas City Chiefs. Unlike Gruden, Vermeil, or Wilkinson, Herm was not a big winner as a head coach, fashioning a 54-74 record in 8 seasons with the Jets and Chiefs (that mark damaged by two awful seasons at the end of his KC tenure). He didn’t win a playoff game in four tries. And he hasn’t coached in college since 1989 at San Jose State under his HC from San Diego State playing days, Claude Gilbert. But his former agent, Ray Anderson, just happens to be the AD in Tempe. Which was the only connection needed to bring Edwards to the desert to replace Todd Graham, whose personality has a liquid equivalent of sour milk. Compared to Graham, the pre-naturally upbeat Herm, who exudes a well-polished gloss and charm, is a refreshing change for the still-influential “Sun Angel” boosters, who grew to intensely dislike Graham but for the moment are thoroughly enjoying being able to yuck it up at various functions with their easy-to-like new coach.

They also fire coaches at ASU, so at some point Herm is going to have to start winning, and the honeymoon with the boosters won’t last too long if the Sun Devils sag; oldtimers in the Valley of the Sun remember the Frank Kush glory days and dream of a return to national prominence. Edwards is at least not inheriting UTEP, as ASU was a bowl regular in the Graham years. Pac-12 sources, however, are reporting that Edwards is leaning awfully heavily on his staff as he gets back into the head coaching thing. Indeed, of all of the coaching hires in the offseason, this one intrigues as much as any.

Fortunately for Edwards, much of the key personnel returns on offense, including sometimes-brilliant sr. dual-threat QB Manny Wilkins, who passed for almost 3300 yards in 2017 and is also the leading returning ASU rusher. Working under a fourth Sun Devil o.c. in as many seasons is hardly optimal, but new o.c. Rob Likens was on staff last year and will retain most of the spread concepts of predecessor Billy Napier (now HC at Louisiana-Lafayette). Look for lots of run-pass options to take advantage of Wilkins’ mobility, and plenty of quick-hitting screens, but Herm also alerted at the recent Pac-12 Media Day that the Sun Devils were going to be able to play some smashmouth, too, which means touted soph RB Ryan Benjamin, the jewel of Graham’s last recruiting class who saw limited work behind 1000-yard Demario Richard and Miami Dolphins draftee Kalen Ballage last fall, figures to get a lot of work. And big-play jr. N’Keal Harry (82 catches LY) might be the Pac’s best returning wideout. The line was a source of some concern in 2017, as protecting Wilkins, even with his mobility, became a problem, ranking 124th in sacks allowed. Wilkins, however, was guilty of holding the ball too long on many occasions, something Likens aims to fix this fall. Three starters are back up front along with Stanford grad transfer LT Casey Tucker. The consensus of regional sources is that the “O” could be better than LY’s strike force that scored 32 ppg.

It’s on “D” where there are more concerns that new coordinator Danny Gonzalez (hired from Herm’s alma mater San Diego State) will have to address after vet d.c. Phil Bennett, whose presence (along with Napier) was supposed to be a prerequisite for any new HC, per AD Anderson’s directive, instead retired and paved the way for Herm to clean out the defensive staff. The stop unit leaked a lot in 2017, ranking in triple digits in most categories, and there are new starters all across the DL in the 3-3-5 looks that d.c. Gonzalez learned from the sage Rocky Long. There is experience on the corners where both starters return (including soph Chase Lucas, the lone frosh on the All-Pac-12 team LY), and LB Koron Crump returns after missing almost all of 2017 with a knee injury before being granted an extra year of eligibility. But Herm had better hope that much of Long’s scheming ability has rubbed off on his disciple Gonzalez.

The schedule is not easy, with high-ranked Michigan State into Tempe on Sept. 8 and preceding a trip down memory lane for Edwards and d.c. Gonzalez to San Diego State. The worst break for Herm, however, was drawing both North powerhouses, Stanford and Washington, the latter to be in revenge mode in noisy Seattle after being upset last Oct. 14 in Tempe. Edwards, who talks weekly to his mentor Vermeil, might be burning up the phone lines to his old boss this fall.

Spread-wise note that Graham’s teams usually held their own and developed something of a fortress out of Sun Devil Stadium, at least in Pac-12 play, covering 9 of their last 11 as conference host. For the record, Herm’s Chiefs had a spread record of 22-25-1 in his last three years (2006-08) as a head coach.

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