Four months ago, it seemed more likely that Arizona State would be on probation than on top of the Pac-12 Conference.
Yet here the Sun Devils stand, bruised but unfazed.
As the college football season reaches the midway point, the No. 18 Sun Devils own the best record in the Pac-12 and have become the midseason betting favorites to win the league title.
The jolting preseason news that the NCAA had begun an investigation into alleged recruiting violations by Arizona State coach Herm Edwards and his staff has left nary a visible mark.
Anxiety over the potential fallout from the NCAA investigation has been swallowed by the success of an ASU team that, with 21 returning starters, had high expectations after a fitful four-game 2021 season that was marred by a COVID-related 28-day pause and two late losses.
Junior quarterback Jayden Daniels has been his reliable, efficient self, and ASU has posted gaudy numbers on both sides of the ball.
Daniels, a 6-3 third-year sophomore, has not received much in-season publicity because ASU has run the ball so well, but Mel Kiper Jr. ranked Daniels as the No. 4 NFL quarterback prospect in his initial rankings of the class of 2022, just ahead of Ole Miss Heisman candidate Matt Corral and USC’s Kedon Slovis.
— Stadium (@Stadium) October 9, 2021
The Sun Devils rank first in the Pac-12 in total defense, scoring defense and passing efficiency. They are second in total offense, third in rushing yards and first in rushing touchdowns in their best start since 2012.
Edwards, 5-1 for the second time in his four years here, would have no part of a mid-season evaluation.
“We have a lot of football left,” Edwards said after a 28-10 victory over Stanford last Friday. “We’re a 5-1 football team. You guys can decide where we are.
“We’re just trying to win another game. If we win that one, you guys can ask the question again and I’ll give you the same answer. You guys can decide where we are. I don’t do stuff like that. You get yourself in a bad way when you start saying my program is this.
“It’s about winning games. If you win, everybody is happy. If you don’t win, then you have other things to deal with.”
The “other things” began earlier than expected this season.
According to multiple reports, the ASU athletic department received a file containing dozens of receipts, pictures and e-mails from an anonymous source last spring documenting alleged recruiting violations committed by the coaching staff in the NCAA recruiting “dead period” during the COVID-19 pandemic. Teams were not allowed to host recruits during that time.
The staff stashed recruits in a suite at Sun Devil Stadium during one game, according to one report, and once allegedly took a recruit up a back staircase to meet Edwards. Reports also said that Daniels’ mother, Regina Jackson, and defensive backs coach Chris Hawkins worked in tandem to pay for recruiting visits for high school players from Florida during the dead period.
SOURCES: The NCAA has begun interviewing subjects involved as part of its investigation into Arizona State football, as @DennisDoddCBS first reported. I’m told the NCAA has already interviewed numerous 2022 prospects who ASU has been recruiting.
— Bruce Feldman (@BruceFeldmanCFB) August 26, 2021
In response, ASU suspended Hawkins and receivers coach Prentice Gill on Aug. 9, a month after placing tight ends coach Adam Breneman on administrative leave. Donnie Henderson, Bobby Wade and Juston Wood, respectively, have taken over those roles.
The NCAA began interviewing recruits and ASU officials in late summer, according to reports, but has given no timetable for a decision, its standard practice.
Stanford coach David Shaw was critical of ASU’s practices, if true.
“It’s a disrespectful thing to do,” Shaw told Yahoo! Sports when the allegations were first reported. “That (violation) doesn’t sound overly harsh. But for me being a lifer in this profession and a coach’s kid, I believe in respecting our profession and respecting the other people in the profession.”
Through it all, the Sun Devils have soldiered on.
Arizona State is 5-1 overall and 3-0 in the Pac-12 South, and DraftKings lists the Sun Devils at +140 to win the Pac-12 championship. No. 9 Oregon (4-1, 1-1 Pac-12 North) is close behind at +175, while Utah (3-2, 2-0 South) is third at +550 and UCLA (4-2, 2-1 South) is listed at +950. No other conference team is better than 10/1.
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) October 12, 2021
Arizona State also controls its own destiny in the division race, the NCAA inquiry notwithstanding. While Oregon owns the Pac-12’s signature victory with a 35-28 win at No. 6 Ohio State on Sept. 11, the Sun Devils and Ducks are not scheduled to meet in the regular season.
Utah and Pac-12 North leader Oregon State (4-2, 2-1) are the only teams with winning records remaining on ASU’s schedule, although that will change as the haves play more of the have-nots.
Mathematics also favors the Sun Devils. They hold a tiebreaker over UCLA should the teams finish in a two-way tie for first place by virtue of a decisive 42-23 victory at the Rose Bowl two weeks ago.
Should ASU extend its winning streak to four at Utah, the Sun Devils would not only gain a similar tie-breaking edge in a two-way tie with the Utes but also would guarantee the tiebreaker advantage if they finish tied with Utah and UCLA atop the South.
Arizona State is a 1-point road favorite against the Utes after opening as a half-point underdog when the line was posted Sunday.
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) October 9, 2021
The Sun Devils’ only blip this season came 38 miles south of Salt Lake City, when they committed four turnovers — including two interceptions by Daniels — and had 16 penalties for 121 yards in BYU’s 27-17 victory in Provo on Sept. 18.
The division winners meet in the league championship game at Allegiant Stadium in Las Vegas on Dec. 3.
While that might seem to be looking too far ahead, it does not take much imagination to picture Arizona State in its first Pac-12 title game since 2013, when they fell 38-14 to a bludgeoning Stanford running attack at Sun Devil Stadium.
ASU showed well on both sides of the ball in its 28-10 victory over Stanford last Friday.
Daniels led the Sun Devils to touchdown drives on their first three possessions on drives of 87, 75 and 80 yards. Daniels capped the first with a 51-yard run, breaking up the middle after a pump fake to score untouched. Rachaad White capped the second with a 5-yard run and the third came on an end around.
ASU had 255 yards rushing against Stanford and is averaging 442 yards per game in total offense, 213 yards rushing. White, Daniels and reserve running back Chip Trayanum rank in the top 10 in rushing yards per game while playing behind an experienced line that returned five starters. White, a less-heralded recruit than Trayanum out of Mount San Antonio College last year, leads the league with 10 touchdowns, nine rushing
— Rachaad White 3️⃣ (@3_chaad) October 14, 2021
The line has been especially strong. Tackle Kellen Diesch is the highest-graded offensive player in the Pac-12, regardless of position and center Dohnovan West has the highest pass-blocking grade among centers.
The defense also has had more than a few moments of excellence, typified by the way it protected its 21-7 lead against Stanford.
After a touchdown on its second possession of the game, Stanford put up only a field goal on its next nine possessions. The Cardinal punted three times, threw three interceptions and twice turned the ball over on downs. Quarterback Tanner McKee was sacked five times.
Edwards, an all-NFL cornerback, saw things to like on both sides of the ball while admitting the offense has work to do.
“You feel like you are rolling a little bit, then all of a sudden nothing,” he said. “We have to clean that up.”
The second-half stops continued a trend — Arizona State has outscored its opponents 99-26 in the final 30 minutes this season
ASU turned McKee’s second interception into a 22-yard touchdown when cornerback Jack Jones picked off a pass and while being tackled lateraled to DeAndre Pierce for the score that made it 28-10 late in the third quarter.
“You can’t allow somebody to go over your head and dunk on you,” senior Jones said of his philosophy on the corner. “Cover your cat. We have to do our job.”
NFL scouts have ranked Jones, White and cornerback Chase Lucas as potential fifth/sixth round picks in the 2022 draft. Linebacker Darien Butler is on ESPN’s first team all-midseason team and is Pro Football Focus’ highest traded linebacker in pass coverage in the Pac-12.
Fact: QBs hate Darien Butler.
Fact: Darien Butler is the only player in the nation with 2.0 sacks and 2 interceptions. pic.twitter.com/PGiKJxswVZ
— Sun Devil Football (@ASUFootball) September 16, 2021
Arizona State has 44 takeaways in its last 17 games, the most in the FBS in that span. No. 3 Iowa has 42.
Senior defensive end Tyler Johnson, who quit football for a year after a serious shoulder injury as a redshirt freshman, had two sacks against Stanford and helped limit the Cardinals to 13 yards rushing. Johnson had five sacks last season, when he was second-team All-Pac 12.
“It really comes down to preparation,” Johnson said. “We all stuck with the plan.”
For now, Arizona State has managed the unwieldy plan of playing through an NCAA investigation with ease.