(Photo: Scotty Bara/WCSN)
It seems like ages since the days before Arizona State played USC. It was a dark time in Sun Devil Land, as the most recent memory was of a historic shellacking at the hands of Brett Hundley and UCLA, and many fans and analysts were starting to wonder just what they could expect out of a team that had come into the season declaring themselves legitimately National Championship contenders. Then the Jael Mary happened, capping off an impressive battle with a quality Trojan squad on the road, and changing the tune of fans and analysts alike.
Now, on the eve of another major test in Arizona State’s campaign, we’ve assembled our CronkiteSports.com insiders and experts once again to suss out what’s real and what’s hype, as well as predict Saturday’s matchup with the Stanford Cardinal.
A lot has changed since two weeks ago. At this point, and considering losses for other division rivals, do you believe Arizona State is the favorite to win the Pac-12 South?
Adam Stites: The Sun Devils probably aren’t the best team in the Pac-12 South, but they have to be considered the favorite at this point in the season. Even if ASU drops another conference game (particularly, to Stanford or Washington), they still have a tiebreaker over USC and will have the opportunity to knock Utah and Arizona from the top of the standings. ASU controls its own destiny and would still be in good shape to go to the conference championship even if they lost that control in October.
Jacob Garcia: If we apply the same logic that Todd Graham employs in deciding who is the favorite to win the entire Pac-12 (he said Tuesday that since Stanford has won the Pac-12 the past two seasons then they are certainly still the favorites), then yes, ASU is the favorite to win the Pac-12 South.
The reality is that it is way too early to tell, and whoever earns the “favorite” label should feel just as secure as a team that received a top-10 preseason ranking. Of the five teams that could be considered favorites (USC, Arizona, ASU, Utah and UCLA), Utah certainly has the toughest remaining schedule, with road matchups against Oregon State, ASU and Stanford and then a home matchup against Oregon. ASU, UA and USC have similar strengths of schedules, with each team having one challenging road game on the horizon. While UCLA is fortunate enough to have its most challenging games at home, a lineup of UA, USC and Stanford is menacing to say the least.
So since no team is clearly better than any other, and strength of schedule is nearly dead even, why not have the tie-breaker go to the defending Pac-12 South champs?
Matt Harden: The last time I declared a team the favorite to win the Pac-12 south, it was USC after they beat Stanford in Palo Alto. A few days later the Trojans went to Boston College and got ran over to the tune of 452 yards.
There is no favorite in the South. UCLA and Colorado have five conference losses between them and they both have an outside chance of winning the division.
The Sun Devils’ win against USC could have been their case to be the favorite but hidden inside the drama of their victory is the fact they ran for only 31 yards and gave up 493. With Taylor Kelly returning, the offense should balance out a little more but the defense continues to be a liability.
The Sun Devils’ schedule does them no favors either. They still have games against Stanford, Washington, Notre Dame, Utah, Oregon State and Arizona. Of course with how deep the conference is, everyone still has a tough schedule. Another reason why there is no favorite.
The goal going into this season for Coach Todd Graham was a National Championship. At this point, do you see a reasonable path to the College Football Playoffs?
AS: The only thing that is clear in college football is that absolutely nothing is clear. The No. 1 team was unranked just five weeks ago and the shuffle in the AP Top 25 has come in unprecedented waves. With home games against No. 23 Stanford, No. 5 Notre Dame and No. 20 Utah, and away games against nothing but unranked teams with the exception of No. 16 Arizona, there’s a reasonable path for ASU to either win out, or drop just one game en route to the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The CFB Playoff shouldn’t be the expectation of fans at this point, but it’s not an unreasonable dream to cling to at this point.
JG: If the Sun Devils run the table, they would have as strong of a resume to make the College Football Playoff as any other team. Though the chances of all four teams remaining ranked by the time ASU is set to play them is slim, the Sun Devils do have those resume-booster games on the docket.
At the same time, nothing about Pac-12 play is reasonable. Through the first six weeks, the teams have simply beaten each other to a pulp, which has not allowed any one school to distance itself from the pack. I expect that trend to continue and cause ASU to lose some games that, on paper, they should win.
MH: The Sun Devils’ only chance of making the college football playoff is to win out and be the Pac-12 champions. Even then, they are not guaranteed a spot.
The Pac-12 is one of the best conferences in the country, however, this year it has failed to truly show it. The conference is deeper than most thought it would be with teams like California, Utah and Arizona being much-improved which would help the Sun Devils if they get through with only one conference loss.
The problem is the Pac-12’s struggles in non-conference play. Teams like UCLA, USC, Arizona, Washington, Oregon State all struggled in games they should have won easily. Though they did win most of those games, in the eyes of the selection committee, this could hurt whichever team is crowned champion, especially if the team has two or three losses.
Unless the Sun Devils dominate the rest of their games, their chances of being one of the four teams picked for the playoff are slim.
The Sun Devils’ pass rush has been a major sore spot all season. Does the Devil-backer position work without departed Devil-backer Carl Bradford?
AS: Carl Bradford is not the only player capable of being a pass-rush specialist in ASU’s defense, and there are plenty of prototypical undersized pass rushers that can be successful in the role. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, they haven’t had much success finding a guy to prove that in 2014. De’Marieya Nelson is an athletic player that fits the Devil-backer mold, but he simply hasn’t had enough work there in practice or snaps in games to be effective.
The Devil-backer position is an innovative one that the Seattle Seahawks have found a lot of success with (it’s called the LEO in their system), and ASU should continue recruiting that position. However, given the struggles they’ve had, it might be wise to play with two defensive ends rather than continue to find snaps for ineffective players.
JG: Absolutely not. A system-perfect fit for the Devil-backer position is someone who is agile enough to get to the quarterback, strong enough to contain the edge on runs and explosive enough to cover wide receiver. The 2014 Sun Devil defense does not have any player who fits this mold. Antonio Longino and Edmond Boateng are competent players, but they have only mustered one sack apiece.
Also, with the Sun Devils allowing a disturbing 207.2 rushing yards per game (104th in the country) it would make a lot more sense for Todd Graham to stack the box with five down lineman (like he has schemed to do against Stanford) for the rest of the season.
It will be interesting to see how much pride Graham sacrifices in this situation. The defense is highly unique and truly his master creation, but there comes a point where he has to recognize that he does not have the athletes this year to make it as successful as it needs to be.
MH: Devil-backer is a tricky position because it requires ability to rush the quarterback, defend the run on the edge and drop into pass coverage from either the defensive end or outside linebacker spots.
The position works. The problem is, it takes time and experience to learn. Carl Bradford even admitted he struggled with at first. Eventually, the more he played, the better he got.
The Sun Devils right now do not have anyone with enough experience to play the position and rotating between three guys seems to be slowing down the development of all three players.
The other thing the Sun Devils need for this position to work is better defensive line play overall. Bradford was a great player but it helped to have a defensive line that ate up blocks, especially Will Sutton who frequently saw double teams, and sometimes triple teams. This created opportunities for Bradford to go one-on-one, usually against a tight end or a running back, which is a mismatch. The Sun Devils’ defensive line is not creating as much havoc and taking up as many blocks as they did last season, making it easier for teams to block additional rushers.
The problem is not with the position or with the scheme. It’s the lack of experience. That’s what happens when a team has to replace nine guys on side of the ball.
With all that we’ve seen since the last roundtable, how have your predictions for this season changed?
AS: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, Arizona State is a talented enough team to beat any team in any given week. They are also inexperienced enough to give up huge, game-changing plays to any team. That inexperience is fading though, and they’re looking more sound at limiting giant plays. I’m still not convinced that they can get through the remainder of the schedule unscathed, but I believe they can do it with just one loss. So I’ll stick with 10-2 and a trip to the Pac-12 Championship where they come up short for a second straight year.
JG: My heart says 10-2, but my head says 9-3.
I will admit, my optimism on this team has changed. It is not so much anything that ASU has done to make me more optimistic, but rather a better understanding of the Pac-12.
After watching Stanford and their inept offense have the utmost of difficulty posting 34 points against the worse-than-ASU defense of Washington State on Friday night, I have changed my prediction from the previous weeks: The Sun Devils win this game, but only if Mike Bercovici starts.
Assuming he does—as I do not see any way that the coaching staff can bring themselves to roll out a rusty and obviously-still-injured Taylor Kelly—the Sun Devils advance to 5-1 on Saturday.
While I still believe that ASU will falter against Notre Dame on November 8, the rest of their schedule is somewhat favorable. Hence, my heart says 10-2 because I see winnable games on paper.
Yet my head says 9-3, so that will be my final answer. College football has proven far too unpredictable this year and there is too much parity in the Pac-12 to go chalk and pick ASU to run the table against opponents that they “should” beat. Possible trip-up games that I have on my radar are the game against Washington in Seattle and the contest against Oregon State in Corvallis.
MH: I’m sticking with 8-4. The Sun Devils still have a tough schedule. None of their seven remaining games is a guaranteed win. The Pac-12 south is deeper than anyone originally thought, with teams like Utah and Arizona playing well, ot to mention the Sun Devils face tough challenges with Pac-12 North teams like Oregon State, Washington and Stanford coming in.
Taylor Kelly is reportedly a game-time decision against Stanford, and Graham has indicated that they’ll prepare to start either Kelly or Mike Bercovici. Who gives the Devils a better chance to win, and how would you predict the game with either signal caller?
AS: Running the ball is going to important against Stanford, even if it’s a difficult task against the large, strong defense of the Cardinal. The pass will only work so much if Stanford doesn’t respect ASU’s ability to gash them on the ground, and the Sun Devils have looked unquestionably better at running the ball with Taylor Kelly at the helm. That’s why my prediction with a healthy Kelly running the offense will be a 31-21 victory for ASU, while my prediction with Mike Bercovici will be 24-17 Stanford.
JG: With Bercovici: ASU 28 Stanford 24
With Taylor Kelly: Stanford 24 ASU 17
Based on what I saw at Tuesday’s practice, there is little doubt in my mind that Mike Bercovici gives the Sun Devils a better chance to win against Stanford. Taylor Kelly did participate in more throwing drills than he did Thursday of last week, but in the agility and running drills he looked tentative and fragile. I do not think he is at full health, nor do I think he will make such rapid improvement in the next few days to put him at full health.
The whole reason that Taylor Kelly is the starter to begin with is because of the added dimension he brings to the running game. Not only does Stanford’s stingy defense neutralize that, but with Kelly not being fully recovered, the running game will not be any more lethal even if he does get the starting nod. Taylor Kelly is undoubtedly the starter after Stanford, but Mike Bercovici’s toolset is a match made in heaven against the Cardinal. There is no quarterback controversy, especially if the coaching staff simply labels it as Kelly not being at full strength come Saturday.
MH: Either way, I think Stanford is going to win the game. Taylor Kelly’s running ability is usually a weapon but Stanford has found ways to successfully defend mobile quarterbacks like Kelly.
Mike Bercovici’s passing ability can put stress on the defense but Stanford is going to key in on Jaelen Strong. Unless D.J. Foster breaks out of this mini slump he’s having – I understand, it’s not all his fault but still – or another receiver goes off, the Cardinal have the ability to shut down the Sun Devils’ passing attack.
The good news is, Stanford has weaknesses – mainly on offense – that should allow ASU to stay in the game and not get out of their game plan. Still, it might not be enough.
With Taylor Kelly- Stanford wins 24-17
With Bercovici- Stanford wins 24-14