We're concluding our mutli-part Arizona State season preview with a look at the Sun Devils' schedule.
The team will play an even six at home and on the road. Todd Graham's new regime will be tested early, with four difficult games in September following the August 30th opener against NAU. That opening month will likely shape the remainder of the season, which has many winnable games mixed in with match-ups against Oregon and USC.
Can ASU take a couple September wins and put themselves in position to make a run at a bowl?
Let's find out.
August 30th: vs. NAU
The debut of "high octane" football finally arrives. In all likelihood, this will essentially be a scrimmage for the Sun Devils, as it should be for any FBS team hosting an FCS team.
NAU has some talented players on offense, like running back Zach Bauman (1,435 yards and 15 touchdowns in 2011) and quarterback Casey Grossart, but they were just a 4-7 team in the Big Sky Conference a year ago, and haven't improved over the offseason.
2012 ASU Season Preview
While NAU has usually played the Sun Devils somewhat tough in previous meetings, there will be no doubt as to the end result here. The major point of interest here is the ASU quarterbacking situation. Taylor Kelly will get the start and the lion's share of scrutiny, but seeing how Graham involves Michael Eubank in the game plan will also be fascinating. This will also be the first time the new "attacking" multiple-front Sun Devil defense will get to hit someone else.
September 8th: vs. Illinois
This could be a candidate for the most important game of the year. Last year, the Illini dropped the Sun Devils in Champaign, and ASU will be looking for revenge at home.
Like ASU, Illinois has a new head coach in Tim Beckman and a dangerous dual-threat quarterback in Nathan Scheelhaase to lead an offense that will be more of a passing team than in previous years. The defense will be returning most of their starters from last year's very good unit, but they will be adjusting to a new 3-4 scheme.
This game will feature two teams filled with new schemes and young players, and this game could go a long way to deciding if either team will be going bowling in 2012. The Sun Devils and Illini should have an intense, evenly-matched battle, probably decided by a touchdown or less.
September 15th: at Missouri
ASU heads to SEC country with this game against Missouri. The Tigers return 12 starters from last year's eight-win team.
The Tiger offense will present a stiff challenge to ASU's defense. James Franklin has the potential to be one of the top dual-threat quarterbacks in the nation, and with T.J. Moe and the nation's top-ranked 2012 recruit Dorial Beckham-Green at wide receiver, he will have dangerous targets.
Defensively, the Tigers will again have a strong front seven, and it will be paramount for the Sun Devil offensive line to keep the talented defensive linemen led by Brad Madison at bay.
The Sun Devils will be a moderate underdog in this game, and emerging from Columbus with a win will be a very difficult—but not impossible—challenge.
September 22nd: vs. Utah
Conference play opens with a key South division battle against a team many have labeled a darkhorse contender. Utah won eight games in their Pac-12 debut, and that is a figure that should improve in 2012.
The ASU offense may see its strongest test of the year in this game. Utah's defense was a top-20 unit and they are built around the sensational (and aptly named) defensive tackle Star Lotulelei. The Sun Devil running game will need to get on track, or this will be a long night for ASU.
Offensively, the Utes get talented quarterback Jordan Wynn back from injury, and have the Pac-12's top returning rusher in John White IV. While they lost two key players along the offensive line, the Utah offense should still be poised to give ASU's defense headaches.
Unlike in last year's game, Utah should have the advantages—at least on paper. This will be a very tough game for the Sun Devils, but if their defense can pop for a few turnovers like they did last year, ASU should have a shot.
September 29th: at Cal
The September finale will see an inter-divisional match-up of two enigmatic teams. Both Cal and Arizona State are among a glut of teams in their respective divisions that could contend for runner-up status or fall into the basement.
Cal's offense will be the primary threat, with running back Isi Sofele and wide receiver Keenan Allen. ASU will need to rattled talented but turnover-prone quarterback Zach Maynard before he can get into a rhythm with Allen. Defensively, Cal lost five starters on defense, but still brings a very aggressive attack from it's 3-4 set. That pressure, along with a hostile road environment, will be a difficult challenge for the Sun Devil quarterback (whoever it may be at that time).
October 11th: at Colorado
After a restful bye week, the Sun Devils hopefully should have an easy time with Colorado, who will be competing with Oregon State to avoid the "Worst team in the Pac-12" title.
Their offense lost nearly everyone, including their key playmakers, and while they return six starters on defense, they did surrender the most points in the conference a year ago.
Being on the road, this has the makings of a trap game for ASU. The Sun Devils should win this game going away, so as long as Graham can keep the team focused, this will be a nice road win coming out of the bye.
October 18th: vs. Oregon
Same old story in Eugene. Hideous uniforms, excellent football team. Even with the losses of several key players, Chip Kelly's squad will be the North division favorite and one of the nation's best teams.
ASU will need a few (or more) lucky breaks to stay with the Ducks in this one. Perhaps the best realistic case scenario will be to play Oregon very tough and avoid a two touchdown or more defeat that could generate momentum for the stretch run.
October 27th: vs. UCLA
Time for the big payback. Revenge!
ASU's South division title season got derailed in Pasadena against UCLA last season, and now the Bruins come to Tempe for the homecoming game.
The parallels between the teams are numerous: new coach, new staff, new offense, new quarterback, lots of questions. How well will the Sun Devil defense be able to defend the Noel Mazzone offense they had seen over the last two years? Can they rattle new UCLA quarterback Brett Hundley?
The defense will be a strong up-and-coming unit, and will be switching to a 3-4 look. However, it is one that ASU can be effective against.
Like many games on the schedule, this will be an evenly matched affair and one that can turn on a single mistake.
November 3rd: at Oregon State
Mike Riley is one of the Pac-12's best coaches, but a winning record in Corvallis will be nearly impossible. Oregon State figures to struggle mightily yet again.
Offensively, they have a good quarterback in Sean Mannion, but not a whole lot else. If ASU's defense can generate pressure on him early, the Beavers should be held in check. The primary challenge for the ASU offense will be to contain the talented defensive end duo of Scott Crichton and Dylan Wynn, but the Sun Devils have too many weapons to be held down by OSU for too long.
November 10th: at USC
Don't expect a repeat of last year's thrilling win.
The Trojans come off of probation as arguably the nation's best team, led by the lethal offense of Heisman favorite Matt Barkley. While their defense would qualify as the team's "weakness", it still has a host of talent, and with the USC offense, won't need to do too much.
Like the Oregon game, ASU will need to play USC close, avoid the blowout, and show that they belong. While USC is peaking right now, ASU's best days are ahead of them, and playing the nation's elite teams tough will be essential.
November 17th: vs. Washington State
High octane meets the Pirate, as ASU hosts Mike Leach and the passing circus that will by this time be Washington State.
ASU's defense knows exactly what will be coming at them in this one, but that doesn't mean the 40 or 50 pass attempts will be easy to stop. Marquess Wilson is one of the top wide receivers in the nation, and could be Leach's next Michael Crabtree. The defense will be shifting to a 3-4, and will bring the attack to the ASU offense.
Wazzou will be better in 2013 and 2014, but they should still be a decent team in 2012. This game could very well be a high scoring shootout, with the last possession being the difference.
November 23rd: at Arizona
What more needs to be said about this game?
Arizona put the finishing touches on ASU's free fall last season and took back the Territorial Cup on Frank Kush Field.
Among the most important things Graham needs to do in year one is trounce the Wildcats and take back the Cup.
It's that simple.