I stepped foot onto the Arizona State campus in August of 2010. The first significant date I marked down wasn't graduation, it was the ASU football game against Notre Dame at AT&T stadium (Dallas Cowboys Stadium). After three years of anticipation, we're only one day away from kickoff!
Times have changed drastically. I could've never guessed the Sun Devils to be favorites over the Fighting Irish. Todd Graham returns home to Texas guiding the 22nd ranked team in the nation. Meanwhile, Brian Kelly and Notre Dame are in the "others receiving votes" section.
Nine months ago, Brian Kelly restored the historic Notre Dame reputation, leading them to the National Championship. Flash forward to present day and the Maroon and Gold are confident in their chances, and rightfully so.
This type of opportunity doesn't come around often, therefore ASU must capitalize. In spite of Notre Dame's pedestrian 3-2 record, the squad posses plenty of talent and respect throughout the country.
Todd Graham said last weeks win over USC was a significant stride for the program. Losing to the Fighting Irish wouldn't hurt the Sun Devils' season goals, but on a national scale, it would be a major setback.
On the contrary, if ASU pulls out the win, college football fans around the country will no longer be able to ignore what's happening Tempe.
Enough with the debriefing; let's get to the hunches. Last week I went 2-1, making my overall record 9-3.
First Hunch: ASU defense allows least amount of rushing yards all season, excluding the Sacramento State game
The coaches and players both remain optimistic about turning around the run defense. I won't believe it until I see it. Conversely, I can't imagine the Sun Devil run defense doing worse than their games against Wisconsin, Stanford and USC. In those three outings, ASU surrendered 718 yards on the ground, which is an unacceptable 239 yards per game.
The biggest challenge could be internally, as the defensive line depth has been washed away due to injuries. Jaxon Hood and Mo Latu are doubtful to play while Junior Onyeali is out for the reason. Marcus Hardison needs to step up to the challenge and prove his worth.
Moving Chris Young back to SPUR linebacker may not be the complete answer, but it should help. Field cornerback, Robert Nelson, needs to improve his block-shedding. Until then, the edges of the defense will continue to get exposed.
Notre Dame featured running back, George Atkinson III, specializes at getting to the outside. Atkinson III had an 80-yard touchdown scamper against Oklahoma last week. There's no question about it, I expect the ASU run defense to struggle with a powerful runner like Atkinson III. But to play the Sun Devils' advocate, I believe Arizona State will do a better job at forcing the running lanes inside to the heart of the defense.
The Fighting Irish offense averages a middling 134 yards on the ground, putting them at 93rd best in the country. Will Sutton and the rest of the front seven will keep the average basically intact, which will be minor progress compared to their previous performances.
Second hunch: Chris Coyle plays key role in the passing attack, again. (At least 70 yards and one touchdown)
Wide receiver Jaelen Strong is no longer Tempe's finest secret. If you're game planning for the Sun Devils' offense, it starts with Strong. Even though he posses incredible play making ability, consistently grabbing the ball over defenders, overcoming double teams will be unfamiliar territory at the collegian ranks. Yes, you heard it right; Strong won't be seeing single coverage much anymore.
The extra attention going toward Strong creates open turf for Chris Coyle. The senior tight end returned to the forefront of the high powered attack against USC, collecting five catches for 87 yards.
Coyle will be mainly matched up against the Notre Dame linebackers, who are still talened despite the loss of Manti Te'o but have struggled in pass defense. Jarrett Grace seems likely to draw the assignment because of his veteran leadership and fundamental tackling. Besides Grace, the young core hasn't seen many tight ends as good as Coyle.
Mike Norvell and company put up 62 points against USC, and it wasn't by coincidence that Coyle was heavily involved. Since the Sun Devils are in the Cowboy's stadium, expect Coyle to channel his inner Jason Witten.
Go position-by-position and it's hard to say ASU or Notre Dame can separate themselves from the other party. But at quarterback, Taylor Kelly wins undisputedly. When in doubt on any football outcome, I go with the better signal caller.
Through five games, the Fighting Irish pass defense has been average. House of Sparky editor, Kerry Crowley, predicts Kelly to toss 400 plus yard for the first time in his career. I won't go that far, but I understand why he is so confident.
Rees isn't as bad as most make him out to be, but his turnover issues hurt the Fighting Irish's chances. Coming into the contest, Rees accumulated 10 touchdowns and five interceptions. But against AP top 25 opponents, the touchdown to interception ratio dips to 4:5.
At the same time, playing away from home presents issues for Kelly. The junior quarterback isn't outright awful on the road, but he isn't exactly good. Performing against top caliber teams has also been an issue for Kelly, yet he begun to solve the dilemma against USC.
When comparing Kelly to Rees, the differences are obvious. Kelly is on pace to surpass all of the ASU single-season quarterback records. Over in South Bend, Indiana, Rees wasn't the Notre Dame starter until Everrett Golson got kicked out of school. Kelly out-duels most quarterbacks, and Rees won't be an exception.