In theory, Arizona State's matchup against the UCLA Bruins has all the makings of a cynic's wet dream.
It's a road game. Plus, the Bruins have recent history on their side, winning three of their last four matchups against the Sun Devils, including the last two in Pasadena. And then there's Arizona State's perceived late-season unclutchness.
There's no perfect science to measuring a label like such. But since the whole gimmick of this article is perpetuating negativity, we figured, 'what the hell, let's give it a shot.'
Throwing out Territorial Cup matchups since anything can happen in a rivalry game, the Sun Devils haven't beat a ranked team in November or later in the 21st century. Yes, you read that correctly; Arizona State is 0-16 in the new millennium against Top-25 opponents after October 31st.
For those who have been trapped in a demonic, jungle board game for an extended period of time and are unaware of what date the Devils will be playing No. 14 UCLA on, it's Nov. 23. And for those who didn't understand that reference, I apologize: I was watching 'Jumanji' last night and couldn't help myself.
Here's the good news: the Bruins and Sun Devils haven't faced off with both teams being ranked since 1986. Arizona State won that game 16-9 (in Pasadena too).
So it's probably safe to say this is the best Arizona State vs. UCLA team matchup on paper in over 25 years. Yet what worries me most is that I can't see ASU's best beating the Bruins' best.
UCLA's greatest strength (pass rush) will feed off Arizona State's fatal flaw (inconsistent offensive line play). The Bruins front-seven can be as aggressive as the Sun Devils' but they don't necessarily need to sell out to apply pressure. And what makes the Bruins ability to bring the heat so elite is the versatility of Anthony Barr and Myles Jack in coverage.
UCLA's dynamic linebacking duo is athletic enough to drop back at any given moment to eliminate an opponent's short check-down options. You can bet that's exactly what is going to happen Saturday because the Bruins' defense is as well-coached as any in the country. They'll force the Devils into sack susceptible situations and then let Bruin headhunters do their thing. And considering Arizona State's offensive line has yet to play a quality 60 minutes versus an above average front (like Utah's, Stanford's or Notre Dame's), it isn't easy for even the most optimistic of Devils to give them the benefit of the doubt here.
Of course, there will be a similarly over-matched matchup playing out when the Sun Devils are on defense. Collapsing the pocket and attacking the quarterback is arguably what Arizona State does best. And UCLA's young offensive line, while plenty talented, isn't exactly the epitome of consistency. But the difference lies in solely in the quarterback play.
When all goes to hell for Taylor Kelly, his happy feet make an appearance, he's rarely bailed out by his receivers and Arizona State's offense is incapable of getting into a rhythm. When all goes to hell for Brett Hundley, he transforms into a dual-threat killing-machine sent from the future to destroy over-zealous defenses (and John Connor). The reason Hundley has found so much success tucking and running this season is because of his offensive line's lapses. Their weaknesses have magnified his strengths.
Arizona State hasn't faced a mobile quarterback of Brett Hundley's caliber since, well, they last played Brett Hundley. I needn't remind you all how that went down.
Don't get me wrong, I fully expect Todd Graham and Arizona State to rise to the occasion Saturday. The Sun Devils have been hell-bent on revenge since last October, so much so that they've almost been caught looking ahead the past two weeks.
Mark my words: this will be ASU's best road performance of the Graham era. But if you haven't heard, this isn't the Bruins' first rodeo. UCLA is the only Pac-12 South team to ever play in the conference championship. Whether the Bruins are limping in like in 2011 or getting hot at the right time like in 2012, UCLA has found a way to take care of business as of late (with the clumsy assistance of Arizona State in back-to-back years).
That's why I can't bet against a Bruins team with their backs against the wall. I predicted Arizona State to fall to UCLA before the Devils played a down in 2013. Tossing aside my thinly-veiled pessimistic persona, I still haven't seen enough from either team to waver from that fateful prediction.
But hey, at least Arizona State isn't mathematically eliminated with a loss. Now if you'll excuse me, I'm going to go play with the Gus Johnson soundboard to prepare myself mentally for what's sure to be an exhilarating one. COLD-BLOODED!!!
The Cynical Sun Devil's worst-case scenario: UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone dials up an endless amount of swing passes just to spite Arizona State fans. In a cruel turn of events, Hundley totals 202 of his 512 passing yards from the lamest passing play in football, inspiring Gus Johnson to proclaim "IT'S SWING-TASTIC!"...It turns out Anthony Barr is one of those Usain Bolt-like, superhuman zombies from 'World War X.' Following a four sack half from Barr, it is announced that Evan Finkenberg and Tyler Sulka are out for the remainder of the game due to an unknown flesh-eating virus...Myles Jack channels his inner Sammy Baugh and starts pinning the Devils back with 81-yard punts as a three-way player because why not? That Myles Jack is so hot right now.