Back in August, few would have predicted Arizona State to be in the Pac-12 Championship game, and no one would have predicted Arizona State to host the Pac-12 Championship. Arizona State and Stanford are set to square off in the Pac-12 championship. The winner earns one of the highly coveted spots in the Rose Bowl.
The rapper Eminem famously said: 'if you had one shot, or one opportunity, to seize everything you ever wanted. One moment. Would you capture it or just let it slip?" Arizona State hasn't had an opportunity of this magnitude since 1996. For Stanford, the chance to go to Pasadena has become annual.
In the 2012 season, Stanford beat UCLA twice to earn the conference title. The first meeting between Stanford and UCLA was one-sided, while the Pac-12 Championship was close but the result repeated. Arizona State doesn't want to go down the UCLA path, coming up short twice. The Cardinal defeated the Sun Devils 42-28 on Sept. 21.
Arizona State and Stanford have both changed over the previous three-plus months. I was reassured of that by glancing at the previous Haber's Hunches for the earlier Arizona State-Stanford clash. The differences are night and day.
At the time, I thought Arizona State couldn't even hang with Stanford, which ended up being true. Now jump back to present day, I know Arizona State can hang with Stanford, and the No. 7 and No. 11 rankings confirm it.
Before I make the Pac-12 Championship hunches, let's look back at the hunches from the Territorial Cup. I technically went 2-for-3 because D.J. Foster logged only 140 yards and I said he would get 150 yards. However, I gave myself the nod because Foster was the MVP of the game. At the end of the season, the famous Haber's Hunches are 22-13 and on the brink of a BCS bowl invitation.
First Hunch: The Arizona State defense limits the punishing Stanford ground attack to 180 yards at most
Surrendering 180 yards doesn't sound like an ideal outing for the Arizona State defense. Contrary to popular belief, it would be respectable. Stanford posted 240 yards on the ground in the Sept. 21 game. I predict 60 less rushing yards due to the adjustments Todd Graham implements.
The Sun Devils began to close the running lanes against the Washington Huskies, as Bishop Sankey only tallied 22 yards on 13 carries. The game plan appeared to be: key in on Sankey and the rest will take care of itself. Expect the same approach against Stanford running back Tyler Gaffney.
The Cardinal offense places its first, second and third priority on the ground attack. Gaffney allows them to do so, accumulating 284 carries, 1,485 yards and 17 touchdowns. Surprisingly Gaffney heard his number called a mere 18 times against Arizona State last time, turning those touches into 87 yards and two touchdowns. Those touches are going to rise and Anthony Wilkerson won't get 18 again.
Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Chris Young and Co. are filling the gaps cohesively. Early on there were glaring holes in the heart of the Sun Devil defense. The glaring holes are now closed up for the most part. SAM linebacker Salamo Fiso deserves partial recognition for the strides and he didn't even start against Stanford.
If someone reminds you to do something 365 days of the year, eventually the problem dwindles away. Graham and Paul Randolph's persistent demands on run-stopping are translating over to game day. Gaffney will still be a major contributor, but he won't do as much damage as he normally does.
Second Hunch: Taylor Kelly clearly outplays Kevin Hogan (At least 100 more total yards and one more touchdown)
Taylor Kelly, welcome to the Second-Team All Pac-12. Kevin Hogan, welcome to the game-manager club.
At the Pac-12 media day, I said Hogan would hold Stanford back from its national championship hopes. Hogan averaged 184.2 passing yards, meaning he held Stanford back from its national championship hopes. On the other side, Kelly made the dream Arizona State season become reality.
Kelly tossed the pigskin for over 300 yards six times. Hogan did so once. Kelly tossed the pigskin for under 200 yards twice. Hogan did so seven times. Need more convincing? Here's the best statistic of all: Kelly ended up with 3,337 passing yards. Hogan ended up with 2,210 passing yards, over 1,000 yards shy of his counterpart.
According to an ESPN.com article, Kelly carries the Sun Devils, while Hogan avoids negative plays. Those two headlines sum it up best. Kelly and Hogan aren't comparable. In the final minutes of this expected close contest, I trust Kelly but I don't trust Hogan.
Final Hunch: Arizona State defeats Stanford
I want to preface the final hunch with my unbiased background. I picked Stanford to dominate Arizona State in the last meeting. But now, I simply think the combination of home field advantage and supreme talent propel Arizona State past Stanford.
The explosive Arizona State offense and the elite Stanford defense essentially cancel each other out. In certain situations, Kelly, Jaelen Strong, Foster and more are going to deliver. Shayne Skov, Trent Murphy, Ed Reynolds and more are going to supply stops. Both sides will take turns exchanging blows.
The mismatch can be seen when comparing the Arizona State defense to the Stanford offense. The last time Stanford tacked on 30-plus points was on Oct. 5 against the Washington Huskies. The 63-point outburst against the inept California Bears shouldn't even count. Kelly crossed the 30-point plateau in 7-of-8 games in that span.
Will Sutton, the back-to-back Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, is finding his groove at the perfect time. The rest of the Arizona State defense follows suit. In spite of the lapses through the opening four weeks, the Sun Devils allow a respectable 24.8 points per game. UCLA scored 33 against Arizona State, but atrocious special teams coverages account for at least seven points and probably more.
The following NFL example will provide further clarification, and please remember the scenario isn't identical. Arizona State reminds me of the Denver Broncos. Stanford reminds me of the Kansas City Chiefs. Arizona State makes its name on the offensive side of the ball and the defense complements it nicely, like the Broncos. Stanford makes its name on the defensive side of the ball and the offense complements it nicely, like the Chiefs. There's no way to defend the perfect throw or blocking scheme, meaning I side with offense over defense.
The Stanford ground games allows the unit to be slightly above average, yet it dips below the average line more often than it breaks out. Therefore, Stanford features a stingy defense and a pedestrian offense. Arizona State features a potent offense and a solid defense.
I don't make plans far ahead of time, but I do have plans to watch Arizona State in the Rose Bowl on Jan. 1.