ASU may have the toughest early schedule of any team in college football, excluding members of the SEC. The tests of Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium will either establish the Sun Devils as contenders or pretenders.
In spite of the lofty expectations surrounding the Sun Devils, the optimistic outlooks could turn into pessimistic disgust very quickly. Whether Taylor Kelly and company start 1-4, 2-3, 3-2, or 4-1, nothing should surprise anybody.
Coach Todd Graham has the talent to compete with the best, but does he have the talent to beat the best?
The Hunch: ASU will be at least 3-2 by October 12th.
From week two (opening game) through week six, ASU is only favored once, and that's against Sacramento State. The matchups with Wisconsin and USC at home are considered "pick 'em". Ask me to pick and I will do so, I have ASU winning both games.
The Associated Press and Coaches poll gave USC the 24th ranking in college football, but I completely disagree. By the end of the season, maybe the Trojans will be worthy of that honor. However, at this current juncture, I believe ASU boasts superior personnel.
Starting with the most important position in sports, Taylor Kelly holds the honors over Cody Kessler or Max Wittek. Kelly already proved he can get the job done, while Kessler and Wittek are question marks. Beyond the signal callers, the combo of Marion Grice and D.J. Foster trumps Silas Redd (injured) and true freshman Justin Davis.
Lane Kiffin takes pride in having one of the best defensive lines, and rightfully so. Meanwhile, Paul Randolph's defensive line comes into work with All-American Will Sutton and Freshman All-American Jaxon Hood. The Devils' stout unit up front produced the second most sacks in the country.
The point I'm trying to make is that position-by-position, it's not unrealistic to believe that ASU wins the majority of comparisons to USC. And that's not even mentioning the fact that the game is at Sun Devil Stadium. Regardless of affiliation, I prefer the home team, the team with a better quarterback and in my opinion, the more talented team.
The other toss up game comes when ASU hosts Wisconsin. According to the rankings, the Badgers are slightly better at No. 23 in the nation. In addition, the number will be higher as the team plays two weak opponents before traveling to Tempe, Arizona. ESPN.com's Adam Rittenberg talked about Wisconsin's chances at ASU:
"Arizona State could be a very tough draw for the Badgers, who are replacing three of four starters in the secondary and could have a tough time keeping pace with the Sun Devils' up-tempo offenses. Big Ten teams typically struggle in Pac-12 venues, and while the game takes place at night, heat could be a factor in the Valley of the Sun."
On the contrary, the ground and pound approach of Wisconsin presents problems for ASU. Throughout the offseason, the Sun Devil coaching staff placed extreme emphasis on stopping the run. Who knows if the hard work will pay off, and the Badgers plan on testing their fall camp training.
Thankfully for Sutton, Hood, Gannon Conway and more, Montee Ball departed to the NFL. New running back, James White, shouldn't be scoffed at though. In the 2012 season, White still accumulated 806 yards, averaged 6.4 per carry, and enjoyed 12 trips to the end zone.
The differing schemes of ASU and Wisconsin makes this an appealing matchup. I'm picking ASU over Wisconsin but I lack the same confidence as I did before against USC.
If the two teams are relatively close, my two biggest factors on predicting the outcome are quarterback play then home field advantage. ASU prevails in both categories.
Do the math. If ASU beats Sacramento State, Wisconsin and USC, that's at least three wins. The sole two games remaining through week six would be: at Stanford and Notre Dame at AT&T Stadium in Dallas.
Defeating Stanford on the road seems very unlikely, as David Shaw's team owns the No. 4 ranking. Over the last three seasons, the brainiacs in Northern California also maintained elite football status, earning a 20-1 record at home.
On the other hand, Notre Dame deserves to be favorites over ASU, but the margin is pretty close. The loss of Everett Golson hurts the Irish as their 2012 national championship appearance probably wouldn't have happened without him.
ASU will come into Jerry's World with the better offense, yet Notre Dame will come in with the better defense. The higher scoring the game ends up, the more the balance of power leans in favor of the Sun Devils.
To be clear, I do plan on picking ASU over Notre Dame, pending previous results. I could obviously be wrong, but to me, it's more likely ASU heads into week seven with four wins than two or one.
But for the sake of the hunch, three victories sounds safer than four. And that would be plenty fine in my book.