Soccer fans know about the group of death, and ASU's version of it begins with Wisconsin on Saturday. In order to be among the best, you have to beat the best. The Sun Devils upcoming tests could be the most challenging stretch for any team in college football, starting with the reigning Big-10 Champions (Wisconsin), fifth ranked Stanford, 2012 college football runner-up (Notre Dame) and the historic USC Trojans program.
Let's narrow in on the ASU-Wisconsin matchup. There are numerous intriguing angles and story lines. Cody Ulm, co-editor of House of Sparky, emailed the entire staff expressing high praise about the Badgers and how they may be underrated. I could easily make the same argument about ASU, which shows how evenly matched these teams are on paper.
It's time for the famous Haber's Hunches, as I attempt to get all three right after going 2-1 in the week one game against Sacramento State.
First Hunch: Taylor Kelly tosses 300 plus yards and at least three touchdowns
The Badgers defense doesn't have many weaknesses, but the glaring gap in the secondary makes the unit vulnerable. Marion Grice, D.J. Foster and Deantre Lewis won't have much room to run the rock, so Kelly must do the heavy lifting. Sacramento State dared Kelly to expose them, and he complied.
Safety Dezman Southward anchors the Wisconsin back end, yet he lacks the necessary help to slow down Kelly's aerial attack. Southward can only cover so much real estate and his inexperienced teammates haven't seen any quarterback as good as Kelly.
Wisconsin defensive coordinator, Dave Aranda may attempt to bring the blitz often to force Kelly to get rid of the ball quickly. If Aranda elects to play the Idaho native straight up, the Badgers would be lucky to beat the six point Vegas spread.
At practice on Tuesday, I said the Badgers' coverage was mediocre, and others laughed and said they are closer to awful. Either way, Kelly's top notch efficiency and improved arm strength place him in prime position to throw for 300 plus yards and at least three touchdowns.
Second Hunch: Higher scoring game favors ASU, lower scoring game favors Wisconsin
ASU and Wisconsin aren't separated by much in the Associated Press rankings, but they take care of business in drastically different ways. The Sun Devils rarely huddle and play at an extremely quick pace. Meanwhile, the Badgers operate under an old-school ground and pound system.
Basically, the ASU-Wisconsin contest represents the stereotypical images of Pac-12 against Big Ten. In the Sun Devils' seven wins during 2012, they never scored less than 27 points. Conversely, the Badgers can thrive in low scoring affairs because of their NFL-type of system. Wisconsin native and starting quarterback, Joel Stave, is closer to a game-manager than play-maker.
Will Sutton, Carl Bradford, Alden Darby and company form a solid defense, but their side of the ball does allow more points than expected. ASU co-defensive coordinator, Paul Randolph, makes his unit well--known with a plethora of sacks and forced turnovers. The Badgers defensive story isn't as complicated, they can shut out opponents on any given night.
Despite coach Todd Graham focusing on the defense, the ASU offense is their best asset. Regardless of field position, Kelly, Foster, Marion Grice, Jaelen Strong and more can score in the blink of an eye. Wisconsin doesn't have the same luxury, normally scoring on methodical drives comprised of lots of running and play action fakes.
By high scoring, I think ASU needs to put up 30 or more points to pull off the win. Anything in the 20's should lean Wisconsin's way, and one depressing night on Mill Avenue.
Final Hunch: ASU's speed overcomes Wisconsin's strength
Growing up, the most interesting confrontations were between the big bully and the speedy runners. Could the strong behemoths hunt down the wanna-be-Usain Bolt's?
On the school yard, the fast guys can't do any damage to the tough guys besides avoiding confrontation. On the gridiron, the blazing speed can deliver knockout punches, and ASU plans on doing so. In spite of their 55-0 win, Todd Graham said his team was moving slow. COME AGAIN?
Graham may be slightly embellishing, but he's actually telling the truth. I believe the Sun Devils' explosive weapons on the outside are going to burn the bulky Wisconsin defenders. Between the lack of quickness from Bucky's disciples to ASU's countless offensive formations, the list of problems is a long one.
Don't get me wrong, the Wisconsin bruisers also possess obvious advantages over ASU. The Badgers' offensive line doesn't start anyone under 308 pounds, making them hard to move and shed off of on blocks. Sutton and Hood may not win their assignments as often as they normally do, but it's nearly impossible to shut the duo down. The reliable big men up front and running back James White could prove my entire theory wrong.
The Big Ten hasn't fared well against the Pac-12 as of late, and the speed factor is the key reason. ASU will provide another example.