When the season started, who would have thought the Arizona State-Utah game in November would be between two 6-1 teams? It adds some intrigue to the Pac-12 South, where tonight's game may be an elimination game in the division. Our staff debates.
Justin Emerson: Managing Editor (@J15Emerson)
Nick Krueger: Managing Editor (@NickPKrueger)
Jason Galvin: Columnist (@Jason_Galvin)
Shane Theodore: Staff writer (@shane_writes)
The Pac-12 South is obviously superb this year. Is this a must-win game for the Sun Devils?
Emerson: I would say so. A loss would make Utah 7-1, 4-1 in conference with the tiebreaker over Arizona State. Two losses, both of them at home, would make it very hard for the Sun Devils to come back and win the South. And it would all but eliminate them from the playoff.
Krueger: It is if they want a chance at the College Football Playoff. Other than that, the way the parity is playing out in the conference, ASU would still have a chance to win the South. They would, however, need help from Utah to lose another game somewhere else. If the Sun Devils continue to win, they will continue to control their own destiny which is all any team wants.
Galvin: It is if they want any shot at making the playoffs. It's also a home game, and it's generally difficult to lose two conference home games and expect to win a championship.
Theodore: If Arizona State's goal is to make the playoff, then every game from here on out is a must-win. A 1-loss Pac-12 champion will make the playoff, but there are too many good SEC and Big-12 teams to justify putting in a 2-loss Pac-12 champion. So if the Sun Devils intend on being the first Pac-12 team to be represented in the college football playoff, the Utah game is the first of a long stretch of must-win games.
How much stock do you take into Taylor Kelly's performance against Washington?
Emerson: Very little. It was his first game in five weeks, it was windy and Washington is good. The Mike Bercovici talk is an overreaction. If you have a QB 1, you play QB 1. Kelly is the starter.
Krueger: Wind and rust included, I'll give Kelly a pass on that performance. Whatever his output is against Utah is similar to what we'll see the rest of the season. He looked good running the ball against Washington but the Utes' pass defense is stout too. Anything under 250 yards and a touchdown would be underachieving in my eyes.
Galvin: Well Washington is pretty loaded up front, and TK looked rusty to a degree. But I think he's fine now. He needed a game to get comfortable with his leg, to trust it again. Playing in the weather he did, on the road, should have restored his confidence going forward.
Theodore: It was fair to expect rust from Kelly, and the weather in Seattle didn't do much to help the quarterback get his bearings. But the playmaking ability of Kelly showed up in the final offensive touchdown to retake the lead, and he'll only get more aggressive in the running game as he continues to acclimate back to the offense.
Considering how staring Utah's pass rush is, how good is Arizona State's offensive line going to need to be?
Emerson: This is their most important game of the season. Utah's ability to get into the opposing backfield is deadly, and Arizona State can't expect to win if Taylor Kelly spends the game running for his life.
Krueger: Better than the seven sacks last week that's for sure. Honestly if they get to Kelly a few times, that's a little expected. This is the game I believe D.J. Foster gets his groove back though with a weaker interior defensive line for the Utes.
Galvin: As good as its been all season. The Sun Devils have been dominant for most of the year up front. That needs to continue in every game going forward, not just this one.
Theodore: Utah always has strong defensive lines, and guys like Tenny Palepoi and Star Lotulelei have terrorized the Pac-12 the past couple years. But I do think that the Arizona State offensive line is capable of stopping the Utah pass rush, partially because of Kelly's ability to sense and escape pressure. Different from Mike Bercovici, Kelly can scramble well and knows how much time he has in the pocket before he has to bail. Utah's going to make some plays on defense because at this level of football, both teams are pretty good, but the Sun Devil offensive line has the talent to keep Kelly off his back.
How does the Dres Anderson injury change the Sun Devils' gameplay, if at all?
Emerson: Very little. Utah has other receivers, and it just means that the Utes will spread the ball out a little more. Even if it means a heavier reliance on the run, the Sun Devils can't expect an inept offense, and change their plan.
Krueger: If you're a fan of taking Todd Graham's word at face value, than no. Kaelin Clay and Kenneth Scott are capable replacements but the Utes should be even more ground-game heavy Saturday night than their gam plan already called for. This means even more blitz packages from the Sun Devils, that's how Anderson's absence changes the game in my opinion.
Galvin: It shouldn't. The Sun Devils don't change much defensively from game to game. Anderson just takes the receiver focus and spreads it out.
Theodore: The loss of Anderson doesn't change Arizona State's gameplan drastically, but it changes the risk they'll be taking. Todd Graham likes to rush the passer, and without a true No. 1 option at wide receiver, he'll get away with more single coverages and blitz packages. Containing duel-threat Travis Wilson will require a fast defensive back to make his presence known in the backfield, and not having Anderson to worry about opens up freedom to call more blitzes.
Give us your final score and one other prediction about the game.
Emerson: While I can see a close game, I think Arizona State's first big blowout against a good team (a la Washington last year) comes tonight. 41-17 Sun Devils.
Krueger: Arizona State 27, Utah: 21 Whether it's a stop by ASU to seal the win or a score by the Sun Devils to go ahead, this game comes down to the final drive on a very late night in Tempe.
Galvin: 34-24 Sun Devils. Travis Wilson throws his first interception of the season.
Theodore: I think Utah will hang around but the Sun Devil defense will continue to improve and shut down the Ute offense, allowing Arizona State's attack to put up a few touchdowns in a 27-10 win.