No. 15 Arizona State Sun Devils (0-0) vs. Texas A&M Aggies (0-0)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET/4 p.m. PT
Location: Houston, Texas - NRG Stadium
Television: ESPN (Brad Nessler, Todd Blackledge, Holly Rowe)
Radio: ESPN Phoenix 620/Sirus 137 (Tim Healey, Jeff Van Raaphorst, Doug Franz)
Weather: Temperature expected to be in the mid-90's, however NRG Stadium has a retractable roof and it will be closed.
What ASU is Wearing: The Sun Devils will be debuting their new "Desert Ice" uniforms — a white base uniform with copper numbers, lettering and a copper pitchfork.
Series History: This is the first meeting between ASU and Texas A&M. ASU is 0-4 all-time against the SEC.
Texas A&M in 2014: It was a tale of two halves for Texas A&M in 2014. The Aggies started the season 5-0, with victories over South Carolina and Arkansas. Quarterback Kenny Hill was on pace to throw for 4,500 yards and over 40 touchdowns through the first five games of 2014 and most saw A&M as a contender in the brutal SEC West.
Once October hit, the wheels came off the Texas A&M bandwagon. The Aggies finished the regular season 2-5, including a 59-0 thrashing at the hands of Alabama. Texas A&M was outscored 142-51 in three losses against Ole Miss, Alabama and Mississippi State.
Hill was replaced by true freshman Kyle Allen, who threw for 1,322 yards and 16 touchdowns in the second half of 2014. Allen was named the Offensive MVP of Texas A&M's Liberty Bowl victory over West Virginia.
While the Aggies led the SEC in passing offense and finished fifth in the league in total offense, the defense was absolutely atrocious. The Aggies surrendered more than 450 yards per game (last in the SEC) and opposing teams rushed for an average of 216 yards per game. It was not much of a surprise when Kevin Sumlin replaced defensive coordinator Mark Snyder with former LSU defensive coordinator John Chavis.
Kevin Sumlin started his tenure in College Station with a 19-4 record, including a 10-win season and a Heisman Trophy winner. Since then, he is just 9-7.
ASU on Offense: For the first time since 2011, a quarterback not named Taylor Kelly begins the season under center for the Sun Devils. Even though fans got a mere glimpse last season, the Mike Bercovici era will officially begin on Saturday in Houston.
Bercovici is an anomaly to college football. Most quarterbacks leave a program if they are not named the starting quarterback within three years, even more leave if they have already graduated. Bercovici has waited his time and how he takes the reins of an explosive ASU offense.
"I think just being honest with you, I thought he would probably transfer," Todd Graham said. "I don't know I've ever coached a kid that I think it means more to him than to Mike. So he's a guy that, again, just keep your eye focused on the job at hand and the next play, and he's going to be a great one."
Alongside Bercovici in the ASU backfield are sophomore running backs Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage. Richard rushed for 116 yards last season against Utah, 68 yards in the Territorial Cup and rushed for two touchdowns in the 2014 Sun Bowl.
If last season is any indication, ASU should be able to run the football on the Texas A&M defense. Last season, Texas A&M surrendered 5.9 yards per carry on first down. The Aggies finished 100th in the country in yards per carry allowed and 109th nationally in rushing defense.
Enter Chavis. In six seasons at LSU, his defense finished top-10 nationally in S&P+ ratings (advanced statistical ratings from Bill Connelly) five times. There is plenty of talent on this A&M roster — the defensive line features nine players who were rated a 4 or 5-stars out of high school and their secondary boasts eight such players.
"Quite frankly I think they've got a chip on their shoulder based on what people are saying about them," said Texas A&M head coach Kevin Sumlin. "(They) have an opportunity to say something about that on national-TV stage against a top-20 team."
All eyes will be on D.J. Foster. The senior is transitioning to wide receiver full-time after being used primarily in the backfield his first three seasons in Tempe. Foster is the only active FBS player who has amassed 2,000 yards rushing and 1,500 yards receiving.
"This guy is electric, dynamic," said Sumlin of Foster. "Mike Norvell is a guy we have a lot respect for as an offensive coordinator. The guy will get the ball in good players' hands. He uses schemes that benefit players. They will hand him ball or flip it to him or throw it to him. We just have to be aware. When you get him in space you have to make tackles."
The Texas A&M defense also had a difficult time forcing turnovers in 2014, as the Aggies finished 13th in the SEC and 105th nationally in turnover margin.
LT Evan Goodman/RT Billy McGehee vs. DE Myles Garrett: Perhaps the most dominant pass rusher in the nation, Garrett returns for only his sophomore season. Garrett recorded 14 tackles for loss and broke the SEC freshman record for sacks in a season with 11.5.
While this is not an ideal circumstance for ASU to be breaking in two new starters at offensive tackle, both Goodman and McGehee have experience. McGehee is a redshirt senior and Goodman a redshirt junior. Graham said Garrett is the best pass rusher in the nation that he has seen on film, and it is up to these tackles to keep Bercovici upright. Look for ASU to keep a tight end or running back in if either tackle gets beat early.
ASU Running Backs vs. Texas A&M Linebackers: Despite this game being on neutral site, Graham and the Sun Devils are preparing for a road environment. It will be important for ASU to stay out of third and long as much as possible and part of that will be getting chunk gains on first down. Texas A&M will feature a young linebacking corps that is came on towards the end of the year but is still green.
Both Richard and Ballage are physical runners that like to run downhill and aren't afraid of contact. If ASU can win some battles on the second level and break some runs, it will go a long way towards their cause.
ASU on Defense: The 2014 group was young and inexperienced. ASU was tasked with replacing nine starters coming into last season, including Will Sutton and Carl Bradford. The unit took its lumps, especially early in the season, and finished last season 81st in the nation in total defense and 103rd against the pass.
The Sun Devils return nine starters and numerous others who saw action in 2014. Three of four starters are back in the secondary and all of the linebackers return.
It is going to be an interesting chess match between Graham and Texas A&M offensive coordinator Jake Spavital. The Sun Devils blitz more than almost any team in the nation, almost 50 percent of defensive snaps they are sending an extra rusher to the quarterback.
Part of this is to cause confusion for opposing offenses and part of the plan is to hide the lack of a four-man pass rush. Last season, ASU struggled to get to the quarterback when not sending additional defenders.
Graham will be playing with fire on every blitz, as Texas A&M led the SEC and finished 12th nationally in passing offense. Texas A&M wide receivers averaged 9.2 yards per catch last season and Kyle Allen will have plenty of weapons to spread the ball around.
Allen, who beat Auburn on the road and lit up West Virginia in the 2014 Liberty Bowl, felt some pressure from true freshman Kyler Murray, but was named the starting quarterback last week and immediately received lofty praise the ASU head coach.
"There are a lot of guys that have strong arms and he can make all the throws, but he's really accurate down the field and makes quick decisions and is a guy that is able to buy time in the pocket," Graham said. "He's hurt people running quarterback draw. He's hurt people scrambling and extending plays. So he's a solid quarterback. I've been really impressed with him."
On the outside, Texas A&M boasts some of the best talent of any team in the nation. Speedy Noil returns after catching 46 passes for 583 yards last season. Noil also returns punts and kicks and led A&M in all-purpose yards in 2014. Josh Reynolds returns after leading Texas A&M with 842 receiving yards and a school record 13 touchdown receptions.
One name the Sun Devil faithful may remember is Aggie WR Christian Kirk. The Scottsdale, Ariz., product turned down ASU and others for Texas A&M and will start as a true freshman. Kirk has drawn rave reviews in his short time in College Station.
While the Aggies excelled at throwing the football in 2014, the rushing attack finished 12th in the SEC. Last season, the Aggies tallied just 17 carries of more than 20 yards, 60th in the nation. Tra Carson returns after rushing for 581 yards and five touchdowns in 2014 and keep an eye out for sophomore James White.
Texas A&M Wide Receivers vs. ASU Defensive Backs: The Sun Devils return Llyod Carrington and Kweishi Brown, giving them two experienced corners heading into 2015. The Texas A&M wide receiving corps features two starters over 6-foot-4 (Reynolds and Ricky Seals-Jones) and two receives under 6-foot (Noil and Kirk). There is a good mix of physicality and speed.
The key for ASU will be limiting big plays and tackling in space. Texas A&M likes to get the ball out quickly and into the hands of their playmakers. The ASU secondary will be forced into a lot of one-on-one matchups that can either get stopped with the first man or go for big plays.
Texas A&M Offensive Line vs. ASU Pass Rush: Texas A&M returns three players on the offensive line with starting experience. Mike Matthews has the potential to be an All-SEC player at center and Germain Ifedi (12) and Joseph Cheek (9) have combined for 23 starts.
ASU lost its best pass rusher from 2014 in Marcus Hardison and the team is still trying to find a replacement for former Devilbacker Carl Bradford. Antonio Longino will start the season at DEVIL while moving from WILL, where he spent most of last season.
"For the most part, (we) got three returning starters cause Cheek played a lot last year," Sumlin said about his offensive line. "We've got guys that are very talented that we need to get out there and get battle tested."
In what is one of the most anticipated matchups on college football's opening weekend, expect fireworks in Houston. These are two of the best offensive teams in the nation, with playmakers all over the field.
If the game comes down to turnovers, give ASU the advantage. The Sun Devils finished sixth nationally in 2014 with a plus-14 turnover margin, while Texas A&M was 105th nationally with a minus-7 margin.
As with every season opener there are plenty of question marks. In this game, many of them deal with A&M. Texas A&M boasts one of the most talented rosters in the nation, thanks in part to some excellent recruiting from Sumlin and his staff. But, how many of those freshman and sophomore are ready for primetime? How much better is the defense going to be under John Chavis, and will we see it right away?
One factor working against the Sun Devils is the fact that this will be essentially a road game. NRG Stadium will have the roof closed and it will be plenty loud when ASU has the football. In a game that is this close on paper, that home field advantage may make the difference.
Final Prediction: Texas A&M 38, Arizona State 34