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ASU Football: Texas A&M gameday roundtable

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How does the HoS staff see ASU's season opener playing out?

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Now that gameday has finally arrived, it is time to find out what our staff thinks about today's matchup.

Our Panel:

Ryan Bafaloukos - Co-Managing Editor

Josh Nacion - Co-Managing Editor

Blane Ferguson - Staff Writer

Kaelen Jones - Staff Writer

Kristina Vicario - Staff Writer

Shane Theodore - Staff Writer

Chris Schubert - Staff Writer

Connor Pelton - Staff Writer

Q: Instead of starting off with the traditional FCS cupcake, the Sun Devils are playing a road game (essentially) against an SEC team. What is an advantage of playing such a tough opener and what is a disadvantage?

Ferguson: There are multiple benefits to scheduling such a tough matchup to start the season for Coach Graham's Sun Devils. There's showcasing the program to recruits in a vital recruiting area (Texas), national exposure as one of the premier games of the weekend, but I'm focusing more on the benefit of strength of schedule recognition. Arizona State is knocking on the door to the national program banquet hall and a win against Texas A&M to start the season would not only tell the programs already there that ASU has arrived, it would look great on a resume to bowl committees come December (I'm looking at you Rose Bowl).

The potential disadvantage or negative aspect of playing Texas A&M right in their backyard to start the season would be, obviously, losing it. I don't see the Sun Devils getting blown out, I don't think this offense will be easy to shut down. That being said, a blowout would really put a damper on the high expectations for this team. I've been following this program for a decade now and I have never seen such positivity and high expectations surrounding it. A blowout would echo the losses under past regimes that left ASU fans disappointed when the Devils had a chance to solidify themselves as a program on the rise to a national audience. Under Graham, ASU has continually gotten better at not letting the moment get to them. Last year's win against Notre Dame showed that. Going up against an offense as explosive as the Aggies, there's always potential for a deficit to snowball into a blowout and that's the largest potential disadvantage in this
season opener.

Jones: The advantage exceeds what it can do just for the team. A win can jump start ASU's season and elevate the prestige of the conference as a whole. A loss can cause the team's aspirations to flame out before any sparks ever appeared.

Theodore: The advantage is that the Sun Devils, with a win, would put themselves on the national radar immediately. Arizona State's been on the bubble of being a consistently-competing program for years now, but with Todd Graham the team has made that elevation to an every-year contender, and beating an SEC team on the road to open up the season would do wonders for the Sun Devils' poll rankings. Even if ASU loses, in 10 weeks when the playoff picture is forming and contenders have separated themselves from pretenders, looking back on an early September loss to Texas A&M would be a much more allowable loss than if they were to drop that game later in the season.

Pelton: The biggest advantage is the national exposure that comes along with playing this game. Last season, Arizona State wasn't talked about in the mainstream media until the late September game against UCLA. But the scheduling of the showdown with Texas A&M has had the Sun Devils on everyone's radar all summer, with benefits ranging from Kirk Herbstreit picking the maroon and gold to make the playoff, to a few analysts calling this the game of the week. The disadvantage, of course, is that the Aggies are a quality opponent and the game is in Houston. Normally you would like one or two weeks of cupcake opponents to work out your kinks and shake off some rust, but scheduling this type of game every few years is fine.

Schubert: The only advantage that the Sun Devils are getting out of this is the hype from the media. By not starting against an FCS cupcake, the team is garnishing a little more respect from the national media and is getting taken a bit more seriously for it. If they lose the game, they will get blasted for scheduling a "tough" game to start the season.

Nacion: I'll say one answer for both questions — momentum. If ASU wins, it'll give the Sun Devils a huge boost into the first half of the season and could set up that Week 4 matchup against USC as a likely College Gameday location. If the Sun Devils lose, it could rattle the team with a tough gauntlet starting three weeks later.

Vicario: The advantage is they are essentially thrown into the fire with this game and it will become entirely evident from the start which units aren't functioning in a way that will allow them to beat their conference foes down the line. The disadvantage is that in being thrown into the fire, there's no grace period where mistakes can be made and the game can still be won. If ASU turns the ball over tomorrow there's very little chance they win this game and an opening season loss could have repercussions in the CFB Playoff discussion way down the road.

Bafaloukos: My colleagues said it best. Basically, the main advantage is the national spotlight you received when you play in games like this, especially opening weekend. The main disadvantage is that typically in the first game of the season you see some rust and when you play an FCS opponent, you can make those mistakes and still win by 40.

Q: Who is the most important player on defense for Arizona State in this game?

Ferguson: The most important player on the ASU defense is Laiu Moeakiola. Last year, he was the most consistent aspect of the defense starting every game at the SPUR position and he seems to always be around the action. Moeakiola has the potential to be an All-Conference member by the end of the season and with the speed that the Aggies possess, especially at the wide receiver position, it's crucial that Moeakiola has a solid performance and stays in the game.

Jones: Kweishi Brown/Lloyd Carrington: Since the two line up according to the ball, I can't single out one of their matchups. Both will have to battle against the Aggies' talented receivers, prevent big plays on the perimeter, and make big tackles.

Theodore: Kweishi Brown. Defending the lethal Aggie passing attack is going to be the ASU defense's toughest task Saturday night, and Brown will be covering Texas A&M's most dangerous weapons. How he and the rest of the Sun Devil secondary perform against the Aggie receiving corps will be paramount to the outcome of the game.

Pelton: Have to think it's Jordan Simone. With a young quarterback on the other side of the ball making his first start in a season opener, you have to figure there are going to be some big mistakes made. It will be Simone's job to take advantage of those and make Texas A&M pay.

Schubert: Jordan Simone seems like the obvious choice here, but it's true. He's the leader back there and if he can get the defense focused early in the game, they should be able to take control and keep themselves in the game.

Nacion: Every person on the front seven. The Sun Devils have to mix up their blitz packages in order to get the rest of the defense going.

Vicario: I'd say Jordan Simone is the most important player on defense for ASU this game. The Aggies led the SEC in passing yards last season with an average of 305.5 yards per game and will most definitely be relying on that for their attack against ASU's defensive unit. In this A&M vertical offense and Simone potentially at the hybrid bandit position, the long ball with most definitely be something Simone will have to provide extra pass protection for as safety while using the blitz to put necessary pressure on a young Kyle Allen.

Bafaloukos: I am going with Kaelen and saying the cornerback combination of Carrington and Brown. The key for them will be limiting big plays and tackling in space.

Q: Besides Mike Bercovici and D.J. Foster, who will you be keeping your eye on for Arizona State on offense?

Ferguson: As goes Mike Bercovici, so goes the Sun Devils. I think it's difficult to argue that thequarterback position is anything but the most important position for any football program. It's rare to have a college football program succeed on the road against a competitive opponent without a solid, capable leader at the helm. Bercovici showed his potential last season and quickly put a deposit on some beach-front property in the hearts of every ASU fan. We all know what he can do with the cannon that has been misdiagnosed as his right arm but in season openers, teams are vulnerable to turnovers, penalties and costly mistakes. If Berco can lead the team to limiting those mistakes, Arizona State will have a tremendous chance of success in this game.

Jones: I'm excited for Demario Richard's first game as the feature back, but it's his new starting tackles—Evan Goodman and William McGhee—who I'll be watching closely against a talented A&M defensive line.

Theodore: As interested I am to see how the ASU wide receivers shape up without the security blanket that was Jaelen Strong, I'm more interested to see if Kody Kohl can establish himself as a game-changing threat. The tight end showed signs of being a top level receiving option in 2014, and if he can continue that upward trend he'll become Bercovici's best friend.

Pelton: Demario Richard needs to put together a good game in order to take some of the pressure off Bercovici and Foster. I'm interested to see how many carries he actually gets, and how much of the "run" game is actually dump offs to Foster behind the line of scrimmage.

Schubert: Demario Richard. The running game is key for Bercovici to be able to air it out and successfully use Foster. Richard doesn't need to go for 150 + yards, but he needs to convert the key third down rushes and moving the chains when asked.

Nacion: I'm curious to see how Devin Lucien will fare as the leader of the wideouts. ASU has proven over fall camp it actually has a plethora of athletes it could use as receivers, but it'll be interesting to see if Lucien can establish himself as the go-to guy in an actual game.

Vicario: Demario Richard. I've said this again and again, but I think Richard is essentially the x-factor in this matchup and has the opportunity to provide the counterattack against such a successful Aggie offense.

Bafaloukos: Mr. Jones and myself are consistently on the same page. ASU is breaking in two new offensive tackles and they will face their toughest test of the season going against Myles Garrett. If I was to choose a skill player, I would go with De'Chavon "Gump" Hayes. I am fascinated to see how they use "Gump" this season.

Q: What is the most important key to victory for Arizona State?

Ferguson: I alluded to it in my previous answer, but a game like this one will come down to limiting turnovers and securing good field position for your team. There's going to be a ton of offensive talent on the field Saturday night and the team who does the best at limiting mistakes, will be the team who comes out on top. Yes, that's the case for just about every football game on the planet but it's especially important early in the season. This will be the first time that either ASU or A&M has played anybody besides their own teammates. There's going to be jitters, nerves and probably some pre-game puking. The team that has the leaders who are able to secure the football, limit mistakes and calm
their teammates when they inevitably make those mistakes is going to win, plain and

Jones: Do not, do not, do not, do not give up the ‘home run' play. Control the perimeter, keep Bercovici upright, and ASU may just win this one.

Theodore: Finding an early rhythm. ASU under Todd Graham, in losses, have done so because late in the game the offense hasn't been able to move the ball down the field. I believe that as the game goes on, the defenses will start winning more drives than losing, and if ASU wants to be in a good position late in the game capitalizing on early opportunities and scoring touchdowns instead of settling for field goals will go far towards helping that cause.

Pelton: Giving Bercovici time to work against Myles Garrett and the rest of that big Aggie defensive line is imperative. If the maroon and gold are able to limit A&M to two sacks or less, I like their chances at getting out of Houston with a win.

Schubert: When the final whistle sounds, Arizona State needs to be winning the turnover battle. If they win that battle, the defense will have done their job and the offense should be able to score enough points to win.

Nacion: ASU must limit big plays. So far after Thursday and Friday, there already have been way too many games in this first week of college football that have already been affected by big plays. No matter how much talent ASU has picked up on defense, this is still a major Achilles heel for the Sun Devils.

Vicario: I think the most important key to victory for the Sun Devils is to establish the run early. Texas A&M was third in the SEC for sacks last season and with the offensive line facing big shoes to fill at both left and right tackle, with three-year starter Jamil Douglas gone to the draft and two-year starter Tyler Sulka running out of college eligibility, Berco could find himself with minimal time in the pocket to get the ball down the field.

Bafaloukos: Limit mental errors, limit Texas A&M's big plays and keep Berco upright.

Q: Give us your final score and one other prediction on how the game will go.

Ferguson: I think this has the all the makings to be a fantastic game to watch. It has fascinating storylines, dynamic playmakers and charismatic head coaches. I think the Sun Devils win in a shootout and I wouldn't be surprised at all if we see some free football and this game is our first instance of #Pac12AfterDark. Arizona State wins this 41-34.

Jones: I guess I'll stick to my previous prediction of 23-20, ASU. I don't have much faith in the new look Sun Devils offense (yet), but I do have faith in their ability to wreak havoc defensively. The way I see it: either ASU squeaks out a win, or the Aggies steamroll the Sun Devils. Nothing has led me to believe otherwise (yet).

Theodore: ASU 34, Texas A&M 24. Bercovici finds D.J. Foster for an early touchdown, Demario Richard scores two more and the defense picks off Kyle Allen twice. Also, no catches for Christian Kirk in his collegiate debut.

Pelton: Arizona State - 34, Texas A&M - 31. A Zane Gonzalez field goal in overtime wins it.

Schubert: This game has a shootout type feel to it, and I think the Sun Devils pull it out 38-31 with a late score. And when I mean late, Bercovici takes the team on a game winning drive in the last minute of the game.

Nacion: 41-27 ASU. I see this game going absolutely bonkers in the first half with both teams trading crazy touchdowns, and ASU pulling away in the second half. But who knows, this has #Pac12AfterDark potential written all over it.

Vicario: I think this will be a high scoring game from the start. A&M is stronger on the offensive end. This is also the Sun Devils' first contest to show a cohesive o-line providing enough protection for Bercovici to move the chains as well as establish the depth they are projected to have at defense. I predict D.J. Foster has a big game and both teams score on its opening possessions. I see the scoring slow as the game moves on, all the while being a one-possession matchup to the finish with turnovers deciding the outcome. I see the final score being 24-21 ASU.

Bafaloukos: Well I guess I'll be the staff pessimist. I see A&M winning 38-34. To me, this game is a toss up as the teams are so even on paper. In that case, I will go with the team with the home field advantage. My other prediction is that ASU finishes with more total yards than A&M in defeat.