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ASU Football: Ranking each game on the Sun Devil schedule in terms of difficulty

There are clear tiers to the schedule, but there is room for debate at the top

Zac BonDurant

There is no value in calling your shot early, but where’s the fun in that? It is far too early to rank Arizona State’s 2023 football opponents, as rosters are still in flux with another transfer period looming in a few months.

We did it anyway.

Here are House of Sparky’s rankings of the ASU 2023 football opponents.

No. 1 (hardest): vs USC, Week 4 (9/23)

Nobody is going to question your legitimacy when you bring back the Heisman Trophy-winner to campus following a monumental year. Neither will we, as this is the case for Caleb Williams and USC.

ASU opens Pac-12 play with the Trojans in late-September. Because USC will play San Jose State in Week Zero, they will take a bye in the week preceding the trip to Tempe. Advantage Trojans. The Sun Devils will be coming off back-to-back home games against Oklahoma State and Fresno State, both of which were ranked teams in 2022.

This game will have a fair amount of hype associated with it. The experience might feel a little different than years past, but the way USC’s roster is continuing to grow, the Trojans will be the more-talented team on the field. As of now, USC carries 247Sports’s No. 1 transfer class for 2023, which includes two five-star prospects and five four-star players.

No . 2: at Utah, Week 10 (11/4)

Flip a coin between the USC and Utah games because they are clearly the top-two biggest challenges for ASU in 2023. Given the environment seen on a weekly basis at Rice-Eccles Stadium, there is an argument to be made about the Utes hosting ASU’s toughest game.

Cameron Rising is back, Kyle Whittingham does not look to be breaking stride at 63 years-old and only three of Utah’s nine transfer portal departures were starters. Football in Salt Lake City is not going to look much different than it has the past three years. Whittingham sought out sustained success, and Utah is not going anywhere, anytime soon.

No. 3: at Washington, Week 8 (10/21)

After fans — and writers — clamored for Daniyel Ngata to receive more touches on offense as a Sun Devil, how poetic would it be if he carried 20-plus times for 150 yards and a pair of scores against ASU?

Michael Penix Jr. is returning as quarterback for the Huskies. While he led the conference in passing, Penix struggled in Tempe, completing 33-of-53 passes for 311 yards, an interception and no scores through the air.

However, against Brian Ward’s Washington State defense, Penix and the Huskies walked away with a blowout 51-33 win. Penix threw for 485 yards, three touchdowns, and a pick. Ward will have to make some adjustments as ASU defensive coordinator.

No. 4: vs Oregon, Week 12 (11/18)

There will be no need for manufactured hype for this matchup. A late season tilt with Kenny Dillingham’s former team, and Bo Nix, the quarterback Dillingham guided to a 2022 season scored with Heisman fanfare, who will return for his final season of eligibility.

Dan Lanning took over as head coach in 2022 after a successful stint as defensive coordinator at Georgia. He immediately ran into the buzzsaw he helped create in a humbling 49-3 loss to the Bulldogs in Week 1. After that, though, the Ducks got rolling. Eight victories in a row, highlighted by a convincing win over UCLA in a top 10 matchup in October, propelled the Ducks to the precipice of the playoff conversation before dropping two of their final three games to finish at 9-3.

They did so in quintessential Oregon fashion: Lightning-fast offense, led by a dynamic quarterback, and an athletic but at times problematic defense. Under Dillingham, the Ducks were the No. 12 scoring offense in the country, and Nix threw for nearly 3,600 yards and recorded 44 total touchdowns.

Oregon will need to retool its offensive line, as the Ducks will lose four starters along that front going into next season. Linebacker Noah Sewell, widely regarded as the Ducks best defensive player, declared for the draft after the 2022 season.

There’s one more thing to note here. This game will occur on November 18, typically a quiet week for marquee matchups. On-paper, this is game is really interesting. If Dillingham has the Sun Devils in strong position heading into this game, it’s possible this game makes an appearance in primetime. Hosting the Ducks in primetime, makes you think.

No. 5: at UCLA, Week 11 (11/11)

How does a team lose an electric talent like Dorian Thompson-Robinson and possibly get better? Sign Dante Moore. More correctly, flip Dante Moore from Oregon at the 11th hour.

A five-star prospect from Detroit, MI, Moore was the No. 2 prospect in the 2022 class. Yes, that means he is the most celebrated quarterbacking recruit since they started ranking recruits in UCLA football history, even higher than Josh Rosen in 2015.

Chip Kelly has coached very good quarterbacks in his time in college. Thompson-Robinson showed flashes of greatness in his successful run at UCLA from 2018-22. Moore has the potential be a superstar.

Moore will be complemented by incoming transfer wide receiver Kyle Ford, who is a former four-star recruit. This was a win-win for Kelly and company, as Ford transferred from USC, simultaneously making the Bruins stronger and their chief rival weaker.

In 2022, the Bruins seemed to finally turn the corner under Kelly. Many believed his return to the college level would guarantee similar success for the Bruins that Kelly fostered at Oregon. The Bruins boasted the eight-highest scoring offense in the country (39.2 ppg) and rode a 6-0 start to a No. 9 ranking, the first time the program had appeared in the top 10 since 2015.

The Bruins would ultimately finish the season at 9-3, but proved they could contend among the conference’s elite. They met the Sun Devils last year in Tempe and came away with a 50-36 victory that was much more convincing than the final score indicates.

With Dillingham in charge of the Sun Devil offense this time around, this game should be high scoring once again. We’ll have to see how much the Sun Devils can limit Moore. If that’s achieved, then perhaps the Sun Devils can afford their offense some chances to steal one on the road.

No. 6: vs Fresno State, Week 3 (9/16)

Fresno State football appears to be in the middle of a program renaissance. For the second time in the past five seasons, the Bulldogs finished the season inside the top 25, despite beginning the season 1-4.

After that the Bulldogs won out from there, finishing the season at 10-4 with a Mountain West Conference title and a convincing 29-6 victory over Washington State in the LA Bowl.

Logan Fife, who took over for injured starter Jake Haener, struggled in the beginning in losses to Boise State and UConn, but found his footing and won his last two starts of the year before Haener recovered and reassumed the job.

Mikey Keene, who many football fans in the Valley remember as a starting quarterback for powerhouse Chandler High School, will transfer in from UCF. A successful starter at UCF in 2021, Keene lost the job in 2022. But if he’s able to win it from Fife and the rest of the Bulldogs quarterback room, it could make for an interesting homecoming on September 16.

No. 7: vs Colorado, Week 6 (10/7)

Well, another year of Colorado football. Outside of seeing Ralphie again, there’s not much to report.

Hang on, is that “Must be the Money I hear? That must be Coach Prime’s music. It remains to be seen what kind of product Deion Sanders will field in 2023, but this hype train is rolling like the Silver Bullet.

One thing we do know, the Buffaloes will be much, much better next season. Sanders is undertaking a monumental rebuilding effort in Boulder, where the Buffs are coming off a 1-11 campaign in 2022, but if there’s one guy who can get it done, it’s Deion.

There’s only one coach who can say “I’m bringing my luggage with me, and it’s Louis,” and actually have the horses in the stable to back that up. Starting with Travis Hunter, the former No. 1 recruit in the 2021 class, and moving to Shedeur Sanders, the quarterback who diced up his competition at Jacksonville State to the tune of 3,732 yards and 40 touchdowns, there is no team west of the Mississippi garnering this much anticipation.

This will be a fun matchup, and depending on how long Sanders remains in Boulder, it could be Chapter One in an awesome rivalry between two programs looking to redefine talent acquisition in the Pac-12.

For 2023, I’ll give the upper hand to the Sun Devils. Coach Prime probably needs one more year to really get the Buffaloes off the ground, and with this game in Tempe, the Sun Devils will be ready for their first test against a Colorado team that needs improvements at more spots than just quarterback and cornerback.

No. 8: vs Arizona, Week 13 (11/25)

Will this game be a bruiser? Probably. Other than the rivalry factor, should it be higher on this list? We don’t think so, as realistically the Territorial Cup is pretty clearly the fifth-most-winnable game on the schedule. Colorado is next-up, but there are too many question marks to speak definitively on the Buffaloes.

The Wildcats’s momentum in recruiting under Jedd Fisch looks to be losing steam as a whopping 25 players left for the portal after the season’s conclusion. Only five players have committed to Arizona through the portal. For their 2023 recruiting class, Arizona is ranked No. 7 in the Pac-12.

On paper, the Wildcats will take a step-back in 2023. However Fisch, who’s contract was recently extended, has shown a flare for the dramatic since obtaining the reigns in Tucson. The Territorial Cup game should be a good one.

No. 9: vs Oklahoma State, Week 2 (9/9)

Having the premiere non-conference game this far down the list admittedly does not sit right, but this schedule is tough to dissect at this snapshot in time.

Based on recent trends, Oklahoma State’s status as a contender in 2023 is in question. Following their win over ASU last season to make OSU 2-0, the Cowboys finished the season 5-5 in their last 10 games, not including a loss to Wisconsin in the Guaranteed Rate Bowl.

Analysts blamed their downfall on Spencer Sanders’s injury, but he recently just announced his plans to transfer to Ole Miss.

Gundy and co. have corralled a handful of four-star players through the portal, earning them the No. 15 transfer class in the nation by 247Sports. However, their recruiting class contains no four-or-five-star recruits, and stands at No. 64 in the country.

No. 10: vs Washington State, Week 9 (10/28)

Jake Dickert largely impressed in his first season without the interim tag on his contract, leading the Cougars to a 7-6 record and a bowl game.

Perhaps the biggest loss for Dickert is Ward, who was the defensive coordinator of the Cougars’s Pac-12-leading scoring defense (19.3 points per-game).

Their recruiting and transfer numbers aren’t sexy, but Dickert is a development-based coach. The Cougars will continue to be frisky, but on paper, they are in the bottom-third of ASU’s toughest 2023 opponents.

No. 11: at California, Week 5 (9/30)

After a seemingly strong beginning to the Justin Wilcox era, the wheels have ostensibly fallen off in Berkeley. The Golden Bears did not field a very competitive team last season on the way to a 4-8 record, and struggled on both sides of the ball.

However, if you ask Bears fans, 2022 was not a total loss. The highlight of the season was a victory over rival Stanford, the Bears third in its last four games against the Cardinal. Cal also pushed Notre Dame to the brink in South Bend early in the season before falling 24-17.

The team will lose a PFF first-team All-Pac-12 honoree in linebacker Jackson Sirmon to eligibility. Sirmon ranked third in the conference in tackles, and was one of the few bright spots on a defense that ranked 106th in opponent yards per game (433.2).

This game will likely be a victory for Arizona State, but it’s place on the schedule gives it a potential label of a trap game. Sandwiched in between what will surely be an emotional final in-conference contest against USC at home and a highly anticipated matchup with Colorado means the Sun Devils will have to give this game and their opponent due respect to come away with a victory.

No. 12 (easiest): vs Southern Utah, Week 1 (8/31)

Many fans of other programs would look at Southern Utah and instantly move that game into the win column. Sun Devil fans, on the other hand, are still a little traumatized from last season’s Eastern Michigan debacle.

Still, this will be the most anticipated game in Tempe in quite a while. The season opener, and the opening act of the Kenny Dillingham era. We’ll get to see how quickly Dillingham’s offense has consolidated, and how an overhauled roster takes care of what should be lesser competition.

The Thunderbirds last game against Power Five competition did not go well. A 73-7 defeat at the hands of the Utah Utes in Week 2 of last season served as a reminder of the disparity between FCS teams and Power 5 programs.

Southern Utah also recruits well in the Phoenix area, and there were six players from the region on the team last season.

Outside of that, Sun Devil fans want to see marked improvement over last year. The only way to do that in this game is start fast, score a lot, and have the starters chilling on the bench by the 4th quarter.