TV Schedule: Saturday, September 5, 7pm ET on ESPN
Location: NRG Stadium in Houston, TX
Line: A&M (-3)
ESPN is treating college football fans to a show with this matchup of rising stars within their respective conferences. Arizona State, ranked 15th, will travel to Houston for a [supposed] neutral field contest to face Texas A&M, located just 90 minutes from NRG Stadium. You would think the unranked team would be the underdog, but despite not getting any respect in the polls, Vegas is not fooled. If you love high scoring offenses, this is the game to watch this weekend.
Arizona State is lead by redshirt senior QB Mike Bercovici, who set the world on fire in his first two starts last season. He went for 488 and 510 yards, respectively, and that 998-yard total is a NCAA record for passing yards in a QB’s first two starts. He went 42 for 68 in that first start against UCLA, both school records. Needless to say, the Sun Devils are comfortable at the QB position.
Joining Bercovici in the backfield is fellow senior D.J. Foster, who had 1,081 yards and nine TDs as a junior. He will help take the pressure off Bercovici behind an offensive line that returns four of their five starters. Expect their offense to be absolutely electric and carry the Sun Devils in many games this season.
The strength of their defense will be in the front seven, which returns basically everyone from a season ago. Skill wasn’t necessarily an issue for their defense in 2014, but depth was. The defense was replacing almost everyone from 2013 and it showed late in games. It’s a different story this season, but they still have two huge playmakers to replace in Damarious Randall and Marcus Hardison.
You don’t need to blow people away with an elite defense in college football these days, especially in the Pac-12, but this group should be improved from a year ago and that will help tremendously.
As a team, Arizona State has to be the favorite to win the Pac 12 South. They return 16 starters from a team that went 10-3 in a season that was supposed to be a rebuilding year for head coach Todd Graham. He took a team many thought would fall off and nearly won the South. There is no question this will be a team competing for a playoff spot come November.
Texas A&M enters the 2015 season in a similar position to their first in the SEC. A competition battle between a young player with limited experience and a freshman at the quarterback position has been all the talk. Would Texas High School sensation (undefeated, three state championships at the highest level of Texas HS football) Kyler Murray be able to unseat incumbent Kyle Allen?
In 2012, Johnny Manziel won that battle. This time, the freshman will have to wait his turn, for now.
Also similar to the 2012 season is the lack of respect from many of the college football analysts around the country, but rightfully so. After demolishing South Carolina on the road and starting 5-1 in 2014, the Aggies slipped into a three-game skid that would effectively end their season, culminating in a 59-0 drubbing from Alabama, the most embarrassing loss in Kevin Sumlin‘s tenure.
However, this would give Sumlin the ammo to yank Kenny Hill and start Allen as a true freshman. Time will tell, but experience usually goes a long way with young quarterbacks, and it clearly gave him a leg up in the competition this spring and summer. His job was never truly in jeopardy.
Allen comes in with limited experience, but a truckload of weapons at his disposal. The Aggies have recruited top wide receivers three years in a row, and Ricky Seals-Jones (overall No. 40 – 2013), Speedy Noil (overall No. 21 – 2014) and Christian Kirk (overall No. 16 – 2015) will scare the crap out of opposing defenses. That doesn’t even take into account returning juniors Josh Reynolds and Edward Pope, if and when Murray gets on the field as an athlete or the returning monster duo backfield of Tra Carson and Brandon Williams.
As long as the offensive line can gel around future NFL center Mike Matthews, the Aggie offense will be better than last year and up to the standard Sumlin has set for that group.
The main thing holding A&M back under Sumlin has always been the defense. Often young and undisciplined, the unit has never lived up to the offense and it’s never been that close, really. Every decent offense ran all over Mark Snyder’s group last season, and it became clear that a change was needed.
Enter John Chavis.
The long-time LSU defensive coordinator comes in with a dumpster fire to put out, but Sumlin hasn’t exactly ignored the defense in recruiting over the years, so Chavis has the tools to do just that. Currently on the roster are nine defensive linemen, two linebackers and eight defensive backs who were four or five star recruits. Chavis turned in a top 10 defense with LSU in five of his six seasons leading the defense. No more excuses.
This is a very tough matchup to call. Both teams appear to have stellar offenses on paper, but the defense that plays better will almost certainly win the game for their squad. It’s dead even, but the home town crowd will give Texas A&M the edge in a shootout.
Texas A&M 48 – Arizona State 44