1. What's the biggest difference between ASU now and when Stanford played them in week 4? Is there any reason to think that the Cardinal will once again beat the Devils like a drum, or was that an anomalous performance?
Kerry Crowley: There's no doubt that the Sun Devils have made steady improvements throughout the season. Arizona State is built on its defense and that's where we've seen the greatest changes this season. Since the Stanford game, the Sun Devils have three new starters and a renewed sense of confidence on the defensive side of the football. Davon Coleman is now playing defensive tackle, Salamo Fiso starts at linebacker, and Damarious Randall adds a physical presence in the secondary. This defense thrives on attacking the football and the new personnel inserted into the lineup through the course of the season is prepared to do that this week.
Ben Haber: The Arizona State offensive production was always elite. Taylor Kelly needed the defense to follow suit. Since week four, the defense made the necessary strides because of increased pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Because of that, I can't envision the Cardinal beating the Sun Devils badly or vice versa. Stanford lost twice on the road to lesser teams than Arizona State. It's tough to predict the final outcome, but a close contested contest should be on the horizon.
2. Why did Will Sutton win Pac-12 Defensive player of the year?
Nick Krueger: Your guess is as good as mine. I think it was more about his character and leadership ability on the field, not necessarily his stats. He carried a lot over from last year and has the name recognition. It also benefits the Pac-12 to give the "Pat Tillman defensive player of the year award" to a Sun Devil. Sutton has more recognizable characteristics such as the dread locks and the "we eatin" dance after sacks but also has character off the field so he embodies a lot of what a student-athlete should be. The award wasn't given out this year based on talent or statistics apparently or else Sutton would not have won. I've argued both Anthony Barr and Trent Murphy were better this season in that respect.
Ben Haber: Will Sutton didn't deserve the Pac-12 defensive player of the year. However, Sutton did deserve to be on the First-Team conference selections because of his impact on the game. Anthony Barr or Trevor Reilly would've received my vote. Sutton probably earned the award because interior defensive lineman aren't judged on sack numbers. So even though Sutton had only three sacks compared to 13 sacks last year, he still was a force to be reckoned with. In addition, Gannon Conway, Davon Coleman and plenty of others all posted career years. Why? Because nearly every team double teamed Sutton or chipped him. As the year went along, Sutton got used to the extra attention and performed at an elite level. Another possible reason for Sutton earning the hardware could be team success.
3. How can ASU do a better job of handling the Stanford power run game this time around? Or do power backs just fare well against ASU?
Nick Krueger: When Stanford loads offensive line with eight or nine guys against a front four for ASU it's tough for the Sun Devils to have success. I don't think it's fair to stereotype ASU as poor against power rushing per say but more against teams that simply execute their run game well and against talented backs. It's a mystery which ASU run defense will show up on a week to week basis. It could be the group that held Bishop Sankey to 22 yards on the ground or it could be the group that gives up over 100 yards to Ka'Deem Carey or even over 200 yards to Wisconsin's stable of backs. To be fair I don't think it was just Gaffney or just Wilkerson that gave ASU trouble it was a combination of both.
4. An ASU alum I know said there was a new energy around the program this year, especially when compared to past years - do you agree, and if so, do you think this is the beginning of a "Golden Era" of Sun Devil football?
Nick Krueger: I'm very hesitant to characterize it as the beginning of a "golden era" but the energy this group has and the job Todd Graham has done is giving the fan base a great reason to cheer on this team. I wouldn't say there is any more energy around the team, they try hard every season, but it's a different atmosphere. The expectations were set higher because the talent was there to achieve great success this season and the team has delivered so far. The wins over Utah and UCLA on the road were huge and not to be understated but this team can't be embarassed on national television two times in huge games like they were at Stanford and in Dallas against Notre Dame to call this the beginning of something really solid for ASU. Todd Graham is recruiting at a higher level this season and the Sun Devils have some solid pieces coming into the program, but no matter how you slice it, this team will still lose eight of 11 starters on defense and that is tough to replace regardless of talent coming in so to say it's a new "era" is very true in the sense of character but this is by no means the start of a dynasty in my mind.
Ben Haber: Most would think it's slightly premature to label this the beginning of a "golden era" for Sun Devil football. I think it's fair to label this the beginning of a "golden era" for Sun Devil football. Few could envision Arizona State winning the Pac-12 South, let alone no one could envision Arizona State hosting the conference championship. The good times are only starting, as the recruiting continues to rise. The expectations are changing and growing. The sense of belief and confidence stemming from the players is at an all-time high. No matter the opponent, Taylor Kelly, Will Sutton and Co. believe they can win.
5. Given Todd Graham's... interesting history of job-hopping, are ASU fans concerned that he may still be looking for something bigger to move on to, or is he settled with the Devils?
Nick Krueger: Not if ASU president Michael Crow has anything to do with it. Yes, Graham just signed a big extension with the Sun Devils and talks like he wants to be here long term. In fact he has stated that he wants to be here long enough to break Frank Kush's win record so that might be awhile. Money is always lucritive as evidenced by the departure of former athletic director Steve Patterson for greener pastures at the University of Texas. What Graham does need to be prepared for is his staff to change. Mike Norvell and Paul Randolph, the offensive and defensive coordinators respectively, are both capable of finding a head coaching job at the division one level within the next two seasons.
Ben Haber: I think Todd Graham and Arizona State are going to be partnered together for a very long time. Why would he want to leave Scottsdale, which is one of the nicest areas in the country to live in? University of Texas would be sole concern. On the contrary, Graham can't go there because of an agreement Steve Patterson made with Arizona State upon his departure. Graham seems truly happy representing the Sun Devils, calling it his dream job on multiple occasions. In the past, Graham job hopped because better opportunities were open. Arizona State has been on the brink of greatness countless time over the past decade. I believe Graham wants to push them over the hump.
6. What makes Taylor Kelly so good, and what can Stanford do to minimize his success on Saturday?
Nick Krueger: It's his ability and willingness to spread the ball around alongside a sneaky quickness. Any wide receiver can lead the team in receptions or yards in any given game. Kelly just throws it to the open receiver, he doesn't care who it is. He also is probably one of the fastest quarterbacks in the country who could probably use his legs even more than he is currently willing to. Stanford's biggest point of emphasis needs to be disrupting Taylor Kelly's rhythm. It only takes one or two botched plays to stall an Arizona State drive because the team relies so much on keeping an up tempo pace to the offense. The Cardinal also need to keep tabs on Kelly on every read option as he likes to keep it more than hand it off.
7. Why is ASU such a dangerous team at home?
Nick Krueger: The attendance at games is up from years past and the student section is consistently filled but Sun Devil Stadium isn't notoriously known in the past ten years or so for being very raucous. Of course it's tough for the University of Arizona to come into Tempe and win but heat has kept crowds away in the past. Todd Graham has put a ton of emphasis in his two years here in protecting home field. The team takes a lot more pride in keeping an untarnished loss column at home than they have in the past too. Go watch any post game talk Todd Graham gives to his team, he always mentions they are still undefeated at home and need to "keep it that way."
Kerry Crowley: I've never really seen a team play with so much confidence at home. Yes, the Sun Devil crowd has been electric, but I don't know if I think the atmosphere at Sun Devil Stadium is among the top 15 or 20 in the country. However, when Tempe rocks like it did during the Territorial Cup, it's hard to imagine an opponent coming in and winning. The fact of the matter is, Arizona State hasn't put more than 60,000 fans in the seats consistently this season, so it's all a matter of the players and coaching staff having the confidence inside the friendly confines.
8. What's the best-case scenario for the Sun Devils?
Nick Krueger: Win and go to the Rose Bowl in a blowout win. The running and passing game are balanced and the Sun Devils get out to a quick start scoring early and often. Also it would be key to have no injuries past what has already occurred. It would be nice to see ASU keep Hogan contained to the pocket and have expectations to keep the ground game contained.
Kerry Crowley: If Arizona State plays the entire game the way it played in the first half against UCLA, there's no way that Stanford can win this game. In an ideal world, the Sun Devils will force Tyler Gaffney to fumble, Kevin Hogan to throw an interception or two, and put up 40 points just like they have against most defenses they've faced. The Sun Devils are capable of winning by a big margin, and if they do take a two or even three-score lead, they have to keep their foot on the gas pedal. Of course, the best-case scenario is unlikely, but winning the turnover battle is a must no matter what transpires.
9. What's the worst-case scenario for the Sun Devils?
Nick Krueger:The Sun Devils return to their first half of the year form and the game is an exact replica of what happened in Palo Alto on September 21st while losing another key piece or two to injury before the bowl game.
Kerry Crowley: September 21st. What happened up in Palo Alto the last time these two teams met is the absolute worst-case scenario for Arizona State. Anytime you trail 29-0 at halftime, you clearly have to find a way to regroup. This week, it's all about starting strong for the Sun Devils. If Arizona State allows Stanford to take a two-score lead, the Sun Devils are going to be in some deep, deep trouble for the second straight meeting.
10. Finally, what's your prediction for the game and why?
Nick Krueger: 38-31 Stanford wins. However the way the game plays out will be flipped. The Sun Devils get out to a roaring start but David Shaw will make the correct adjustments at halftime to chip away at the ASU lead and win it with a late touchdown. The Sun Devils have been a first half team in the past and I think they will be again Saturday night. Regardless it should be a very fun night in Tempe.
Kerry Crowley: I think Stanford will take this game 30-24. I expect the game to be much closer throughout and I wouldn't be surprised if Arizona State controls the tempo at times. Still, I think Stanford's offensive and defensive lines are too strong for the Sun Devils to compete with. Teams like USC and Utah match up much better with the Cardinal than the Sun Devils do because Arizona State relies on its speed, athleticism, and coaching. Stanford has the staff to out-coach anyone, and it has more than enough speed to keep up with the Sun Devils. Once the physicality sets in, the Cardinal should take this game over late and that's why I think Stanford will be smelling Roses.