Arizona State coach Todd Graham doesn’t shy away from speaking about his lofty goal of chasing a national championship.
So it’s no accident the Sun Devils scheduled the 2015 season opener against Texas A&M in Houston’s NRG Stadium. It’s by design that the pressure for ASU to win its first game — with a goal of doing it 14 more times — is welcomed. How do the Sun Devils see themselves as champs if they can’t act like them?
Intriguing individual matchups, College Football Playoff hopes and recruiting battles are intertwined in Arizona State’s season opener against the Aggies.
First, the necessities.
The big question: Whose line will win the day?
We could ask this question to determine the outcome of any football game, but this is especially intriguing because it’s the first game of 2015 — and because each team has either elite playmakers or green newcomers at the most important positions.
ASU has been enamored with defensive end JoJo Wicker, who Graham called the gem of his 2015 recruiting class. How the 6’3, 275 pound freshman will occupy redshirt junior tackle Avery Gennesy is a mystery, because we’ve seen none of Gennesy against FBS competition, either.
A junior college transfer who was aged another season via redshirt in 2014, the 6’5, 305 pound Gennesy was a 2-star recruit out of high school but by the end of his tenure at East Mississippi Community College, he was being recruited by the best programs in the country, including Ohio State, Oklahoma and Mississippi State.
Sticking to the end-versus-tackle theme, the Sun Devils have finally given the left tackle reins to the 6’5, 310 pound Evan Goodman.
Graham has said Goodman has the talent to become a top NFL pick, but he’d yet to earn a starting position until this fall. The junior must deal with one of the SEC’s best pass-rushers, sophomore end Myles Garrett, who tallied 11.5 sacks and 14 tackles for loss as a freshman in 2014.
While we have some expectations for both offenses to put up points, it’s more mysterious whether A&M’s defense will be able to get a stop here or there (the Sun Devils at least have a good deal of returning starters).
It’s unclear how Texas A&M will look with new coordinators running the show.
The ASU offense would probably have a field day if this were last season, when the Aggies ranked 103rd in FBS by giving up 449 yards per game in 2014. They ranked 114th by allowing 223.5 rushing yards per game and 64th as opponents threw for 225.5 yards per game against them.
But the Aggies fired defensive coordinator Mark Snyder and recruited highly-respected defensive coordinator John Chavis away from LSU.
The Sun Devils hope it could be some time for the results of the hire to show.
Texas A&M also hired former Utah offensive coordinator Dave Christensen to coach the offensive line and act as run game coordinator.
Christensen coached in the Utes’ 19-16 overtime loss to the Sun Devils last season. That should give him experience to understand Graham’s blitz-happy scheme, though the Utes didn’t exactly handle it well, compiling just 52 pass yards and a 3.9-yard per rush average in that game.
Matchup to watch: ASU’s DBs vs. A&M’s receivers
Even with a fairly inexperienced quarterback, sophomore Kyle Allen, facing the most frequent blitzing team in the Power Five conferences, Texas A&M’s pack of receivers is good enough to keep a defensive coordinator up at night.
The Aggies return leading receiver Josh Reynolds, a 6’4 junior who averaged 16.2 yards per catch in accumulating 842 yards and 13 touchdowns last season. Ricky Seals-Jones, a 6’5, 235 pound receiver, caught as many passes as Reynolds (52) for 549 yards last season, and the 5’10 Speedy Noil caught 46 passes for 583 yards in 2014. Kirk joins that group as an explosive fourth wideout.
Luckily for the Sun Devils, there’s experience to deal with that group until ASU’s pressure gets to Allen.
Lloyd Carrington and Kweishi Brown have the size to handle the bigger wideouts, and Brown has caught up to his fellow starting corner since learning the ropes as a JUCO transfer last year. Captain Jordan Simone will be helping out down the middle, of course, but the chess match in the ASU secondary will have a lot to do with Texas A&M protecting Allen from blitzing linebackers and defensive backs.
Will Allen find receivers setting up shop in holes created by those blitzes and do so before ASU defenders reach the backfield?
The underlying theme: Recruiting battlegrounds
There are two teams and thus two angles to analyze here, but it all comes down to recruiting geography.
Arizona State’s roster currently includes nine players from Texas, and there’s no doubt Graham, a native Texan himself, would like to use a game in Houston to expand the brand of his football program.
The Sun Devils have gone into SEC country to recruit of late, especially targeting Louisiana. It’s no doubt ASU crosses paths with A&M on the recruiting trail. Exhibit A: The Sun Devils have four recruits from the New Orleans area to the Aggies’ five.
Flip the script, and there are compelling recruiting storylines of years’ past involved in the game.
Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin will start Scottsdale Desert Mountain product Kyle Allen at quarterback and Scottsdale Saguaro’s Christian Kirk, one of the best high school players in Arizona history, at receiver. That’s not to mention the Aggies’ third defensive end, Qualen Cunningham from Hamilton High School in Chandler. All three considered ASU until their commitments.
Many Sun Devil fans wish ASU would keep the best prospects home — though Graham seems to be doing well enough on the recruiting trail.
Graham will surely help his cause by leading Arizona State to a season-opening victory against an SEC power.