Saturday afternoon — 4 p.m., to be exact — the Arizona State Sun Devils will begin their 2015 season against Texas A&M at Reliant Stadium in Houston, Texas.
ASU enters it ranked 15th in the AP poll, and while A&M is outside of the top 25, they are from the SEC and are a team some — including FOX Sports.com’s Stewart Mandel — are picking to be a surprise this season.
With the Devils having eyes on a championship season, it’s safe to say this is a big game.
“I believe so,” Mandel told Bickley and Marotta on Arizona Sports 98.7 FM Thursday when asked if ASU needs a win to validate the high expectations. “Because the SEC continues to be the measuring stick, whether people like it or not.
“Two and five — the SEC West went two and five in bowls last year and yet you come back this season and they’ve still got five ranked teams. So, teams gain credibility by beating these respected SEC teams, and if ASU were to go out and beat A&M it would help their credibility a lot.”
Mandel said if Arizona State, which is a slight underdog according to betting lines, does not win, then at least keeping the game close is a must.
“A lot of people are going to be watching this game,” he added. “Frankly, a lot more people are going to be watching this game than ASU’s Pac-12 games so it is important for them.”
But that’s just one game, and in terms of being a College Football Playoff team, Mandel does not think Todd Graham’s squad will have what it takes. In fact, he picked Ohio State, Texas A&M, TCU and Auburn, leaving the Pac-12 out of the fold altogether.
With six of the conference’s 12 teams ranked in the preseason Top 25 that seems a little harsh, but Mandel has his reasons for shutting out the “Conference of Champions.” Mainly, he thinks the teams — especially in the Pac-12 South, with top-25 USC, UCLA, ASU and Arizona — are too good and will cannibalize themselves.
“I think that’s what’s going to happen. There are five teams in that division that I really like — I hated having to pick any of them fourth or fifth,” he said. “And then a lot of them play very tough non-conference games because that’s what they do in the Pac-12.”
Mandel cited ASU’s Week 1 matchup with A&M along with USC heading to South Bend to face Notre Dame this year and Utah battling Michigan as intriguing, tough matchups. And then, of course, there are those conference games, which will make it tough for any Pac-12 team to emerge as a playoff contender.
“Oregon last year, with a Heisman Trophy winner, they lost a game nobody thought they would to Arizona but were fortunate to run the table from there,” he said. “So I think it’s tough in the Pac-12, but the only thing I can say is last year to me was an abberation.
“I think going forward in the playoff you’re going to have years where two conferences get left out and you’re going to have years where two-loss teams are going to get in. So even if the Pac-12 does eat each other up, if somebody emerges as an 11-2 conference champ they’re not necessarily eliminated from the discussion. There are going to be years where that’s good enough to get in.”