In the sixth installment of a 12-part series previewing Notre Dame's 2013 opponents, I'll break down Arizona State, the first of three Pac-12 opponents on the Irish's slate.
One thing can be known for certain about Todd Graham—trusting the 48-year-old head coach has become problematic, if not impossible.
After being denied permission to speak to Arizona State administrators by Pittsburgh officials following his first season with the Panthers, Graham resigned, allowing him to negotiate a deal to become former head coach Dennis Erickson's replacement in Tempe, Ariz.
While it wouldn't be a surprise to see Graham jump ship yet again—in a twisted way, it's almost expected—he may have found a long-term post with the Sun Devils, as ESPN's Ted Miller declared Graham's first season on the job as an "unquestioned success."
However, it's fair to state that Graham wouldn't have even had the opportunity to become such an enigma if it weren't for splashy moments and milestones achieved during his four seasons as head coach at Tulsa. Perhaps the most illustrious of those accomplishments was upsetting Notre Dame 28-27 in South Bend, Ind., on Oct. 30, 2010.
Graham has yet another opportunity to knock off the Irish this season when his Sun Devils meet Brian Kelly's Fighting Irish in Dallas less than two months from now.
Game Day Information
Who: Notre Dame vs. Arizona State
When: Oct. 5, 7:30 p.m. EDT
Where: Cowboys Stadium (Dallas)
Arizona State Team Information
Head Coach: Todd Graham (second season, 8-5 record at Arizona State)
Returning Starters: Offense (six), Defense (eight)
2012 Record: 8-5 (defeated Navy 62-28 in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl)
The first lesson to be learned about a Graham-orchestrated offense is that it will be aggressive and it will move at a rapid pace.
That style was on display during Graham's first season, as the Sun Devils finished 2012 ranked 14th nationally in points per game, averaging 38.38 each outing.
Quarterback Taylor Kelly was the engine revving this offense through the 2012 season, with the 6'2", 203-pound starter racking up 3,039 passing yards, while amassing 689 more as a rusher.
Kelly and his oozing potential return for another season, though the most pressing concern for him and Graham is the lack of experience at receiver—the Sun Devils lost two of their leading pass-catchers in Rashad Ross and Jamal Miles.
Yet depth at the position won't be a concern, as tight end Chris Coyle (57 receptions, 696 yards), Kevin Ozier (21 receptions, 324 yards) and Richard Smith (14 receptions, 141 yards) each return. Interestingly enough, running backs Marion Grice and DJ Foster are critical components of the passing game, as the two combined for 79 receptions and 958 receiving yards a season ago.
Also expected to make an impact in the passing game are two seniors—Alonzo Agwuenu and Kyle Middlebrooks—who contributed just 121 receiving yards in 2012.
The glue of the offense will be an offensive line that returns three starters, though Vi Teofilo (three career starts) will slide in seamlessly to Andrew Sampson's vacated right guard spot.
That core group along the offensive line will not only be charged with protecting its dual-threat quarterback, but also with creating running lanes for Grice and Foster, a highly underrated duo that possesses the potential to combine for 2,000 rushing yards this season.
College football's best kept secret may just be Arizona State defensive tackle Will Sutton.
The 6'1", 288-pound Sutton is projected as the No. 1 defensive tackle in the 2014 draft class, per NFLDraftScout.com, though his name doesn't often appear in highlight reels, magazine spreads or ESPN features.
Naturally so, Sutton highlights a Sun Devil defensive line that boasts each of its three returning starters, as well as 47.5 tackles for loss and 28 sacks recorded last season. That amount of experience and production could very well give the Sun Devils the Pac-12's most feared defensive line.
And it only becomes more terrifying for conference foes.
Solidifying the defensive front seven is an extremely deep linebacker corps that returns 43.5 tackles for loss, 14.5 sacks and five interceptions from last season, with the only loss from the unit being lead tackler Brandon Magee.
The theme of the linebacker position during the 2013 season will be "seniors galore," as five of the linebackers in the rotation of defensive coordinator Paul Randolph's 3-4 scheme will be seniors. That in itself speaks to the seemingly unmatched experience the Sun Devils' defense possesses.
Continuing with the trend, Arizona State's secondary has no shortage of experience, as cornerbacks Osashon Irabor, Robert Nelson and Eastern Michigan transfer Marlon Pollard headline a unit that also features returning boundary safety Alden Darby.
In all, the Sun Devils' returning defensive backs combined for 133.5 tackles and and eight interceptions during last season's 8-5 campaign.
Quite surprisingly, a head coach who has earned his reputation by way of explosive offenses may be riding the strength of his defense.
Taking a look at Notre Dame's schedule, the Irish enter this contest after three consecutive contests against Big Ten Conference foes, as well as a home contest against Oklahoma the Saturday prior with no bye week to boot.
Add in the travel from the Irish's campus to Dallas, and fatigue may begin to creep in.
While Arizona State's schedule leading up to this contest is equally challenging—the Sun Devils face Wisconsin, USC and Stanford prior to meeting the Irish—the prospect of knocking off what may turn out to be a top 10 opponent at a neutral site in prime time could be enough of a motivating factor for Graham and Co. to pull off the upset.
And with the Sun Devils being the first explosive, Oregon-esque offense the Irish will have seen to that point in the season, the signs are pointing to an Arizona State victory, which would also be the first by an opponent in a Shamrock Series game.
Notre Dame fans will be outraged with this prediction, but it has been pegged by yours truly as the upset special of the season for quite some time now.
Predicted Score: Arizona State 27, Notre Dame 17
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