In a turbulent 2018 Pac-12 season, perhaps the most surprising development is the fact that Arizona State — picked to finish last in the division in the preseason media poll — controls its South destiny with two games to play.
The Pac-12 Championship Game prospects of the surprise Sun Devils could be known by Saturday's conclusion. An Arizona State win at Oregon in the nightcap makes next week's Territorial Cup showdown against rival Arizona a win-and-they're-in proposition for the Sun Devils. Should Utah win at Colorado earlier in the day, however, Arizona State must win to keep its divisional aspirations alive.
Oregon's Pac-12 North hopes are dashed as the result of a 1-3 stretch during the past month. Still, the Ducks can conclude coach Mario Cristobal's first season at the helm with the program's best regular-season record since 2015 should they win their final two.
Arizona State at Oregon
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 17 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Oregon -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Jekyll at home, Hyde on the road
Arizona State and Oregon share a variety of statistical similarities. Among them: Their disparities at home and on the road.
Arizona State concluded a 5-1 campaign at Sun Devil Stadium with last week's 31-28 win over UCLA. The Sun Devils averaged more than 33 points per game at home in coach Herm Edwards' first season and held opponents below 19 points per game. In contrast, Arizona State averages 25 points per game away from Tempe but allows 29 points per game in road contests.
Likewise, Oregon returns to Autzen Stadium for just the second time in more than a month sporting a 5-1 home record. The Ducks have been a different team in the friendly confines, even controlling their one home loss much of the way. Arizona State hasn't won at Autzen Stadium since 2004, and ending that skid in 2018 will require the Sun Devils to reverse a few different, season-long trends.
2. Catch me if you can
The two most prolific pass-catchers in the Pac-12 take the stage in Eugene on Saturday, with Arizona State's N'Keal Harry (928 yards) and Oregon's Dillon Mitchell (1,002 yards) on opposite sidelines.
Both Harry and Mitchell could feast a few days before Thanksgiving as a result of facing defenses that are at their weakest in the secondary. Neither Arizona State nor Oregon has been particularly bad defending the pass, but neither has excelled. Ducks defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has a high-risk, high-reward style, with Oregon boasting 13 interceptions — but also surrendering 20 scores through the air.
Meanwhile, quarterbacks Manny Wilkins (Arizona State) and Justin Herbert (Oregon) play behind two of the most stout offensive lines in the Pac-12. Forcing the issue with a pass rush may be out of the question, as the Ducks have given up just 16 sacks on the year, while the Sun Devils have given up just 11.
3. Timely defense
Both Arizona State and Oregon have experienced both ends of the need for a timely stop. Arizona State made them in close wins over Michigan State and USC, but the Sun Devils' inability to generate a key stop in narrow losses to Washington and Colorado was a difference-maker.
Likewise, Oregon's defense keeping Washington out of the end zone on a regulation-ending drive forced a field-goal attempt into wind, resulting in overtime and a win. Failing to stop Stanford twice in the final 3:10 of regulation, or allowing Utah to march down the field for a win-sealing field goal last week, ostensibly knocked the Ducks from contention.
Each defense has potential playmakers. Oregon's Justin Hollins and Arizona State's Merlin Robertson are two of the Pac-12's breakout performers on defense, and both will be key in slowing productive rushing attacks. Arizona State in particular has the ability to go on long, grueling drives as a result of the conference's No. 1 rusher, running back Eno Benjamin. Those rush-heavy drives late in games can be the difference between a win and a loss.
Arizona State has defied expectations all season under first-year coach Herm Edwards, and it must do so again Saturday to maintain its control on the Pac-12 South (if not stay in the race altogether). The Sun Devils' struggles on the road, compared to its dominance at home — and vice versa for Oregon — are glaring ahead of Saturday's contest. Autzen Stadium has regained some of its mystique with the Ducks' 5-1 record there this year, including last month's impressive defeat of Washington.
Oregon must recapture the physically imposing presence it showed in that contest, which has at times been lacking during this recent skid. The Ducks' start could foreshadow Saturday's final outcome: In its losses over the past month, Oregon fell behind by double digits in the first half of each. UO needs to capitalize on the home crowd's energy and start strong, because Arizona State is a team with a knack for high-energy finishes.