The bowl landscape for Pac-12 teams is getting crowded entering the final month of the regular season. Arizona State and Colorado sit two games and one game shy, respectively, of reaching eligibility, but hitting that all-important six-win milestone in these coming weeks is no guarantee for either team.
Colorado at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Nov. 4 at 9 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Network
Spread: Arizona State -3.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Run, Ralphie, run
The difference in Colorado's offense when it establishes the run successfully and when it doesn't could not be any more stark. In Pac-12 play, the Buffs have games of 191, 300, 206 and 200 yards rushing, and they average 36.25 points in those contests. In losses to Washington and Washington State, Colorado rushed for 200 total yards and scored a combined 10 points.
Running back Phillip Lindsay (above, right) is the driving engine of the Colorado offense, so it's no surprise that the Buffs are at their best when he gets rolling. With quarterback Steven Montez's proficient running ability and inconsistent passing, success on the ground is paramount for Colorado.
Conversely, Arizona State's midseason surge — wins over Washington and Utah — came on the strength of two outstanding performances against the run at 91 and 110 yards, respectively. The Sun Devils' suddenly blistering defense got doused last week in the form of 341 rushing yards by USC.
2. N'Keal Harry's big-play ability
Few wide receivers in college football have the ability to break off explosive plays quite like Arizona State's Harry. He combines height, remarkable leaping ability, soft hands and breakaway speed to present secondaries with the ultimate coverage conundrum.
Colorado has a cornerback capable of matching up with Harry — if he's in the lineup. Isaiah Oliver missed the Buffs' Oct. 28 game at Cal, and while it didn't hurt Colorado then, Oliver's possible absence would leave a gaping hole in the secondary against big-play receiver Harry and big-armed quarterback Manny Wilkins.
3. Pace of play
Arizona State head coach Todd Graham was a defensive coordinator before moving into the chief role 11 years ago at Rice. However, Graham is apt to tout his track record working with high-tempo, high-scoring offenses. Indeed, his squads at Rice, Tulsa and now Arizona State all put up some impressive point totals. This season's Sun Devils have been better off keeping scores lower in conference play, however.
Colorado's young defense benefits from a higher scoring pace established on the offensive end. In two Pac-12 wins, the Buffs put up a combined 80 points. Their total in four losses is 75, but take away the 42 scored in a 45-42 shootout with Arizona, and the Buffs average 11 points per game in conference losses.
The 48 points Arizona State surrendered a week ago suggest that the stifling defense it played against Washington and Utah may have been an aberration, particularly after an 11-game streak of surrendering 30-plus points dating back to last season. The Sun Devils need to knock Montez around early and establish a slower pace — slower for the Buffs, anyway — and make last week's loss the exception.
Bowl bubbles will burst in the coming weeks for some teams in the Pac-12. Colorado already won one such game a week ago, rebounding from a shutout loss at Washington State to pop surprising Cal in the mouth. The Buffs get USC at home on Nov. 11, but with the Trojans pursuing the divisional championship, that might be the most difficult date on the calendar.
Colorado can avoid sweating it out for the USC and Utah matchups with a win Saturday. Arizona State is under similar pressure — perhaps doubly so, coming in at 4-4 after a devastating loss to USC. Emotions will be high with the Sun Devils honoring the late Pat Tillman as well.
Arizona State needs to set the tone early, particularly on defense. After Ronald Jones II went for more than 200 rushing yards a week ago, the most underrated back in the conference, Phillip Lindsay, could be primed to exploit Arizona State's run defense in similar fashion.