The first year of college football’s playoff committee rankings has added new intrigue to the season, and one look at the latest top 25 release shows just how important Saturday’s game is between Arizona State and Notre Dame. The Sun Devils and Fighting Irish are ranked back-to-back (No. 9 and No. 10) following the Week 10 games. Saturday’s winner should keep their playoff hopes alive while dealing a significant (and likely eliminating) loss to the other team.
Arizona State has won four games in a row since a 62-27 loss to UCLA. The Sun Devils defeated three ranked teams in that stretch, including a 19-16 overtime win against Utah and a 38-34 last-second victory over USC on Oct. 4. Notre Dame’s only loss this year came at the hands of Florida State, but the Fighting Irish rank behind Arizona State due to the Sun Devils’ strength of schedule and bigger margin of victory against a common opponent (Stanford).
Arizona State and Notre Dame have only three previous meetings. The Fighting Irish are 3-0 against the Sun Devils, including a 37-34 victory in last season’s matchup in Arlington.
Notre Dame at Arizona State
Kickoff: 3:30 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ABC
Spread: Arizona State -2.5
Notre Dame’s Key to Victory: QB Everett Golson
Coming off a tough matchup against Navy, combined with the loss of linebacker Joe Schmidt, Notre Dame needs its offense to carry the team on Saturday. As evidenced by his 22 passing touchdowns to just seven interceptions, Golson is capable of doing so. Arizona State ranks fifth in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency defense, but this unit has played three average offenses over the last three weeks. Golson could be the best quarterback the Sun Devils have played this season, and his mobility will keep plays alive if the defense is able to get pressure and collapse the pocket. But most importantly for Notre Dame, Golson has to have a mistake-free effort. The junior has seven picks this season and two came in the loss to Florida State. A tight game is expected on Saturday, and a turnover or two by either team could be costly. One other area to watch is the emergence of running back Tarean Folston. The sophomore has 169 yards over the last two games.
Arizona State’s Key to Victory: Balance on Offense
Quarterback Taylor Kelly is still knocking off the rust from a foot injury that forced him to miss three games earlier this year. But Kelly has passed for 385 yards and three scores over the last two contests and has 62 rushing yards in that span. Despite being a little rusty, Kelly guided Arizona State to wins over Washington and Utah. Considering Kelly probably needs another week or two to get fully acclimated to the offense once again, the Sun Devils need to take the pressure off him by establishing balance. Running back D.J. Foster leads the team with 701 yards and freshman Demario Richard has 280 – including 170 over the last two weeks. Receiver Jaelen Strong is one of the best in the Pac-12, catching 57 passes for 821 yards and eight scores. Notre Dame won’t have standout linebacker Joe Schmidt for the rest of the year due to an injury suffered against Navy. Without Schmidt, the Fighting Irish will turn to true freshman Nyles Morgan in the starting lineup. Notre Dame’s defense is giving up 5.2 yards per play in 2014 but has allowed at least 5.6 yards per play in three consecutive weeks. With Schmidt’s injury, combined with the Fighting Irish’s recent performance on defense, Arizona State should be able to push 30 points on Saturday night. Balance for the Sun Devils will be critical, especially as Kelly continues to knock the rust off from a significant foot injury.
It’s probably fair to call this game an elimination matchup in terms of playoff seeding. The loser of this matchup is likely out of the picture for one of the four-team spots, but is still in the mix for one of the New Year’s Bowls. The winner of this game will be on the doorstep of the top eight once again next week and in position to earn a spot in the playoffs. Notre Dame’s defense is a concern. But it’s also fair to wonder whether Arizona State’s recent improvement on that side of the ball was due to offenses that ranked near the bottom of the Pac-12. Expect plenty of points in this back-and-forth affair. Notre Dame keeps its playoff hopes alive for another week by finding a way to win this one in the fourth quarter.