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Ranking the Toughest Games on Arizona State's College Football Schedule in 2015

Todd Graham

Todd Graham

Todd Graham brought stability in his first three years as head coach, something not seen since the days of Sun Devil legend Frank Kush. But after seasons of eight, 10 and 10 wins, Graham has Arizona State talking national championship ahead of his fourth.

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Related: Why Arizona State Will or Won't Make the College Football Playoff in 2015

The Sun Devils get to test their championship mettle immediately, opening a difficult slate in a virtual road game against an SEC opponent. Week 1 is a fitting tune-up for the hazard-laden road ahead of Arizona State, which must find a way to navigate the potholes of the Pac-12 South to reach Graham's goal.

12. Sept. 12 vs. Cal Poly

Cal Poly's option offense makes it one of the Football Championship Subdivision's most prolific rushing teams, as well as an especially challenging squad for which to game-plan. The Mustangs could be dark-horse contenders in the Big Sky Conference, but Tim Walsh's bunch faces a harsh reality in Week 2: Tempe isn't Big Sky Country.

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Arizona State will either be high off a marquee win in Week 1, or looking to exorcise its frustration from a pivotal loss. Either way, expect the Sun Devils to make very quick work of the Mustangs.

11. Sept. 18 (Friday) vs. New Mexico

Former Western Athletic Conference rivals met last September, their first encounter since a Kush-led Arizona State left the WAC to turn the Pac-8 into the Pac-10.

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The Sun Devils won last year, just as they had every meeting since World War II. Don't expect seven decades of history to be broken when the Lobos visit Tempe this season.

10. Nov. 14 vs. Washington

Washington teams historically struggle in the desert. While past results with players and coaches long-since gone from the program have no bearing on the 2015 installment, an 0-6 record in the Grand Canyon State since 2006 does suggest a trend.

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The Huskies appear to be in rebuilding mode this season, particularly on the offensive end. That doesn't bode well for a team that in last year's home loss to Arizona State mustered just 10 points. In fact, one must go back to 2007 for the last time any Husky squad reached even 20 points against the Sun Devils.

9. Oct. 10 vs. Colorado

Despite residing in bordering states, Arizona State and Colorado have played just six times. The Sun Devils won all six.

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An improved Colorado team is going to pick off one of the Pac-12 South's contenders in 2015, but the Buffs are most likely to do so in Boulder. Arizona State gets them in the confines of Sun Devil Stadium, which should mitigate some of the risk playing this low-key dangerous bunch.

8. Nov. 7 at Washington State

Memories of Oregon State last November are fresh enough that this late-season date on the Palouse jumps out as a potential trap. Maybe last year's loss to a similar team provides this Arizona State team enough of a jolt to get up for a likely middling Washington State team.

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7. Nov. 28 at Cal

An intriguing matchup, in part because Graham and Sonny Dykes have yet to face. Cal was one of two North division teams Arizona State missed on its schedule in 2013 and 2014, the other being Oregon.

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What the Sun Devils can expect in their visit to Berkeley is a fast-tempo offense, navigated by one of the best quarterbacks in college football, Jared Goff. Given the unusual timing of this meeting — Thanksgiving/rivalry weekend — Goff and the Golden Bears could be seeking to play spoiler to Arizona State's Pac-12 Championship Game aspirations.

6. Oct. 17 at Utah

Utah is winless against Arizona State since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, but the last two seasons produced memorable finishes that could have gone either way. Utah's always-stout defense has posed offensive coordinator Mike Norvell's turned-up scheme problems each of the last two years.

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With Arizona State remaining as the sole Pac-12 South team the Utes have yet to beat, they'll have added motivation going into this pivotal conference matchup.

5. Sept. 5 vs. Texas A&M (in Houston)

This rare Pac-12 vs. SEC nonconference crossover uses a stick of dynamite to usher in the 2015 season. Arizona State and Texas A&M feature two of the nation's most explosive offenses. Both ranked in the Top 30 nationally in points scored a year ago, and each was a Top 10 scoring offense in 2013.

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Expect a final score that would make Bobby Hurley and Billy Kennedy, the school's respective basketball coaches proud.

Arizona State isn't just playing for itself; the Sun Devils are playing for bragging rights in the growing narrative of Pac-12 vs. SEC for college football supremacy.

4. Sept. 26 vs. USC

Graham referred to quarterback Mike Bercovici's Hail Mary heave — known in Tempe as the "Jael Mary," for wide receiver Jaelen Strong — as the greatest moment in Sun Devil history. So, yeah, the bar is set considerably high in the return match.

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The 2014 conclusion is one that haunted USC throughout the campaign and into the offseason. The Trojans won't be lacking for motivation in one of the first marquee showdowns on the Pac-12 South slate, but the stakes are just as high for the Sun Devils. Arizona State is also defending a modest streak in this series, which USC once overwhelmingly dominated.

After going winless through the late 1990s and 2000s, the Sun Devils are 3-1 against the Trojans since 2011.

3. Nov. 21 vs. Arizona

The Duel in the Desert is among the nation's most acrimonious rivalries. Thanks to head coaches Graham and Rich Rodriguez, the annual meeting for the Territorial Cup has taken on significance equal to the hate.

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Last year's meeting became the de facto Pac-12 South championship game. The 2015 installment won't be as historic — not because the Sun Devils and Wildcats aren't both title contenders, but rather because of the earlier placement on the schedule. This year's meeting in Tempe is the Saturday before Rivalry Week in order to line up with Stanford and Cal's Big Game.

So the Territorial Cup presentation might not come with a ticket to Levi's Stadium, but similar implications could be on the line.

2. Oct. 3 at UCLA

While the Duel in the Desert decided the South last season, the Arizona State-UCLA meetings in 2012 and '13 were both crucial to the divisional race. In fact, the South's representative in every Pac-12 Championship Game before last year's came from the winner of ASU-UCLA.

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The results have matched the stakes. Before UCLA's bizarre, lopsided win last September, each game since 2011 was decided by just one score. Expect a similar nail-biter in the Rose Bowl with both teams harboring very real championship ambitions.

1. Oct. 29 (Friday) vs. Oregon

Graham has talked at length about Arizona State being a championship-caliber program. Oregon sets the curve for the entire Pac-12, thus making this Thursday night showdown the barometer by which the Sun Devils are measured.

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Arizona State and Oregon haven't played since 2012, but their last encounter was under similar circumstances as the coming season's. The Ducks visited on a Thursday, with the Sun Devil Stadium audience rocking — at least, until sometime in the first quarter when Oregon began to deluge the home-standing Sun Devils.

Taking advantage of drawing Oregon at home once more, on a Thursday night, is critical to Arizona State taking the next step toward Graham's expressed goals.

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.