Offensive fireworks are expected on Saturday night in Houston, as Texas A&M and Arizona State clash in one of Week 1’s must-see matchups. The Aggies and Sun Devils were mentioned throughout the offseason as dark horse candidates to earn a spot in the College Football Playoff. A win on Saturday night would provide an early boost for one team’s early playoff resume, but both programs have question marks and personnel concerns that won’t be answered or solidified until a few games into this season.
Arizona State is a program on the rise behind coach Todd Graham. The Sun Devils won the Pac-12 South title in 2013 and have claimed back-to-back 10-win seasons. And the arrow on this program continues to point up, as Arizona State is picked by many to win the Pac-12 South. Similar things can be said about Texas A&M. The Aggies have won 28 games over the last three years and made a splash in the offseason by hiring John Chavis away from LSU to coordinate the defense. With a favorable schedule and a promising core of young talent, Texas A&M could be poised to make a move in the SEC West.
This is the first meeting between Texas A&M and Arizona State. Additionally, this is the only matchup between a SEC and Pac-12 team this season.
Texas A&M vs. Arizona State (Houston)
Kickoff: 7 p.m. ET (Saturday)
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Texas A&M -3.5
1. Texas A&M’s Defense
Coach Kevin Sumlin’s hire of John Chavis to coordinate the Texas A&M defense was one of the best assistant moves of the offseason. The Aggies have lagged on defense since joining the SEC, but Chavis is one of the best in the nation and should turn this unit around in the next few years. Improvement should be noticeable in 2015, especially if Chavis finds a way to eliminate some of the big plays allowed in the secondary. In 13 games last season, the Aggies surrendered 14 plays of 40 yards or more. Changes were made to improve the pass defense, as converted running back Brandon Williams is penciled in at one cornerback spot, and junior college transfer Justin Evans is expected to start at strong safety. While the coverage has to get better, the success of this unit still rests in the front seven. Ends Daeshon Hall, Myles Garrett and Qualen Cunningham should generate a pass rush against Arizona State’s offensive line, which is breaking in two new starters at the tackle positions. But how will the linebackers perform if A.J. Hilliard and Otaro Alaka sit out due to injury? Keep an eye on the health of the linebackers, as well as the overall progression of this group on Saturday night.
2. Arizona State’s Dynamic Offense
Arizona State’s offense has a couple of new faces stepping into key roles, but don’t expect this unit to slow in terms of production. New quarterback Mike Bercovici shined in limited action for the Sun Devils after Taylor Kelly missed a couple of games due to injury last season. The receiving corps is revamped, but converted running back D.J. Foster and UCLA transfer Devin Lucien should provide Bercovici with plenty of options. With Foster moving to receiver, the focus at running back shifts to Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage – two players on the verge of a breakout year. The skill talent and quarterback position should be a strength for Graham’s offense, but there’s concern up front with new starters and left and right tackle. Bercovici isn’t as mobile as Kelly was, which means protection is critical to attacking the Texas A&M secondary. There’s a lot of promise for Arizona State’s offense, and Saturday night’s matchup is the first look at Bercovici and Foster in their new roles.
3. Kyle Allen Versus Arizona State’s Aggressive Defense
It’s no secret Graham and coordinator Keith Patterson will be aggressive with their defensive approach. Last season, Arizona State forced 27 turnovers, generated 39 sacks and 98 tackles for a loss. However, an aggressive approach also lends itself to big plays. The Sun Devils ranked 12th in the Pac-12 by allowing 40 plays of 30 yards or more last season. Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen is one of the SEC’s rising stars, and the sophomore showed progress over the final few games of 2014. The former five-star recruit held off touted freshman Kyler Murray in the fall and could have an All-SEC season at the controls of one of the league’s top offenses. Can Allen find time to throw against the Sun Devils’ pass rush? Will the Aggies mix in the run more this year? If Allen has time to throw, his receiving corps is among the best in the nation and should find a way to hit on big plays against an Arizona State secondary that allowed 27 plays of 30 yards or more in 2014.
This one should be high in entertainment value and points. Both offenses are capable of generating big plays, and the defenses should make their share of stops or turnovers. Don’t be surprised if the last team with the ball wins on Saturday night. Getting Chavis to call the defensive signals was a huge boost for Texas A&M. Combine Chavis’ arrival with the growth of Allen this offseason, and the Aggies should have just enough to knock off the Sun Devils in Week 1.