USC competing for a Pac-12 South divisional title? Hardly a shock, and those are the stakes as the Trojans return to conference play Saturday. But Arizona State? The Sun Devils' midseason resurgence is one of the most surprising stories of this college football season.
After falling to 2-3 with a loss at Stanford Sept. 30, Arizona State looked headed for a third straight sub-.500 finish. Head coach Todd Graham would have occupied a seat hotter than leather upholstery in a Phoenix parking lot on a July day.
All the Sun Devils have done since returning from their bye week is beat defending Pac-12 champion Washington, ranked No. 5 at the time, and then rout a good Utah team on the road, all while surrendering just 17 total points.
Now, Saturday's contest at Sun Devil Stadium becomes a battle for first place between two teams coming off much different outcomes. USC's College Football Playoff hopes were squashed in a blowout loss last week at Notre Dame.
USC at Arizona State
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 28 at 10:45 p.m. ET
Three Things to Watch
1. Turnover battle
A defensive coordinator before becoming a head coach, Todd Graham has long been committed to a style predicated on aggressive blitzing, designed to generate turnovers. Arizona State was perhaps too aggressive in recent years, or at least lacked the necessary secondary play to allow heavy blitz packages to flourish, as the Sun Devils ranked last in FBS in pass defense in both 2015 and '16.
Defensive coordinator Phil Bennett came on board to make adjustments to Arizona State's scheme. With the development of some talented young defensive backs, the Sun Devils have found their rhythm. Arizona State comes into Saturday's contest having forced six turnovers in the past three Pac-12 games, including four last week at Utah.
Meanwhile, USC has struggled mightily with turnovers. The Trojans' 19 are most among Power 5 conference teams.
2. Big plays via the pass
Some of the Pac-12's best wide receivers will be on display Saturday night. Arizona State's N'Keal Harry is a big target capable of going over the top of defenders for long gains. He's reminiscent of former Sun Devil Jaelen Strong — a name most USC fans would prefer to forget.
Meanwhile, USC's Deontay Burnett is well established as the primary target for quarterback Sam Darnold, but freshman Tyler Vaughns has stepped up as a reliable No. 2. It's a one-two dynamic reminiscent of Nelson Agholor and JuJu Smith-Schuster a few seasons ago. Steven Mitchell is coming off his best game of the season, scoring a touchdown against Notre Dame.
USC might need all three big-play targets to come through at least once on Saturday.
3. The run game wins
USC has had a pretty simple formula: When their run game is working, the Trojans are tough to stop. Barring one, long Ronald Jones II (above, right) carry at Washington State, USC struggled to establish a consistent rushing attack against Wazzu and Notre Dame.
Juxtaposed with the second half against Utah, when the Trojans were ripping off first downs on nearly every rush, the difference is night and day.
Head coach Clay Helton emphasizes the need for balance in order for USC's offense to work. The same is true for Arizona State, which relied heavily on quarterback Manny Wilkins' passing early in the season. The Sun Devils did not show off their full offensive potential until the two-man backfield of Kalen Ballage and Demario Richard started clicking.
This unexpected showdown for first place ensures that Sun Devil Stadium will be rocking into the late night. Arizona State's outstanding defense of late will be put to the test, particularly a young secondary. JoJo Wicker, D.J. Calhoun and Christian Sam must find ways to generate pressure on Sam Darnold and perhaps garner takeaways. Otherwise, the defensive resurgence will come to an abrupt end.
Likewise, USC needs to get into the backfield to limit Demario Richard and Kalen Ballage — a key for teams that have beaten Arizona State this season.