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UTSA Roadrunners vs. Arizona State Sun Devils Prediction and Preview

Arizona State Sun Devils QB Manny Wilkins

Arizona State Sun Devils QB Manny Wilkins

Despite two 10-win seasons and five bowl games in six years, Arizona State is starting over with Herm Edwards set to make his college head coaching debut at home Saturday night against the UTSA Roadrunners. While many were surprised when the Sun Devils decided to move on from Todd Graham, who went 46-32, it was the decision to hire Edwards, a longtime NFL coach and former ESPN on-air personality, that really got everyone's attention.

Initially, the plan was for Edwards to retain most if not all of Graham’s assistants. But it didn’t work out that way as offensive coordinator Billy Napier left to be the head coach at Louisiana and defensive coordinator Phil Bennett stepped down for personal reasons. But Edwards forged ahead and has the Sun Devils prepared for their opener against UTSA.

The Roadrunners went 6-5 overall and 3-5 in Conference USA play, thanks largely to a defense that ranked fifth nationally with 287.8 yards per game allowed. UTSA just missed out on a bowl game and can attribute that to four one-possession losses. Although head coach Frank Wilson is tasked with replacing first-round NFL draft pick Marcus Davenport and leading tackler La’Kel Bass, the Roadrunners should challenge for a second bowl berth in his three seasons at the helm.

UTSA vs. Arizona State

Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 1 at 10:30 p.m. ET

TV: FS1

Spread: Arizona State -18.5

Three Things to Watch

1. New Arizona State head coach Herm Edwards

The story of the game, and one of the most intriguing stories of the 2018 college football season, is Edwards taking over in Tempe. The former Jets and Chiefs head man hadn’t worked in college since serving as defensive backs coach at San Jose State from 1987-89. Nevertheless, when athletic director Ray Anderson decided to replace Graham, he opted for his longtime friend (and former client) to take the reins of the program.

Simply put, we have no idea what to expect from the hire. Edwards had a modest record in the NFL, but he knows football as well as anyone. He is widely respected in the profession as a pro’s pro with a well-deserved reputation as a player’s coach. Fans also know his enthusiastic personality well from his days at ESPN, and Anderson believed that would translate well to recruiting. But Edwards has been out of coaching altogether for a decade, and out of college football for nearly 30 years.

Will Edwards be the next Pete Carroll? Or the next Lovie Smith? We can’t wait to find out.

2. Pro prospects in the ASU passing attack

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Edwards has a long history in pro football, and as luck would have it, he has two pro prospects to build around on offense. Quarterback Manny Wilkins is arguably one of the most underrated players in the country. The 6-foot-3, 210-pound senior has a very strong, accurate right arm. Last season, Wilkins completed 63.4 percent of his passes for 3,270 yards and 20 touchdowns with eight interceptions. He also set a school record by attempting 192 passes without being picked off, a streak that spanned from end of the 2016 campaign through the beginning of the '17 season. Wilkins isn’t an elite runner, but he was mobile enough to gain 282 rushing yards and score seven times on the ground.

Among Wilkins' greatest assets are his experience, competitiveness, intelligence and adaptability. Wilkins enters 2018 with 23 career starts under his belt, and he had to beat out multiple mega recruits to keep his job. The first was Brady White, who later transferred to Memphis, followed by former five-star Blake Barnett, who transferred in from Alabama and attempted just five passes before leaving for USF. Wilkins has also had to endure frequent coaching changes and constant pressure from defenses. He will be playing for his fourth offensive coordinator in four years, and his offensive line — though experienced — surrendered 41 sacks in each of the last two seasons.

Edwards and Wilkins also have one of the top receivers in the nation at their disposal. At 6-foot-4 and 216 pounds, N’Keal Harry has prototypical size for a wideout. Harry used his big frame to haul in 82 receptions for 1,142 yards and eight touchdowns as a sophomore and led the conference with 87 receiving yards per contest. He earned first-team All-Pac-12 distinction and enters 2018 as a legitimate All-America candidate.

3. Best of the rest, best in the West, best in the (C-)USA

UTSA held its opponents to a miniscule 287.8 yards per game in 2017, which ranked fifth nationally. The Roadrunners boasted the top total defense in Conference USA, the top unit among all Group of 5 programs and the top FBS defense west of the Mississippi River. Only big-timers Alabama, Wisconsin, Michigan and Clemson fared better overall.

It’s certainly worth noting that UTSA (in part due to its methodical pace on offense and partly because it only played 11 games) faced the fewest plays (636) of any FBS defense a year ago. Nevertheless, the Roadrunners ranked in the top 25 in the country in yards per play (4.98) and were 33rdin both yards allowed per rush (3.75) and pass (6.7). Losing Davenport hurts, but six starters return, led by linebacker Josiah Tauaefa, who was a first-team All-C-USA performer as a freshman in 2016.

Final Analysis

Despite the time and effort that go into predictions, one of the most enjoyable aspects of college football is its unpredictability. Herm Edwards is arguably the greatest unknown in all of college football at this point in the 2018 campaign, so while it’s tempting to leave this space blank, or insert a shrug emoji, instead here's one man's attempt to sum up this game.

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UTSA has proven to be a thorn in the side for Power 5 programs during Frank Wilson’s tenure, and the Roadrunners simply don’t get blown out. Thanks to a great defense, UTSA has even picked up some upsets, including a (surprising at the time) win over Baylor in its 2018 season opener. Arizona State lost its top two rushers and top four tacklers from last year’s squad, but still has a deeper and more talented roster led by one of the top quarterback-receiver duos in the country. The Sun Devils have the talent to compete in the Pac-12 South, and if Edwards adapts to the college game, they should go bowling. If not, this could become a test case in how not to hire a college football coach.

In Week 1, I’ll give Edwards the benefit of the doubt.

Prediction: Arizona State 27, UTSA 13

— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.