ASU vs. Colorado: 5 questions

Arizona State players and coaches have been saying it all week: A new season starts now.

Despite having already played two games against Pac-12 opponents, the Sun Devils see Saturday’s game against Colorado as the true start of conference play, and it presents the next step in their quest for a Pac-12 South title.

ASU (3-2, 1-1 Pac-12) comes into the game looking to rebound from a heartbreaking loss to Notre Dame, while Colorado comes to Tempe on a two-game losing streak and in the midst of a rebuilding process.

ASU coach Todd Graham was honest about the fact the Buffaloes aren’t competing at the same level as some previous opponents but insists they must be shown equal respect on Saturday.

Here, Tyler Lockman examines five key questions about the game.

1. Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said this week his team has come a long way but still has a lot of ground to cover. While it may still take a season or two before Colorado is competitive every week, it’s obvious the Buffaloes are playing with renewed confidence this season. How much can that sort of energy impact a game like this?

The attitude with which a team plays undoubtedly affects its performance. It seems MacIntyre has made his players believe they are talented enough to win. That matters. What matters just as much: Patience when the results aren’t there. The Buffaloes have dropped two straight, but I don’t expect them to start playing unmotivated football. They should come to Tempe hungry for a win, long shot though it may be. You saw that attitude early against Oregon last week, and it could make this game a little more interesting, particularly if Colorado can exploit some holes in ASU’s defense.

2. ASU enters this game a heavy favorite, especially with the game in Tempe, but coach Todd Graham has emphasized that the Sun Devils must not overlook the Buffaloes, who had them in a little trouble in the first half last season. What is one big thing each team does that could create problems for its opponent?

There are a number of things, but I think offensive pace will be the big one. ASU’s high-powered offense can wear teams out and overwhelm them in a matter of a couple of drives, USC being the most recent example. If ASU can strike early, this one might be over by halftime, and the Sun Devils could take their collective foot off the gas a bit in the second half. I’m not sure Colorado has the depth to keep up with ASU for four quarters right now. And I don’t know if Colorado has the means to contain ASU’s offense when it’s playing mistake-free. If Colorado can somehow force ASU’s offense into a rut, things might change, but I can’t see the Buffaloes being able to stop the Sun Devils offense.

However, if receiver Paul Richardson gets loose in the ASU secondary, the Buffs may give the Sun Devils a little trouble. ASU’s secondary played its worst game of the season last week, and that was without facing a top-tier receiver like Richardson. ASU did contain USC receiver Marqise Lee reasonably well two weeks ago, though.

3. This game features two of the Pac-12’s premiere wide receivers right now in ASU’s Jaelen Strong and Colorado’s Paul Richardson. Both have emerged as stars within the conference and in the nation. All things considered, which receiver has a bigger game this week?

Strong. I think a couple things work against Richardson in this game, as will be the case for much of Pac-12 play. First is ASU’s secondary, as Richardson will likely see bracket coverage from ASU. The secondary has had a couple rough games in a row, but the Sun Devils’ passing defense still ranks 38th in the nation at 210.2 yards allowed per game. Second, ASU’s defensive line should be able to put heavy pressure on Colorado quarterback Connor Wood, creating fewer opportunities for Richardson.

Strong, meanwhile, could have his biggest statistical performance yet. Colorado’s passing defense ranks 121st out of 123 FBS teams, and ASU’s passing attack has become more and more centered on Strong, who has shown NFL potential in his brief time in Tempe. The only thing that might work against Strong having a big game: ASU finally getting its run game going and giving the backs more touches.

4. ASU is coming off a close loss to Notre Dame on a big stage and has not yet played at the level most expected this season. Colorado is coming off two straight losses but showed some fight early against Oregon. What does this game mean for each team?

This game should be a much-needed breather for ASU. Certainly the Sun Devils will show the Buffaloes the respect they deserve and probably won’t get caught looking ahead, but it’s hard to imagine ASU struggling much to get a win this week. That’s a change of pace from the past four weeks, when ASU endured what might have been the toughest four-game stretch in team history (Wisconsin, Stanford, USC, Notre Dame).

ASU didn’t need another marquee matchup this week. Playing Colorado should be a confidence booster and a chance to fix some things before a critical game against Washington next week. Certainly this game means a lot because of its Pac-12 implications, but it qualifies as a “gimme” game, a stop along the way to bigger games for the Sun Devils.

For the Buffs, this is perhaps their most winnable Pac-12 game yet after losses to Oregon State and Oregon, but it still doesn’t appear all that winnable. Colorado seems to understand that turning around a program is a process, so simply showing improvement against ASU this week is a must.

5. Who is going to win this game, by what score, and why?

ASU should win pretty handily; I’ll go with a score of 49-20. Colorado is legitimately doing a lot of things better than it did last season, and it’s clear Mike MacIntyre is having a very positive effect in Boulder, but the Buffaloes are still too far away on both sides to keep up with the Sun Devils. A passing defense ranked 121st in the nation is going to have trouble against an offense like ASU’s, and while the ASU defense has its issues, it should be able to hold Colorado’s 73rd-ranked offense in check. The Buffaloes gave the Sun Devils a little trouble in the first half last season, but I believe ASU will be more comfortable in this home game, and it seems like a perfect time for the defensive line to have a breakout game.