It’s a tale of two programs, heading in seemingly opposite directions, the difference between making a shrewd head coaching hire instead of an ill-advised one.
Arizona State (4-1, 4-0-1 vs. the number; No. 23 in the latest Don Best Linemakers Poll) and Colorado (2-4 straight up and vs. the spread), like two ships passing in the night.
More than a month into the 2012 campaign, the die has been seemingly been cast for this pair of Pac-12 South entries, and Las Vegas oddsmakers have taken note. A quick check of the Don Best college football odds screen notes that most Nevada wagering outlets have posted the visiting Sun Devils early 22-22½ point favorites over the host Buffs on Thursday at Boulder.
Kickoff time at Folsom Field is scheduled for 9:00 p.m. (ET). Those who prefer college football to the Joe Biden-Paul Ryan Vice Presidential debate taking place at the same time can tune into ESPN and follow along as Rece Davis, Jesse Palmer and David Pollack describe the action.
Whatever is happening on the field in Tempe and Boulder this season can be directly traced to the coaching hires made by each over the past two years. Colorado, its program having descended noticeably toward the end of the past decade, chose to throw the hiring equivalent of a Hail Mary pass when tabbing ex-Buff star Jon Embree, a product of the Bill McCartney glory years of the CU program but never before a head coach, as the new coach after the 2010 campaign.
Meanwhile, down in the desert, ASU was looking for more-established names as it sought to replace Dennis Erickson after last season. A meandering coaching search finally landed upon Pitt’s peripatetic Todd Graham, who had also been head coach at Rice and Tulsa since 2006, but an acknowledged winner at each stop.
It’s still early days for both regimes (especially for the Sun Devils), but at this point it seems more likely that ASU got it right...and Colorado didn’t.
Under Embree (now 4-13 straight up and 5-12 against the line since arriving in Boulder), the Buffaloes have fallen into some pretty deep craters, and might have hit rock-bottom in a mid-September 69-14 loss at Fresno State, a game in which CU trailed 55-7 at halftime and had allowed 516 yards in the first half alone. Unless Colorado had hit its nadir the previous weeks when losing to lowly Colorado State (in Denver) and Big Sky Sacramento State at Folsom Field.
Remarkably, the Buffs rebounded for a 35-34 win at Washington State the week after the Fresno debacle, but that result is down as much to Cougar flaws (especially an inability to protect a lead, and alarming offensive breakdowns) as anything CU was able to do. Wazzu was also in position to salt away the game in the fourth quarter when staked to a 31-14 lead but somehow conspired to blow the game.
Many who suspected that result was a one-off were emboldened by the Buffaloes’ next outing, when it was back to usual under Embree in a 42-14 home loss to UCLA.
Aside from hitting a few big plays in the fourth quarter vs. Washington State, the Colorado offense has been ineffective, with Kansas transfer QB Jordan Webb getting little time to throw and not able to count upon much help from his supporting cast. Webb has only passed for more than 200 yards in the game at Washington State.
Moreover, we’ll see about the availability of top RB Christian Powell (294 YR), who left the UCLA game with a hip bruise, but has had an extra week to recover as Embree’s side has been off since September 29. The Buffaloes rank 100th in both total (341 ypg) and scoring (21.76 ppg) offense this season.
To prove the Embree Buffs are equal-opportunity bad on both sides of the line of scrimmage, a playmaker-free stop unit ranks 107th in total (474 ypg) and scoring (39.4 ppg) defense this season.
Standing in stark contrast is Graham’s ASU, which hit the ground running in September and looks a far different outfit than Erickson’s mistake-prone editions from the past few seasons. Graham’s team has also yet to taste pointspread defeat in its five games, and, in combination with his Tulsa and Pitt teams the past two years, the coach has recorded a personal 19-10-1 record vs. the number since the 2010 season.
Soph QB Taylor Kelly, in particular, has been almost flawless in his starting debut, completing better than 67 percent of his passes with nine TDs and only two picks while demonstrating plenty of moxie will piloting Graham’s version of the spread. The Sun Devils are balancing things offensive (173 ypg rushing, 283 ypg passing) while scoring better than 38 ppg.
But it’s on “D” where ASU has really been shining, reflected in national ranking of 10th in total defense (276.8 ypg) and 12th in scoring (mere 13.6 ppg). Undersized DE Will Sutton has emerged as a terror in the Sun Devils’ 3-4 looks, already recording 6½ sacks (ranks fifth nationally) and 10 tackles for loss (tied for seventh best in the country).
Indeed, it’s Sutton, aided by front seven playmaking friends DE Junior Onyeali along with linebackers Carl Bradford and Brandon Magee, who fuel a “D” that ranks third nationally with a whopping 21 sacks and second in tackles for loss with 49. This looks to be a potentially nightmarish matchup for Webb and the CU offense, which has allowed a whopping 22 sacks in five games, the second-worst mark in the country.
Oddsmakers, however, seem to have compensated for the stark fundamental differences between these sides. We’ll see if that inflated pointspread is enough to help the Buffs inside of the number on Thursday night.