One of my favorite longtime traditions in college football is the moral booster season opener game; the type of game in which an inferior team is lined up like a sacrificial lamb just to work out the kinks while padding your record with an easy win in the process.
No offense to Northern Arizona but that's exactly what Week 1 is for the Sun Devils. While it might be a little more competitive than 2010's 41-20 drubbing of the Lumberjacks, there should be no doubts that this is intended as no more than a slight step above the third preseason game of the NFL season: a hope-inspiring rally for fans with the illusion of a live game.
With all that in mind, there is still a lot of good that can come out of these types of matchups. Even in the most merciless of blowouts, teams are able to still find out a considerable amount about their identity and chemistry.
So instead of looking at the scoreboard, here's what fans should be focusing on if they truly want to get excited about their 2012 Arizona State Sun Devils squad:
- The emergence of a number one target: Not to take anything away from the talent level of this ASU receiving corp but there still remains more questions than answers surrounding the unit with one day before the season begins. Jamal Miles, J.J. Holliday, Kevin Ozier, Rashad Ross, Alonzo Agwuenu and A.J. Pickens now highlight a position that lost it's four best players from 2011 but what still remains unclear is who will be Taylor Kelly's initial go-to guy. Ross, Holliday and Miles are expected to begin the season as the starters but don't be surprised if Kelly leans on a larger target like Agwenu despite what the depth chart reads. This is a dilemma that can only be truly solved when the bullets start flying and we should get a good estimate on who Kelly has faith in starting Thursday.
- The evolution of the pass rush and a legitimate sack threat: This isn't something that Sun Devil fans have been consistently treated to since Terrell Suggs became a Baltimore Raven. But with an aggressive scheme like Todd Graham's 3-3-5 that allows at least four to five defenders attacking on each play, it's a real possibility that sacks could be in higher production this year. What remains unclear though is if this defense will produce a legitimate quarterback headhunter in the process. It's quite possible there will be no standouts in the bunch with Graham relying on overload blitzes and misleading stunts. But don't be surprised if someone like Carl Bradford or Will Sutton string together a few against NAU and that could be all they need to form that confidence in their ability to put fear into the opponent's signal caller.
- The use of explosive plays: HIGH OCTANE! Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Getting down to brass tax, Graham has promised fans an explosive offense and he sure has the weapons to back it up (D.J. Foster, Cameron Marshall, Marion Grice, Jamal Miles). Still, what most fans have to be curious to see is exactly when and how these electrifying playmakers will be utilized. Sure, it's possible that Graham runs a vanilla offense for all 48 minutes but my gut tells me the man won't be able to help himself. He's a fan of the game as much as anyone and he will want to leave spectators entertained so they'll return when the stakes become more significant. Keep an eye out for few shots down field off play actions and other basic forms of deception. And be prepared to have a few "holy canole" moments.
- The effectiveness of each quarterback's skill set : If there's anything that Graham isn't going to tip his hand on in an insignificant game, it's his exact rotation blueprint. More likely than not, Graham will use the mediocrity of this opponent to showcase Kelly in hopes that the quarterback not only gains some assurance from the fans but also in himself. Yet, one has to think that Michael Eubank will still get his fair share of playing time, if not in red zone packages then at least as Kelly's relief once things get out of hand. It would be nice if the first year head coach used a few plays to showcase what his interpretation of his proposed quarterback rotation but no matter what, Graham will be keeping the most intricate of plays in his back pocket for a later date. Still, fans with larger imaginations should be able to piece together some ideas of what Graham has in store from the base packages Kelly and Eubank respectively run while in the game.
- The execution and depth of the defensive backs: It's no secret that about 60% of Arizona State's 2011 late season struggles stemmed from a poor pass coverage (the Sun Devils owned the 13th worst pass defense out of the 120 FBS teams last year). In the good news department, Graham has been happy with the progress of his returning starting cornerbacks, Osahon Irabor and Deveron Carr, but there's no denying how thin the Devils are behind them. It's going to be key that no matter how much Arizona State runs up the score that this secondary's play doesn't get lackadaisical. Graham will be leaving his DBs on 1-on-1 islands more than they're probably used to from seasons past, so it's important that everyone, even the backups, prove that they can adequately handle themselves until the clock hits three zeros.