Could the Pac-12 South be decided in Week 6?
If Arizona State could happen to pull off a big road victory in Salt Lake City on Saturday against the Utah Utes, any drama this race could hold would be put to bed.
A win would move ASU 3-0 in conference and dropped Utah to 0-3. With the struggles of the rest of the division and the ineligibility of USC, it would take a historic collapse by the Devils to not be playing on December 2nd for the conference title.
But first things first. Utah is a desperate team that knows their very season could hang in the balance on Saturday. Despite injuries, they still have a very talented roster and while be playing before a very raucous crowd at Rice-Eccles Stadium.
How can ASU overcome their well-documented road struggles and score the win in Utah?
1st - Stop the Run
Utah's top weapon, even before the injury to starting quarterback Jordan Wynn, was running back John White. He's been inconsistent this season, with a pair of big games (150 yards against Montana State and 174 yards and three touchdowns against BYU) mixed in with two games in which he failed to top 60 yards. Nevertheless, he's a talented speedster who can create major problems for ASU if he can get to the second level.
It will be crucial for ASU's front seven to keep White in check. They've had their share of difficulty in stopping the run this season (see Marc Tyler).
Should they be successful in shutting down the Ute running game, it will force the game onto Jon Hays' shoulders, which leads us to 2nd down...
2nd - Force Hays into Turnovers
With Jordan Wynn sidelined for two to three weeks, Jon Hays takes over the quarterbacking duties for Utah. Coming up from the junior college level, Hays initially signed to play at Nebraska-Omaha before they dropped the football program and he ended up in Utah.
This will be Hays' first start at the FBS level and his passing skills are unpolished, at best. He is a threat running the ball, something ASU has struggled with of late, but he's not the caliber of athlete as Nathan Scheelhaase or James Franklin.
He'll be facing an ASU defense that has forced nine turnovers over the last two games. If they can force the game onto Hays, that turnover total should continue to grow.
3rd - Get the Utes into 3rd Down
It's only appropriate for the third point to revolve around third down.
When it comes to defensive effectiveness on third down, there are no better unit's in the nation than Arizona State. The Sun Devils have only allowed 16 of 66 3rd downs to succeed, a sterling conversion rate of only 24.2%.
Conversely, the Ute offense has struggled in sustaining drives. They rank a miserable 104th, having only converted 17 of 51 chances (33.3%). The majority of those chances took place while they still had their starting quarterback Jordan Wynn healthy.
Look for the Devils to keep up their success in this area. With an inexperienced quarterback, the Sun Devils will attack. Defensive ends Jamarr Jarrett and Davon Coleman have each played very well lately and will have a challenge with Utah's talented tackles Tony Bergstrom and John Cullen. If ASU can win this battle, look for multiple turnovers coming from Hays.
4th - Block for Brock
The Sun Devils' only loss of the season was a direct result of poor pass protection that resulted in critically high numbers in both sacks and turnovers.
Utah has seven sacks on the season, but only two have come from the defensive line. ASU's blocking schemes must account for blitzes from linebackers and defensive backs or else risk encountering the same fate as their last road game.
If they can protect quarterback Brock Osweiler, look for him to have a field day against a Ute secondary featuring new starters at every position.
Goal - Execute
A recurring theme in many of these games is that on paper, the Sun Devils are clearly the better team. In most every position area except for offensive line, ASU has a clear advantage in this game. That means that should they execute their gameplan they should walk out of Rice-Eccles Stadium with a major victory.
Easier said than done.
As has far too often been the case, ASU is their own worst enemy. After getting their penalties under control lately, it was a propensity for turnovers that nearly derailed them last week.
The Sun Devils cannot continue to play such a perilous type of game and expect to win each week.
Prediction: 31-21 ASU
For more in-depth analysis of this game, listen to Speak of the Devils, the premier ASU podcast, now on iTunes.