The Sun Devils are 5-1 and tied for first in the Pac-12 South, yet it still seems unclear how good Arizona State really is. Is that the feeling in Tempe? Or do you have a good grasp on what Todd Graham's squad is capable of in the second half of the season?
Chris Karpman: "There is a lot of clarity about the type of defense ASU has through the mid-point of the season. The Sun Devils are on pace to give up more passing yards than any defense in college football, and that's after finishing last in the category nationally in 2015. They also have a good run defense that is currently first in the Pac-12. Part of this disparity is related to the types of teams they've played, as ASU's already played Air Raid offenses Cal and Texas Tech. But UCLA threw the ball 31 of its final 32 snaps from scrimmage last week against ASU. The Sun Devils are going to try to jam up the run with extra defenders, try to unsettle opposing quarterbacks, force turnovers and three-and-outs, and are going to give up more big plays through the passing game than other teams as a byproduct of this, and continuing assignment and tackling challenges.
"Offensively, things were pretty clear-cut as well until the ankle injury to sophomore quarterback Manny Wilkins two weeks ago against USC, and subsequent foot injury suffered by his replacement, redshirt freshman Brady White, against UCLA. Now, we're going to be seeing a different type of offense from the Sun Devils, at least until Wilkins is really healthy again.
"Overall, ASU is fortunate to be 5-1 because it required come-from-behind wins several times this year and was in a dogfight with the Bruins throughout the game and probably don't win if not for how it impacted UCLA quarterback Josh Rosen and forced him out of the game through key stretches. The expectation we had was the Sun Devils would be a six or seven win team this year, but some softness in the Pac-12 coupled with winning close games has put it ahead of schedule."
The Sun Devils have obviously struggled with injuries at the quarterback position early on this season... do you expect regular starter Manny Wilkins to be back from his high ankle sprain this Saturday, or do you expect Arizona State to be forced to go with its fourth-string quarterback, true freshman Dillon Sterling-Cole?
"Based on what we've seen through the team's Wednesday practice, Wilkins is going to be hard pressed to play this week at Colorado. If he does try to play, he's going to be significantly limited in terms of his mobility, and that's a significant part of his approach to the position. He's a guy who tends to want to evade the pocket and carry the football when pressured at all, but he's probably not going to be able to do that with any degree of success given where he's at in his recovery.
"It seems very likely that Sterling-Cole will get the start. He's a quarterback with very good physical tools, including a live arm, good size and mobility at his size. But he's extremely raw and not ready to run the ASU offense at this stage of his development from an execution and accuracy standpoint. The Sun Devils are really in a bad situation with its injuries at quarterback going into this game, especially because the guy who would be the No. 3 quarterback, redshirt freshman Bryce Perkins, suffered a neck injury in preseason camp and is weeks if not months away from playing."
Colorado fans are obviously familiar with Kalen Ballage... how often do the Sun Devils use him out of the Wildcat formation? What can Buffs fans expect to see from Arizona State's offense?
"ASU calls it the 'Sparky' formation because its in-state rivals is nicknamed the Wildcats. It was a very successful formation early in the season, especially against Texas Tech, when Ballage scored an NCAA record eight touchdowns, six of which came in the formation. But it's had decreasing success in subsequent weeks, as defenses have improved and had more time to figure out how to defend it. Against UCLA, it wasn't very successful.
"Even though there's been a diminishing return, it's very conceivable that ASU tries to use the Sparky formation frequently in this game in a very run-heavy orientation. The Sun Devils might end up wanting to make the game as few possessions as possible given its overall challenges on offense due to the quarterback situation.
"Overall, this is an ASU offense that runs a lot of inside, outside and stretch zone, and power in the run game, with junior Demario Richard a returning 1,000 yard rusher from 2015 and 2,000 yard rusher in his career. The offensive line is pretty good and improving. There's a lot of run replacements and run-pass option baked into the offense, similar to what Colorado is doing this year. In fact, there's quite a bit of similarity with the schemes on the whole.
"Senior wide receiver Tim White is a key player for the Sun Devils. He mostly works from the slot but has been moving around more of late to try to generate one-on-ones and favorable matchups all over the field. If Sterling-Cole is the quarterback, look for ASU to try to quickly get the ball in the hands of White and try to let him go to work with his elusiveness."
What are the Sun Devils' strengths and weaknesses on defense, and who are their top playmakers on that side of the ball?
"As expressed earlier, the Sun Devils have been good against the run, and bad against the pass. They like to slant their defensive linemen and overload pressure to corral and force run game action. They have good defensive linemen and linebackers against the run, with senior SAM Salamo Fiso among the top run stoppers in the Pac-12 last season, and WILL D.J. Calhoun a physical player who is good in the box and pressuring. Hybrid senior safety/linebacker Laiu Moeakiola is very smart and skilled, with a nose for the football. Three returning starters from the defensive line, senior tackle Viliami Latu, junior tackle Tashon Smallwood, and sophomore end Joseph Wicker, are all above average or better Pac-12 players.
"In the secondary, ASU's not been as talented the last year-and-a-half as they were when they had back-to-back 10-win seasons in 2013 and 2014. Those teams had four all-league caliber defensive backs and it was the biggest reason the Sun Devils were able to be successful because their coverage was pretty good for how much Cover 0 and Cover 1 they played. Sophomore safety Armand Perry and sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr are good and ever-improving players who have helped set the trend line in positive direction for this group. But Orr was knocked out of UCLA with a knee sprain and is questionable for Colorado, and Perry has an undisclosed nagging injury that has him not practicing fully this week. That's a big problem for the Sun Devils. Junior Marcus Ball moved to boundary safety last week and won Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week honors with an interception and 10 tackles. But he also had a missed tackle on a 50-plus yard touchdown reception and a coverage bust and will be tested in the passing game."
Aside from the quarterback position, do the Sun Devils have any other injuries of note?
"Orr appears questionable, as stated, and Perry is probable though it appears he'll be limited to some degree in terms of his mobility. ASU's second-leading tackler from last season, linebacker Christian Sam, has missed the last five games with a high ankle sprain suffered against Northern Arizona, and is doubtful for this week. ASU isn't that injury-riddled, but its problem is that four of its most important players either won't play, or will be limited."
Lastly, how do you see Saturday's game at Folsom Field shaking out and what is your score prediction?
"Colorado is an impressive football team and especially at home. On one of our podcasts three weeks ago we said the Buffaloes could win the Pac-12 South, and I think they would have been the clear favorite had they beaten USC. I'd probably pick Colorado to beat the Sun Devils in Boulder even if ASU was totally healthy. With a fourth-string freshman quarterback who isn't ready to play at this level against anyone, much less a very good Colorado defense, and several key members of an already challenged ASU secondary limited this week, it's hard to think this won't be a one-sided game. My pick is Colorado 38-13, and this assumes Wilkins doesn't play or is severely limited if he does. If for some reason, Wilkins is able to be somewhat effective, the game may not be quite as lopsided."