(Photo Courtesy: USA Today Images)
It’s Championship Week, and while you’re excited for all the big games, even we here at Crystal Ball Run can admit that dammit, all championship games aren’t created equally.
For those of you who are into little things like, you know, “The National Championship Race” well, the ACC and Big Ten have you covered. Florida State would all but clinch a spot in the title game with a win, and Ohio State would have their most compelling argument yet to join the Seminoles by beating Michigan State in Indy.
Of course a loss by either Florida State or Ohio State would make the SEC title game that much more compelling, with the winner there unofficially clinching a second spot. Even the MAC Championship game provides all sorts of Heisman Trophy goodness, with the reality that if Northern Illinois clinches an undefeated season Friday, it also means that Jordan Lynch will likely clinch a trip to New York.
Then of course, there is the Pac-12, where admittedly not as much will be on the line when Stanford and Arizona State get together in Tempe. There are no BCS or Heisman Trophy implications, just boring old pride at stake, as well as a trip to some ho-hum game called the “Rose Bowl.”
Yes, I’m being slightly facetious, and the thing is, while the Pac-12 title game might not have the cache of others, for college football junkies, the matchup between Arizona State and Stanford is one of the most fascinating of championship weekend.
Just go ahead this, a game of contrasts.
On one side, you’ve got the new-age, fast-paced, high-flying Arizona State offense, against the methodical, grinding, physically daunting power run game of Stanford.
On one side, you’ve got Todd Graham, the notorious job-hopper, a man who you’ve always got to keep an eye on, even if he does seem to have finally settled in Tempe. On the other side there’s David Shaw, the pillar of consistency at Stanford, a man who attended college on the Farm, became an assistant coach under Jim Harbaugh, and seems as though he’ll continue as the head coach at the school for a very long time.
And of course one side, you’ve got Arizona State, the Pac-12 South upstart, against the established, entrenched, defending conference champion in the Cardinal.
No this might not be your typical title game, but at the same time, there is still plenty at stake.
Now let’s look back at how these two teams got here.
How Did Arizona State Get Here:
Since this game is in Tempe, it only seems appropriate that we start with the Sun Devils, who remain one of the single most compelling teams in college football this year. After all, in an era where we all know seemingly too much about the college football players, coaches and teams we cover, who really knows anything about the Sun Devils?
There isn’t much to know about them, other than this: If you follow college football, soak in the nuance of it all 365 days a year, you probably aren’t totally surprised the Sun Devils are here. Only at the same time, you kinda, sorta probably are…
Let me explain.
You see, through the years, if there is one thing Arizona State has never lacked, it’s talent. Under Dennis Erickson they lacked toughness. They lacked the ability to close out big games. They lacked discipline. They lacked the ability to behave appropriately in social settings.
But they never lacked raw, football skill; Erickson won two National Championships at Miami and led Oregon State to a Fiesta Bowl berth, meaning that the dude knows how to find good football players. Even if he doesn’t always know how to keep them under control.
Enter Todd Graham, who to his credit, took the raw talent Erickson left behind, and molded it into a disciplined, well-coached, “smart” football team…the latter of which would’ve never happened under the previous regime.
Well, the results of Graham’s influence showed late last season when the Sun Devils went 8-5, and trickled into 2013 where they were picked to finish second in the Pac-12 South preseason standings. It also showed early in the season; not so much with a weird, fluky victory over Wisconsin, or even a loss the following week against a Stanford team which was simply better than the Sun Devils at the time (more on that coming).
But instead where Arizona State’s improvement under Graham really showed, was a week after that Stanford loss against USC. There, the Sun Devils ultimately made their “It’s time to take us seriously in the Pac-12” statement, and put the college football world on notice that they were to be taken seriously.
For those who follow the sport closely, you don’t need me to give you the gory details (I’m sure ‘SC fans would be especially appreciative if I didn’t), of the Sun Devils 63-41 win that night. Just know that it was ugly…at least for USC, which ultimately canned Lane Kiffin before the team even got back to campus. Meanwhile for the Sun Devils, it propelled them into the driver’s seat of the Pac-12 South title chase.
A week later, ASU lost to Notre Dame, which was important for two reasons: One, it marked the last time the Sun Devils have been defeated this season, and two, it sent them on a blistering streak, one which left the rest of the Pac-12 in their wake.
That streak started with a win over Colorado, yet it was a week later that people really started to take notice when Arizona State beat the you-know-what out Washington, in a dominating 53-24 victory over the Huskies. At the time Washington was a Top 20 team which had started off with four straight wins, and respectable losses to Stanford (a near win) and Oregon. After losing to Tempe the Huskies went unranked, and haven’t crept back into the polls since.
And from there, the Sun Devils only continued to roll.
A five-touchdown performance from Taylor Kelly highlighted a victory over Washington State the following week, which was then followed by surviving a trip to Utah, and a comfortable win over Oregon State.
Those three victories set up what would a de-facto Pac-12 South title game with UCLA, one which Arizona State won at the Rose Bowl, in a game- much like their previous victory over an LA school- wasn’t nearly as close as the final score might indicate. The Sun Devils put up 35 first half points, before holding onto a 38-33 victory.
One game later, Graham’s club won their second straight Territorial Cup, and clinched home-field advantage in this weekend’s Pac-12 title game.
How Did Stanford Get Here:
So, you thought Arizona State’s path to the Pac-12 title game was weird? It didn’t nearly have as many twists and turns as what Stanford went through to get here.
Only ironically, it didn’t start out that way.
Nope, the Cardinal started the season as a Top 5 team, and through the first four weeks of the season, gave us little reason to believe they were anything but that. The Cardinal jumped out to a 4-0 start, highlighted by easy conference victories of Wazzu and these same Arizona State Sun Devils. Even a somewhat controversial victory over Washington (in a game which the Cardinal were essentially outplayed) did little to lead us to believe they were anything but the preseason juggernaut most projected.
Only something wasn’t right with Stanford, and it showed the following week, in what looked like a non-descript trip to Utah. There, the Cardinal were stunned 27-21, in a game which the Utes outgained and out-played their heavily favored counterparts. Stanford tallied just 143 yards rushing, which to date is still their lowest output of the season.
To their credit though, Stanford did bounce back the following week against UCLA. In a hyped game which was supposed to feature two of the biggest, baddest and toughest teams in the Pac-12, Stanford controlled the trenches, limited UCLA to just 266 yards of total offense and cruised to a 24-10 victory. A week later they beat Oregon State to improve to 7-1.
That set up what was, at the time, the game which most believed would ultimately decide the Pac-12 North: A match-up with No. 3 Oregon. The Ducks entered the game at 8-0, with none of those wins particularly close. A victory by Oregon would also basically ensured Mark Helfich’s club went to the Pac-12 title game, giving them a two-game lead cushion in the Pac-12 South standings.
Only it didn’t happen, mainly because Stanford didn’t let it happen. What they did do is dictate every snap of the first three quarters against Oregon and jump out to a 23-0 lead. The Ducks rallied, but it wasn’t enough as Stanford held on for the 26-23 victory.
From there, the yellow brick road to the Pac-12 title game was laid out for Stanford. All the Cardinal had to do was win out, and they would be the North champions, and get a shot at their second straight Pac-12 title game.
Of course as we know, college football is never that simple, as just a week after the big win over the Ducks, the Cardinal went to the LA Coliseum, went up against USC, and got buzzed by the Ed Orgeron express. Stanford lost 20-17 and again seemed to be out of the Pac-12 title game picture.
That is until the Oregon Ducks (who never really recovered from the physical beat-down Stanford gave them) went ahead and lost a week later at Arizona.
From there, all the Cardinal had to do was beat Cal (which they did because, well, pretty much everybody beat Cal this season) and they were on their way to the Pac-12 title game.
An Arizona State win last weekend meant that the game would be in Tempe.
Be sure to continue to stick with Crystal Ball Run all week long, as we break down key players, coaching matchups, and make our picks on who will win this game!
For all his opinion, insight and analysis, follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.