Following an incredible Week 3, which featured the most anticipated game of the regular season (Alabama-Texas A&M), a ferocious undercard (UCLA-Nebraska, among others), upset bids (Akron-Michigan), and an insane pair of late games (Oregon State-Utah, Wisconsin-Arizona State), we were kind of due for a hangover.
And this week, which features just one matchup of ranked teams and top teams playing opponents like Colorado State (Alabama), Florida A&M (Ohio State), FIU (Louisville), Bethune-Cookman (Florida State), North Texas (Georgia), SMU (Texas A&M), New Mexico State (UCLA), UConn (Michigan), Savannah State (Miami), Idaho State (Washington), and Maine (Northwestern) seems pretty well-timed in that regard. Sure, there will probably be upset bids here or there, and there will always be down-to-the-wire excitement if you look for it, but for the most part it's hard to generate excitement for this week's slate.
But there's still a pretty good headliner. Arizona State's trip to Stanford should feature a lot of the same contrasts that made last week's A&M-Alabama game so fun. ASU quarterback Taylor Kelly is not Johnny Manziel, and while slow-it-down Stanford is very good, it doesn't have nearly as much big-play ability as Alabama. But this game will play a pivotal role in the Pac-12 race and will give us our first real opportunity to gauge Stanford's national title credentials.
This is still relatively new territory for Stanford. The Cardinal have finished in the AP top 10 for three straight seasons but have still only done so eight times in their history. They finished fourth overall as recently as 2010 and came within a game of a BCS title game berth in 2011, but they have still finished better than seventh only twice ever (and one of those two times was in 1940).
Stanford is carving out a niche as somehow both an established power and the new kid on the block. Currently sitting at 2-0 with wins that were neither in doubt nor incredibly impressive, Stanford faces a schedule that is both tricky and manageable from this point forward. Five 2013 opponents currently reside in the top 25 -- No. 2 Oregon, No. 13 UCLA, No. 17 Washington, No. 22 Notre Dame, and No. 23 Arizona State, Saturday's opponent -- but all five are coming to Palo Alto. And the gauntlet of intriguing home opponents begins Saturday evening on Fox.
Speed vs. Strength, Part 1
When Kevin Hogan took over as Stanford's starter late last season, he gave the Cardinal a steady presence they had struggled to attain to that point in the year. He is outstanding at taking what the defense gives him, at "making one read and then either dumping the ball off or, like Kelly, using his feet." Most of the time, this works perfectly for the Cardinal. And when things do break down, he is typically quite adept at avoiding mistakes. For his career, Hogan has completed 70 percent of his passes with 14 touchdowns to just four interceptions.
It's early, but after losing two star tight ends and starting running back Stepfan Taylor, Hogan's (and Stanford's) response has been to take more shots downfield. Hogan's completion rate is just 62 percent through two games, but after averaging 10.1 yards per completion in 2012, he's averaging 14.1 thus far in 2013. The beneficiary has mostly been wideout Ty Montgomery; an inconsistent option last year, the junior from Dallas has caught 10 of 13 passes for 211 yards in two games. Meanwhile, the Stanford offense has still been mostly run-heavy, with Tyler Gaffney and Anthony Wilkerson combining for 53 carries and 312 yards (5.9 average).
Of course, all of that was against San Jose State and Army. SJSU has quite a bit of potential, but neither of these defenses bring speed to the table like Arizona State. The Sun Devils piled up a ridiculous 117 tackles for loss last season and defensed 75 passes; through two games thus far (one and a half for the starters, really), those numbers are 10 and 11, respectively. Tackle Will Sutton (23.5 tackles for loss in 2012) hasn't really gotten going yet, but the secondary has been active and exciting. Cornerback Osahon Irabor has three tackles for loss and a sack, and corner Alden Darby has three break-ups and a tackle for loss.
Arizona State has been strong in pass defense thus far and should offer Hogan and the Stanford passing game a pretty complicated test. Montgomery in particular should find the going a lot rougher against Irabor, Darby, and company. The question, then, is how much Stanford will actually HAVE to pass. ASU ranks just 77th in Rushing S&P so far, but a lot of that has to do with the damage Wisconsin's jet-sweep master Melvin Gordon did last week. While Gordon was rushing 15 times for 193 yards, running back James White was gaining only 45 yards in 12 carries, and Gaffney and Wilkerson are more White than Gordon.
If Stanford is able to hammer out some first downs on the ground and keep favor in the field position battle, then play-action passing could eventually open up. But if the Cardinal are seeing a lot of second-and-8s as opposed to second-and-5s, the advantage could shift pretty quickly in favor of the visiting Sun Devils.
(One added point of interest when Stanford has the ball: Though Stanford is used to having a bit of a benefit-of-the-unknown factor with its power-based offense, the Cardinal and Wisconsin are actually pretty similar in what they attempt to do on offense. That means both that ASU is familiar with what Stanford will try to offer, and Stanford is more familiar with what ASU will try to do to stop it.)
Speed vs. Strength, Part 2
Stanford struggled at times with Army's flexbone option last week, but in general, the Cardinal have one of the strongest, deepest front sevens in college football. They are as big and nasty as Alabama and were the only defense in the country to log more tackles for loss than Arizona State (124). And even while Army was grinding out four-yard gains and moving the chains a bit, there was no hope for any sort of big play against this front.
The ASU running game has struggled to get going so far in 2013 -- Marion Grice has carried 36 times for just 143 yards (4.0) and managed 22 for just 84 against Wisconsin -- and despite an injury to Stanford end Kevin Anderson, there's really no reason to think that will change against Stanford. The Cardinal have immense depth up front, with former star recruits Aziz Shittu and Jordan Watkins and the imposing Josh Mauro (6'6, 282) and Nate Lohn seeing more snaps alongside top end Ben Gardner in Anderson's absence. So for the second straight week, ASU's chances will rely heavily on Taylor Kelly's arm and legs.
Kelly attempted 52 passes last week, completing 29 of 51 for 352 yards and suffering just one sack. The offense features a lot of quick passes but depends also on Kelly's ability to step up into or out of the pocket to buy time for guys to get downfield. D.J. Foster and Richard Smith take what are basically extended handoffs while X-receiver Jaelen Strong, Y-receiver Kevin Ozier, and H-back Chris Coyle are utilized on intermediate and longer routes.
ASU's system is quarterback-dependent in general, with options at every level of the defense. In just over a year as a starter, Kelly has been mostly up to the challenge, completing about two-thirds of his passes with a better than three-to-one TD-to-INT ratio. He's also good for a few solid scrambles per game.
But this is his first exposure to the Stanford defense, which is big enough up front to wear you down and fast enough in the back to take away your big-play ability. If Kelly has a good game, ASU has a shot. But quarterbacks don't usually have very good games against Stanford. Just ask San Jose State's David Fales, a potentially high draft pick who was sacked four times and averaged just 3.8 yards per pass attempt two weeks ago. Kelly has a better supporting cast, but he'll struggle to see even 6.0 or 6.5 yards per attempt.
This game really does feature a fun contrast. Through three weeks, Arizona State's tempo is among the 30 highest in the country, while Stanford's is among the 30 lowest. Stanford leans on the run but could find the going rough up front thanks to ASU's speed, and ASU leans on the pass but could also struggle to live on its bread-and-butter sets.
Stanford is easily the more proven entity at this point and is projected to win by a couple of touchdowns because of it (the Vegas line is closer to one touchdown), but styles make fights, and this one could be fun. We'll have a much better idea of Stanford's national title prowess by Saturday night.