South Dakota (0-0) at (3) Oregon (0-0) (ET)
GAME NOTES: The No. 3-ranked Oregon Ducks will begin their chase of a national title Saturday at Autzen Stadium in Eugene against the South Dakota Coyotes, an FCS program that calls the Missouri Valley Football Conference home.
This clash between the Coyotes and the Ducks, who play in the Pac-12 Conference, serves as the first-ever meeting between the two. Oregon finished 2013 with an 11-2 record (7-2 in conference play) and decimated Texas in the Alamo Bowl, 30-7. It was Oregon's third straight bowl game win after losing to Auburn in the 2010 BCS national championship contest.
The Ducks were strong under new head coach Mark Helfrich, but perhaps not strong enough to live up to their lofty expectations. Oregon was defeated by Stanford (yet again) and was routed by Arizona for the program's second two- loss season in the past four yearce (four interceptions, eight pass breakups) wi secondary that surrendered 233.6 passing ypg last season. Having gained valuable experience in 2013, an upper classmen-heavy backfield should be exactly what the Wildcats need.
Roman Valenzuela (88 tackles, four tackles for loss) and Luke King (43 tackles) are the veterans of the linebacker corps in a defense that plays a 3-4 scheme, so they'll see plenty of action and will be counted on to make plays.
For Arizona State, Graham has his players in a specific mindset entering the new season, and he believes his squad is headed for another promising year.
"Our program's about winning championships, period. Our motto this year is unfinished business," Graham said. "We're one game shy last year, and we don't want to be Pac-12 South champions. We want to be Pac-12 champions, Rose Bowl champions, and obviously win every game."
The Sun Devils were an offensive force last season, finishing 10th in the country with a scoring average of 39.7 ppg. That included an eye-popping 457.3 total ypg. This season shouldn't be any different with quarterback Taylor Kelly leading the charge. Kelly is entering his third year as the starter under center, and in 2013 threw for 28 touchdowns and 3,635 yards with 12 interceptions.
He returns an assortment of weapons both in the backfield and out in the receiving corps. Although tailback Marion Grice is now at the NFL level, D.J. Foster (501 rushing yards, six touchdowns) will have the reins to the backfield. Foster showed his versatility by ranking second on the team in receptions (63) and receiving yards (653) in 2013.
The player that finished first on the team in receiving is the one that opposing teams fear the most. Wideout Jaelen Strong returns after a breakout season in which he caught 75 balls for 1,122 yards and seven touchdowns. The 6-foot-3 receiver is the go-to man, and will be joined by Cameron Smith (eight receptions, 129 yards).
Defense is the key question for the Sun Devils, who return just two starters to the lineup in linebacker Salamo Fiso and safety Damarious Randall. The team ranked fourth in the Pac-12 in total defense in 2013 (372.4 ypg) and allowed 26.6 ppg to opponents.
"We're going to be young, but we're very talented," Graham said. "We have guys that have talent and we've just got to adapt to them in the same way. ... I'm a defensive minded coach. To win a championship, you have to play defense. So we'll adapt, obviously, early in the season."
What needs to happen for ASU on defense is for seniors to finally step into their roles. On the line up front, Marcus Hardison and Mo Latu have a chance to finally shine in the wake of losing players like Carl Bradford and Will Sutton.
Fiso, a sophomore, will lead a group of young linebackers that includes freshman D.J. Calhoun and redshirt sophomore Viliami Moeakiola, while the senior Randall takes on the challenge of brining guys like redshirt freshman Marcus Ball and juniors Kweishi Brown and Lloyd Carrington up to speed.
In the first contest of the year for either side, it will help Arizona State's defense to take on a very questionable offensive group in Weber State, so that new players stepping into larger roles can gain game experience. The Wildcats are in way over their heads here, but facing a power FBS program can, at the very least, bring in exposure and revenue.
Sports Network Predicted Outcome: Arizona State 56, Weber State 7