Pac-12 Title Game: Arizona State vs. Stanford
By Christopher Wuensch
Arizona State and Stanford square off today in the Pac-12 Championship game. The contest is a rematch of the Week 3 battle that saw the Cardinal beat the Sun Devils, 42-28. A lot has changed since late September and a Stanford win isn't necessarily a guarantee.
Stanford beat writer Henry McKenna and Pac-12 assignment editor Christopher Wuensch debate who will win advance to the Rose Bowl, as well as which division — the North or the South — gets the distinction as tougher to win.
The Case For Stanford
Argued By Henry McKenna
Not only did Stanford manage to shut out ASU’s powerful offense for the first half of their Week 3 matchup, they also scored 29 points in one half. The title game will not be as high scoring. In Week 3, ASU arrived at Stanford unsure of itself. Now ASU sits on a seven-game win streak and haughtily awaits Stanford. Perhaps too much so.
While the ASU defense has shown great improvement, quarterback Taylor Kelly has three touchdowns and three interceptions in the last three games. His team may be hot, but he isn’t. Stanford had some trouble defending his high passing volume. He threw 55 passes for 367 yards, three touchdowns and two interceptions — one of which was in garbage time and therefore a scratch.
With running back Marion Grice out, ASU losses its most dynamic playmaker. He is the hips of the offense, bringing together the torso (passing game) and legs (running game). He is at the center of it all. Jaelen Strong may attempt to give ASU an explosive boost, but he will have issues getting the ball, just like Stanford's Ty Montgomery this year. Without Grice in the lineup, he will become Stanford’s No. 1 focus. With less explosiveness on offense, Stanford will have an easy time slowing down Kelly and company.
ASU will not be able to stop Tyler Gaffney, and Kevin Hogan will make short passes most of the game, only to throw an unexpected shot downfield on play action for 50 yards. It may look close at the end, but Stanford will have it in the bag the whole game.
Prediction: Stanford 31, ASU 21
The Case For Arizona State
Argued By Christopher Wuensch
When we last left the Arizona State-Stanford game on Sept. 21, the Cardinal weren’t so much celebrating a 42-28 win over the Sun Devils. It was more like a sense of relief on The Farm.
On paper, Stanford smeared the Sun Devils like hot cream cheese across a toasted bagel.
The truth is, however, that Taylor Kelly and the Sun Devils figured Stanford out. If they had another quarter to play, Arizona State surely would have completed the comeback that saw them go down by 29 points at the half.
Kelly made adjustments at the half and finished with 367 passing yards — easily the most yards by any Stanford opposing quarterback this season.
Having Grice, the nation’s No. 3 leader in all-purpose yards, on ice this week certainly hurts. Grice (176.5 yards per game) scored in the Sun Devils' loss to Stanford, but only rushed for 50 yards against the Cardinal.
Arizona State has proven that it can survive without Grice. D.J. Foster led the Sun Devils in rushing last week with 124 rushing yards against rival Arizona.
Stanford will be without defensive end Ben Gardner, so the absence of Grice and Gardner, in theory, cancels one another out.
Arizona State is playing better than ever and Stanford has proven that they’re beatable. In the end, home-field advantage wins out and the Sun Devils advance to their first Rose Bowl since 1997 and third overall.
Prediction: ASU 28, Stanford 17
The Case For The South
There’s an old axiom regarding strong conferences that suggests that all of its teams simply “beat up on one another.”
The SEC routinely hears such banter.
The Pac-12 used a combined 29-6 out-of-conference record this season to serve notice to the rest of the nation that things are, arguably, best out West.
Then conference play began. And the Pac-12 started wailing on one another. With the schism created by the creation of the North and South divisions, a new rivalry has been born.
How badly did the North and South beat up on one another? The two divisions finished the season with a 12-12 mark against one another.
The South only lost two non-conference games this season — both to Notre Dame. That said, the South also didn’t have the likes of Auburn, Ohio State, Northwestern and Tennessee on their slates.
Washington lacked that signature win, such as Arizona’s over Oregon. The Huskies beat who they should have and lost to the better teams. Boring. Oregon State not only lost to Eastern Washington, but finished the season on a five game-losing streak. Washington State had a nice year under Mike Leach, who is turning things around in Pullman. The Cougars got two nice road wins over Arizona and Southern California, but barely reached bowl eligibility thanks, in part, to two wins over Idaho and Southern Utah. Who? Then there’s the California Golden Bears. Enough said.
Arizona State’s two losses came at the hands of formidable opponents — Stanford and Notre Dame. And it can (and will) be argued that the Sun Devils are stronger now than they were in September when they lost to the Cardinal. Southern California surged to nine wins and even recently poached a head coach from the North in Steve Sarkisian. UCLA under Jim Mora is as strong as they’ve been in years. Arizona — not Oregon — is the team heading into the postseason with a Heisman candidate. Utah stunned Stanford and Colorado quadrupled its win total from last year.
The South was so tough that four teams had a chance to win the division with two weeks left to play. Stanford backed into the North title via Oregon’s loss to Arizona.
Overall, the North finished with a 41-31 record to the South’s 44-29 mark. Expect the South to go to 45-29 after the Pac-12 title game.
The Case For The North
This is not the best season to put my hat on Oregon as the biggest reason why the North is tougher, but I will. The Ducks (10-2) have 12 conference championships and the program is 34-5 in the last three seasons. They remain one of the nation’s powers and are better than Arizona State. Their BCS ranking betrays them.
The North is typically about Stanford, Oregon and then everyone else. However this year, Keith Price and the Washington Huskies (8-4) got into the mix. Even Oregon State (6-6) had a shot at beating Oregon, and Wazzu (6-6) put up prodigious passing numbers.
The North did give up key losses this year to the South. But Utah’s win was a fluke, a bad day for Stanford. That’s barely relevant when comparing conferences. Oregon only lost to Arizona as a result of Stanford’s game plan, and — as copying is the highest form of flattery — Stanford surely is flattered it could help make Arizona relevant. Plus, that upset helped it get into the Pac-12 championship game.
The numbers are close. Almost too close to call a winner. So we'll take the easy way out and declare that the better division will be decided by the team that earns the Rose Bowl birth.