TEMPE, Ariz. — Arizona State has exceeded most expectations in Todd Graham’s first season as the football program’s head coach, leading the Pac-12 South after winning five of its first six games.
The real test of how good the Sun Devils are will come over the second half of a season that is backloaded with tough games, starting Thursday night against No. 2 Oregon in the desert.
Everything Arizona State has done to this point is great, but the so-far-unstoppable Ducks represent a huge step up in competition, a true measuring stick that could either knock the Sun Devils down a few notches or be a huge thrust forward for the program.
“This week is a little different deal," Graham said Monday. “This is as good a football team as there is in the country and they have some dynamic players. We are excited for the opportunity."
The Oregon game has loomed large on Arizona State’s schedule for weeks. Some of the Sun Devils’ players admitted they had looked past Colorado last week in anticipation of facing the Ducks.
Arizona State (5-1, 3-0 Pac-12) regained its focus after leading by just three points at halftime in Boulder on Thursday and ran past the Buffaloes for a 51-17 win.
Now the Sun Devils get their chance against Oregon, a chance they hope is not one of those careful-what-you-wish-for moments.
Oregon (6-0, 3-0) has been the dominant team in the Pac-12 under coach Chip Kelly, becoming just the second program to win three straight titles since the conference expanded to 10 teams in 1978.
The Ducks played for a national championship against Auburn after the 2010 season and won the Rose Bowl last season for the first time in 95 years.
Good as its run has been, Oregon may have its best team in Kelly’s four seasons, even after losing its starting quarterback and its Heisman Trophy-finalist running back to the NFL draft.
The Ducks have been unapproachable so far this season, their closest margin of victory a 17-point win over Fresno State. Oregon is second nationally in scoring with 52.33 points per game and has done it quickly, with 24 of its 39 scoring drives lasting less than two minutes, including 14 that have taken 60 seconds or less.
The Ducks are third in the season’s initial BCS standings. They rank eighth in total offense (541.67 yards) and have won nine straight games, the second-longest streak in the FBS behind defending national champion and top-ranked Alabama.
Oregon also has dominated Arizona State recently, winning seven straight games over the Sun Devils, including four in Tempe while averaging more than 43 points per game.
“It’s a big-time matchup," Arizona State linebacker Brandon Magee said after the victory over Colorado. “I hope it’s going to be sold out. I’m excited to play them; who wouldn’t be? We’re ready."
The game is expected to be a sellout — a rarity at Arizona State — and the school is calling for a blackout, with everyone in the stands wearing black.
Graham is hoping the atmosphere will at least slow down the Ducks in their first true road test of the season.
Oregon has been good on the road, winning 11 straight since losing at Stanford in 2009, the longest such streak in the nation.
The Ducks have not had much time away from home this season, though, playing five of their first six games in Eugene while the other game, against Washington State, was at a somewhat neutral site in Seattle, where thousands of Duck fans attended.
Facing a strong defensive team — Arizona State is fifth nationally in total defense and ninth in scoring — in what should be a raucous atmosphere will certainly be new to Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariota.
He was a redshirt last season, so obviously he did not play, and he has not had to face a whole lot of adversity this year as the first freshman to start at quarterback for the Ducks since Danny O’Neil in 1991.
Mariota has been good so far, ranking second in the Pac-12 in passer efficiency (156.43) while completing 68 percent of his passes for 1,301 yards and 15 touchdowns with five interceptions. He has been surrounded by some of the most dynamic players in college football — handing the ball off to Kenjon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas never gets old — but Graham is hoping a bit of road rage from the Sun Devils’ fans may rattle Mariota.
“The crowd is a factor," Graham said. “I encourage our crowd, when they are on offense to try to break the windows out of the new building over there. Let’s get it loud."
Pull this one off, and the Sun Devils will make some noise of their own.