A year ago, the Arizona State football team came into the season as one of the favorites to win the Pac-12 South, and then stumbled to a fourth-place finish and a disappointing 6-7 record.
This year, the Sun Devils were picked to finish near the bottom of the South, and at the midpoint of the season, they're exceeding expectations.
On Saturday, ASU (5-1, 2-1 Pac-12) will visit Colorado with eyes on bowl eligibility and the top spot in the South division.
BuffZone.com caught up with Doug Haller, who covers the Sun Devils for the Arizona Republic, to get his thoughts on the team and this week's game against Colorado.
BuffZone: Based on what you've seen and/or been told, do you think it'll be Manny Wilkins (who missed last week's game against UCLA with a sprained ankle) or Dillon Sterling-Cole starting at quarterback on Saturday night? And, how much of a difference does it make if Wilkins can't play?
Haller: ASU coach Todd Graham said Monday that he expected Wilkins to practice by Thursday and play Saturday. Wilkins didn't practice (or do much) Tuesday and Wednesday. And Thursday, ASU closed practice so I'm not sure what Wilkins did. So who starts? My guess is Sterling-Cole. (Even if Wilkins does go, I can't imagine he'll be close to 100 percent). This could be a problem. Sterling-Cole is talented, but he's a true freshman. And his first start would come on the road in a key Pac-12 contest. Not ideal.
BuffZone: Coming into the season, the Sun Devils were projected as one of the bottom teams in the Pac-12 South. How surprised are you that they are sitting at 5-1 at the midpoint of the season?
Haller: Shocked. Even with a favorable first-half schedule, the Sun Devils entered the season with a lot of issues, and none really have been resolved. Quarterback has problems because of injuries. The offensive line started well but lately the Sun Devils haven't established the run, which is key to their attack. And the defense still ranks among the country's leaders at giving up big plays. Six games in, and ASU has yet to play a complete game, yet somehow its 5-1 and ranked 24th in the USA Today coaches poll. It doesn't really add up, but give the Sun Devils credit for finding a way.
BuffZone: We all saw Kalen Ballage's monster game against Texas Tech, but why has he not been very productive in other games this season?
Haller: Ballage hurt his left knee in ASU's Sept. 24 game against Cal. He returned in the second half — and insists he feels fine — but since then, he really hasn't been the same. Contributing: Teams are better prepared for ASU's "Sparky" formation, in which he takes a direct snap, so that part of his game has not been effective.
BuffZone: What factors have contributed to ASU struggling so much against the pass this season?
Haller: Two things: Until last week's win over UCLA, the Sun Devils had not generated much of a four-man pass rush. And perhaps more important, tackling. They're not getting beaten over the top; they're letting short passes turn into 65-yard touchdown passes because they miss tackles and take poor angles. They were much better in both areas in last week's win over UCLA, so maybe that's a sign things are changing.
BuffZone: For ASU to walk out of Folsom Field with a win, what needs to happen for the Sun Devils?
Haller: They need to run the ball to take pressure off Sterling-Cole or Wilkins. Defensively, they need to get to the quarterback without making their secondary vulnerable.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.