- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.
Sacramento State, Sept. 5
Coach: Marshall Sperbeck (30-37), seventh year
2012 record: 6-5, 4-4 Big Sky
Offensive headliner: Running back Ezekiel Graham is the top offensive threat, rushing for 861 yards and five touchdowns last season. Not huge numbers, but he also makes his mark as a receiver out of the backfield, catching 40 balls for 406 yards and two touchdowns last year.
Defensive headliner: Linebacker Todd Davis has led the Hornets in tackles the past couple of seasons and there's little reason to think he won't again. He posted 103 tackles last year -- including an impressive 13.5 for a loss.
The skinny: Not to worry. It's just an FCS team, right? Well, considering the Hornets have beaten Pac-12 teams in back-to-back years, that should at least perk the ears of ASU up a little bit. They topped Oregon State 29-28 in overtime in 2011 and then a year later beat Colorado, 30-28, on a walk-off field goal by a walk-on kicker. The chance of an upset isn't likely. But the history suggests enough to not sleepwalk through this game.
Wisconsin, Sept. 14
Coach: Gary Andersen, first year
Returning starters: eight offense, six defense
2012 record: 8-6, 4-4 Big Ten
Offensive headliner: Wide receiver Jared Abbrederis headlines a pretty deep wide receiving corps. A first-team All Big Ten selection last year, he caught 49 balls for 837 yards and five touchdowns. The former walk-on QB is tops among all active FBS players with an average of 16.7 yards per catch. He's also a dangerous punt returner.
Defensive headliner: Linebacker Chris Borland needs 144 tackles this season to become Wisconsin's all-time leader. He's forced 14 career fumbles -- the most in school history and most among active NCAA players.
The skinny: Andersen was a hot name among potential Pac-12 coaching vacancies, but last year's WAC coach of the year instead ended up in the land of cheese. Last year the Badgers became the third Big Ten team to play in three consecutive Rose Bowls -- though they lost all three, including to Stanford last season and Oregon in 2011-2012. New offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig also has strong ties to the Pac-12, having worked at Cal, Utah and Oregon.
Notre Dame, Oct. 5 (In Arlington, Texas)
Coach: Brian Kelly (28-10), fourth year
Returning starters: six offense, eight defense
2012 record: 12-1 Independent
Offensive headliner: Skill position players are more fun to talk about, but left tackle Zack Martin will be starting for the fourth straight year and he's a captain. Watching him against ASU's defensive front will be a great game within the game.
Defensive headliner: Take your pick between defensive end Stephon Tuitt or noseguard Louis Nix. Both are elite playmakers and present a defensive front that rivals the talent and athleticism of ASU's.
The skinny: The last time we saw Notre Dame, it was getting run up and down the field by Alabama in the BCS National Championship Game. But before that, the Irish were perfect -- including wins over Stanford and USC. Though they tiptoed through quite a few rain drops along the way -- and haven't had the quietest of offseasons -- this should be a game of national interest. Both teams will have already played tough games (ASU: Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC; Notre Dame: at Michigan, Oklahoma) but a potential meeting of Top-25 teams on a neutral site will draw plenty of intrigue.
Thoughts: No, I don't think Sacramento State will make it three in a row. ASU should out-distance and out-muscle the FCS squad fairly early. But the rest of the nonconference slate will get the Sun Devils some national attention. The Wisconsin game is intriguing. But because what the Sun Devils bring to the table -- that's a very winnable game. Notre Dame is the really interesting one. Not only because of the little bit of nastiness that's built up between the programs in recent weeks, but because it's on a neutral site and it comes after three straight games against Wisconsin, at Stanford and home to USC. That's a brutal gauntlet that could either propel ASU into the national spotlight or leave them scrambling to pick up the pieces. A 3-0 record is very possible. Going 2-1 is probable and 1-2 is the worst-case scenario (we're not even putting 0-3 on the table).
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