TEMPE, Ariz. — This time a year ago, when Arizona State coach Todd Graham sat in front of cameras and microphones, he had to answer for his hasty exit from Pittsburgh and combat low expectations for the Sun Devils.
This year, he’s talking Rose Bowl and the biggest opportunity of his coaching career yet. With what he calls the most talented team he has ever coached and favorable circumstances in the Pac-12, Graham believes he has never been better positioned for success.
“I can remember growing up watching the Rose Bowl on an old black-and-white TV,” Graham said. “This is the closest I’ve ever been to something like this and that’s why I made the moves that I made because I wanted to have an opportunity to be in this situation.”
Translation: This is why Graham was willing to endure the criticism that came with leaving Pitt after one season, a move that infuriated a fan base and produced more than one character assassination from the national college football media.
Graham knew his move to Tempe would be unpopular, but he also knew it presented great opportunity. In his first season, Graham led the Sun Devils to an 8-5 finish (their first season better than .500 since 2007), the program’s first bowl win since 2005, a Territorial Cup victory and three straight wins to finish a season for the first time since 1978.
All that pales in comparison to what Graham and the Devils want to accomplish this season, starting with a Pac-12 South title.
“I think it’s much harder to handle success than it is to get something turned around,” Graham said Saturday at ASU’s annual media day. “I think last year was the easy part. Going 8-5 was the easy part. We probably should have won two more games. Winning 12 or 13 or 14 is a whole different deal. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
Graham has shown he can win. Prior to his brief Pitt tenure, he turned Rice into a 7-5 team playing in a bowl after it had gone 1-10 the previous season, and at Tulsa, Graham won at least a share of three Conference USA titles and went 3-0 in bowl games.
But now, things are aligned for a Graham team like never before.
“We realize how close the opportunity was last year,” sophomore running back D.J. Foster said. “This year, with the schedule and everything, it’s set up perfectly for us to control our destiny. I think it’s huge the opportunity we have this year.”
As Graham regularly points out, he has a bevy of talent to work with. There’s All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, who’s back for his senior season, and ultra-athletic linebacker Carl Bradford, who’s poised for a breakout season. Quarterback Taylor Kelly returns to lead an offense spotted with talented players such as Foster, fellow running back Marion Grice and tight end Chris Coyle. The defense is strong at nearly every position with the likes of Alden Darby, Chris Young and Osahon Irabor.
“Coach has had a lot of success in the past with other teams in different conferences, so I truly believe him when he says this is the best he’s ever coached,” Coyle said.
The schedule, for as much as it has been billed as daunting, also offers some favorable circumstances.
Two of ASU’s tougher games — against Wisconsin and Notre Dame — will have no effect on the conference standings. Wins would be significant boosts to the Sun Devils’ profile but would not block their path to a Rose Bowl.
ASU’s conference schedule does not include Oregon and features five home games, though road contests with Stanford and defending Pac-12 South champion UCLA likely will be challenging.
There’s also the fact that UCLA faces an unusually tough schedule, particularly on the road, and USC may keep trending the wrong direction as scholarship sanctions continue to impact depth.
“I’ve got a great belief in this team, and I’m excited,” Graham said. “I’m excited every year. I probably use that term 1,500 times a week. But I really am. It’s something where I’ve never been as close to it and you can feel it, so I’m excited to get things started.”
Graham knows ASU will ultimately go as far as his players can take it. He may be the architect of it all, but his players are the ones scoring touchdowns and sacking opposing quarterbacks. His work is done now, in fall camp, and between the final whistle on Saturdays and the first a week later.
“I don’t play, so my expectation is for me to do everything I can to give these guys the opportunity, to make sure this coaching staff prepares them, trains them, and that we give them every opportunity to win every game,” Graham said. “I believe this team can win every game, so it’s our job to make sure we don’t mess that up.”
Graham’s doubters contend that he has only won coaching in lesser conferences, lost at Pitt and beat just two bowl-eligible teams in 2012. This season provides an opportunity to put those arguments to bed.
In that regard, the opportunity is as much Graham’s as it is ASU’s. Both have something to prove, and both have a considerable platform to do it. And as great as that opportunity is, so too are the challenges that come with it.
“We feel it, and we know that this is the biggest coaching year of (Graham’s) career, and he’s excited,” senior safety Alden Darby said. “He’s giving it all he has, and we see that, so we’re going to give him everything we’ve got. He can’t do it without us, and we can’t do it without him.” Follow Tyler Lockman on Twitter