TEMPE, Ariz. — With the sting of an ugly loss to Stanford in the Pac-12 title game still fresh, it might have been difficult for Arizona State players and fans to keep the season in perspective Sunday as the Sun Devils accepted an invitation to the Holiday Bowl.
It’s understandable. They smelled roses, but the Sun Devils came up short, instead sliding to the conference’s third bowl slot against a Texas Tech team on a five-game losing streak.
The reality, though, is that the 2013 season has by most measures already been the program’s most successful since the 1996 team made ASU’s last Rose Bowl appearance.
For starters, the Sun Devils have already won 10 games. They won as many in 2007, but that season included just one win over a ranked team — one that ended up finishing the season 7-6. This year, ASU has wins over three ranked teams, won the Pac-12 South and hosted the Pac-12 Championship Game.
The Holiday Bowl also gives ASU a chance to reach 11 wins for just the sixth time in program history.
The Holiday Bowl is also ASU’s most prestigious postseason game since its 2007 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas and a significant step up from the Las Vegas Bowl and Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. The Sun Devils can earn back-to-back bowl wins for the first time since 2004-05.
The season also ranks among ASU’s best for individual recognition. Graham won the Pac-12’s Coach of the Year award; defensive tackle Will Sutton earned the conference’s Pat Tillman Defensive Player of the Year award for the second straight season, becoming just the second player to do so in the Pac-12; and 13 players earned first- or second-team All-Pac-12 recognition. The six first-team selections are the most since ASU joined the Pac-10 in 1978.
The Sun Devils also cleared a few significant hurdles. They secured the program’s first big-stage wins in quite some time, beating Wisconsin and Washington — both of which were ranked No. 20 at the time — on national TV before doing the same to then-No. 14 UCLA to clinch the Pac-12 South at the Rose Bowl.
The win over UCLA was also ASU’s first road victory over a BCS-ranked opponent in more than a decade, the last coming over No. 6 Oregon in 2002.
ASU also showed resilience not seen in recent seasons. There was an admirable comeback attempt from a 29-0 deficit in an early season loss to Stanford (cutting the margin to 11); a 13-point fourth quarter rally to beat Utah on the road; and finally, a fourth-quarter stand to stave off a UCLA rally in Pasadena.
These were not the Sun Devils of old. They might not have reached the Rose Bowl, but they got closer than any team since 1996, and there are signs of staying power.
They are not without flaws. They have struggled on special teams and made plenty of mistakes on both sides of the ball. The coaches have room to improve, both in game situations and on the local recruiting trail.
But when the book closes on the 2013 Sun Devils, it should go down as one of the program’s most memorable seasons. Follow Tyler Lockman on Twitter