Arizona State Football: 5 reasons Todd Graham is on the hot seat

Arizona State football coach Todd Graham is feeling some heat, and no that isn’t because the temperatures in Tempe have reached triple-digits.

Todd Graham is coming off a 5-7 season that included a loss to the team’s in-state rival on the road in Tucson. Arizona’s win was the team’s lone Pac-12 triumph of the season. In 2015, Arizona State had another losing season, finishing 6-7.

Both Graham and Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez are facing seats that are getting warmer with each successive month for a variety of reasons but mostly because the last two seasons have been incredibly underwhelming. Quite frankly, three losing seasons isn’t going to cut it at Arizona State anymore. Graham must turn things around this season.

While Graham is probably under less pressure than fellow Pac-12 coach Jim Mora, there is also a stronger belief Mora will turn things around this season, that a 4-8 season in 2016 was merely the aftermath of one of college football’s best quarterbacks succumbing to injury.

Graham is facing pressure this season because he set the bar high in his second year on the job, painful losses to in-state rival Arizona, he’s only seen modest success after five years, he brought in a shiny, new and expensive offensive coordinator, and he has the most talented quarterback during his tenure in Blake Barnett.

Since Graham completed season one in Tempe, he has received a one-year contract extension. That tradition ended this summer. His contract still runs through summer 2021, but the lack of an extension is an indicator the school’s confidence in Graham isn’t strong.

Let’s take a closer look at five reasons why Todd Graham is on the hot seat.

Sep 16, 2016; San Antonio, TX, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham talks to his players against the UTSA Roadrunners at Alamodome. Mandatory Credit: Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

5. High expectations

Part of the pressure Graham is feeling is because of himself. Graham set lofty expectations with a strong first season and a Pac-12 Championship Game appearance in season two. Additionally, Graham has surrounded himself with immense talent, but that has led to high turnover.

Arizona State improved from 6-7 to 8-5 in Graham’s first season. His first season included close wins against Cal, Arizona and a lopsided bowl victory against Navy.

In year two, the Sun Devils took another strong step forward, reaching the Pac-12 Championship Game and finishing the season 10-4. Arizona State lost to ranked Stanford twice, including a lopsided loss in the Pac-12 championship game, lost a nail biter to Notre Dame and lost the underwhelming Holiday Bowl to Texas Tech (and Kliff Klingsbury, another coach on the hot seat).

The 2014 season marked a similar final record, but without the shine of a Pac-12 title game. What made 2014 even more painful is the Sun Devils were in position to go to the championship, but the team lost to Arizona, 42-35. So, Arizona went instead.

As previously noted, 2015 and 2016 were both disappointing losing seasons.

Nov 25, 2016; Tucson, AZ, USA; Arizona Wildcats head coach Rich Rodriguez and Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham talk before the Territorial Cup at Arizona Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

4. Tough losses to in-state rival Arizona

Overall, Graham is 3-2 against the Arizona Wildcats, but those two losses are especially painful.

In 2014, Arizona State was primed for a return trip to the Pac-12 Championship, but lost to in-state rival Arizona, 42-35. Admittedly, both losses came on the road, which is a little more forgivable.

Also, after watching Arizona get whipped by then third-ranked Oregon, the Arizona State faithful should have at least realistically expected a similar outcome. After all, the Sun Devils lost a close match to Oregon’s lesser in-state rival, Oregon State, just weeks earlier.

Still, an appearance, even a loss, would have been easier to swallow because it would have meant a better overall record, a win against the in-state rival and a trip to a more prestigious bowl game.

Last season, the loss to Arizona had less to do with the season’s outcome and more to do with pride. Arizona won only one conference game in 2016 and that came at the hands of the Sun Devils. That makes for a difficult loss to swallow, and while the season was already lost, a win might have meant an appearance in a bowl game instead of an outright losing season.

Nov 19, 2016; Seattle, WA, USA; Arizona State Sun Devils head coach Todd Graham calls a timeout against the Washington Huskies during the fourth quarter at Husky Stadium. Washington won 44-18. Mandatory Credit: Jennifer Buchanan-USA TODAY Sports

3. No overwhelming success six years in

Before Graham arrived in 2012, he had earned a reputation as a job hopper, having landed in his fourth spot in seven seasons. At this point, Graham is entering his sixth season as Arizona State’s head coach. Graham has only achieved modest success.

The greatest accomplishment is probably the 2013 appearance in the Pac-12 Championship Game, although the team rose as high as No. 7 during the 2014 season (unfortunately, the loss to Oregon State pushed the team back to No. 13).

The team hasn’t won a Pac-12 championship, nor has it been to one of the bigger bowl games, much less the College Football Playoff. With USC returning to prominence, it remains to be seen whether any of that remains a possibility.

While Arizona State isn’t known as a perennial Pac-12 power, the Sun Devils hired him to make a change in yearly success, but he’s failing to do so.

Jan 11, 2016; Glendale, AZ, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide wide receivers coach Billy Napier with wide receiver Daylon Charlot (4) against the Clemson Tigers in the 2016 CFP National Championship at University of Phoenix Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

2. Expensive assistant coaches

Graham experienced upheaval on his staff following the 2015 season with five members of his coaching staff leaving the program. The biggest loss was Mike Norvell, who left to become head coach at Memphis. Graham made a seamless transition with the hire of offensive coordinator Chip Lindsey, but Lindsey left for Auburn this offseason.

So, Graham brought in a shiny, new and expensive offensive coordinator in former Alabama wide receivers coach Billy Napier. Napier was strongly considered for offensive coordinator at Alabama and previously served as offensive coordinator at Clemson.

Is it fair to expect results in Napier’s first season at the program? Not really, but those are the high-stakes expectations in today’s college football. In addition to Napier, Graham has added former Baylor defensive coordinator Phil Bennett.

The offense appears to be the team’s greatest strength, although the defense must make strides for the team to improve in 2017.

Graham also brought in former head coach Dave Christensen as a high-priced consultant. Bringing in big-name assistants is standard practice, but it also necessarily increases the pressure a head coach must endure.

Sep 3, 2016; Arlington, TX, USA; Alabama Crimson Tide quarterback Blake Barnett (8) throws a 45-yard touchdown pass against the USC Trojans during an NCAA football game at AT&T Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

1. Must have success in 2017 with QB talent

Blake Barnett is the most talented quarterback Graham has had during his tenure. Many in the Arizona State fanbase have been frustrated by Graham’s inability to land blue-chip recruits from neighboring California. Barnett had plenty of other schools interested, but he managed to land the Alabama-transfer. Napier likely was a factor. Having a familiar coach calling plays made for a more comfortable situation.

Barnett probably liked the combined quarterback situation and opportunity to win at an elevated level. Sure, Cal had a reasonable quarterback situation but no real chance of winning the Pac-12.

Arizona State was ravaged by injuries last season with three different quarterbacks receiving significant snaps at various points. Manny Wilkins received most of the snaps and returns this season, so Barnett isn’t guaranteed the starting job. However, on paper, Barnett is a much bigger talent.

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