Someone once wisely pointed out: “Be careful what you wish for because it might come true.” Arizona State‘s new head football coach may want to reflect on those words of wisdom after scanning next year’s schedule.
Todd Graham adheres to the philosophy that the only way for a team to become one of the best teams is to play the best teams. Next season, the coach will enter his second season at the helm in Tempe and will get a chance to put that theory into practice as ASU faces some of the better programs from 2012.
The Sun Devils are scheduled to meet two conference champions from 2012, Wisconsin from the Big Ten and Pac-12 champion Stanford, and six more teams that played in bowl games last year – including the BCS National Championship (Notre Dame) and Rose Bowl (Wisconsin).
During one stretch in the schedule, ASU will match up with three BCS teams in four weeks.
Graham’s boss also seems to be pumped about the idea of taking on the big boys next year. “With the loaded non-conference schedule and the always-tough Pac-12, I think our football team has one of the marquee schedules in the nation,” said Steve Patterson, ASU Vice President for University Athletics.
That “marquee schedule” is also a mine field that can easily derail the momentum Graham has built in his first year as he produced the first winning season in five years.
ASU struggled against ranked teams last year.
The most demoralizing loss came in October against Oregon, ranked No. 2 in the nation at the time, when the Ducks overwhelmed the Devils, 43-21, in front of a sold-out home crowd at Sun Devil Stadium. Oregon ran up 377 yards of offense in the first half and scored all 43 of its points before the intermission.
The game was over almost before it began, even though ASU scored first on a fumble forced by defensive tackle Will Sutton on the second play from scrimmage. Sutton, the heart of the Sun Devil defense, was injured on the play and never returned to help his team stave off the Oregon onslaught.
A new month didn’t start much better, as the Devils took on No. 13 Oregon State on the road for the first game of November. A lethargic offense couldn’t get on track and the Beavers won that one, 36-26 for ASU’s third straight Pac-12 loss.
A week later in Los Angeles, the offense sputtered again as Taylor Kelly threw three interceptions against No. 21 USC and the Trojans were able to coast to a 38-17 victory after going on a 24-point run in the second half. It was the fourth straight loss for ASU and possibly the lowest point of the season for Graham.
But the Devils rebounded and finished out the season with three straight wins – the first time that’s happened since 1978. Two of those wins were the most important of the year, as ASU knocked off its Pac-12 rival in Tucson by beating the Wildcats in the regular-season finale and then sinking Navy in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl in dominating fashion, 62-28.
ASU will be in a good position to build on that momentum next season as the team returns 16 starters, including Taylor and running backs, DJ Foster and Marion Grice. And Sutton just decided to forego the NFL draft and return for his senior season, and will be joined on the defensive line by Jaxon Hood. Starting linebackers Carl Bradford and Chris Young also return, as does safety Alden Darby.
One notable exception to the schedule will also be a big advantage for ASU next season. Oregon is not on the schedule. The Ducks and California rotate off ASU’s schedule for next season.
Meanwhile, down in Tucson… Rich Rodriguez, who also believes in the idea of taking on good competition, will get his share as well in the coming season. His University of Arizona squad faces off next season against five teams that played in bowl games last year, including Oregon, which won the Fiesta Bowl.
But what he undoubtedly would not have asked for, nor wanted, is a tough opening to his Pac-12 schedule. The Cats will play four of their first five conference games on the road.
And that comes on the heels of a very soft non-conference schedule that includes Northern Arizona University, UNLV, and the University of Texas at San Antonio (USTA). The UNLV Running Rebels won two games last year and the USTA Roadrunners are just two years into actually having a football program.
Last season, Arizona had mixed success with ranked teams. Like ASU, they got stomped by Oregon, 49-0, but rallied from a 15-point deficit, behind 469 yards of total offense from senior quarterback Matt Scott, to beat No. 10 USC, 39-36, in what was considered the signature win for Rodriguez’s first year as head coach.
Regardless of how each team handles the challenges of next year’s schedules, Arizona fans will get a chance to watch every game. For the second year in a row, every Pac-12 game will be broadcast through a combination of networks, including ABC, Fox, the ESPN channels, and the new Pac-12 Network.
Both of the Arizona schools will get their share of time on the national stage next year, thanks to the television coverage. We’ll just have to wait to see if they can prove they belong there.
(Photo: Arizona Athletics)