The big day is finally here as Arizona State‘s No. 15-ranked football team prepares for this afternoon’s much-anticipated and much-hyped season opener against Texas A&M.
This game, pitting a Pac-12 Conference team against a Power Five Conference (SEC) member, should be closely-contested and a fan feast for the national audience that will be tuned in to ESPN.
Tailgate parties are the traditional way to enhance the game experience, but this kind of game is made even more interesting if you know the back stories that come with it. And today’s game, which will be played at NRG Stadium in Houston, is loaded with good stuff below the surface.
Here are some of the more interesting side bars, to enhance your viewing experience today:
– This game could have major implications that would affect ASU’s chances to get into this year’s College Football Playoffs. Yep, believe it or not, at least two highly-respected college sports analysts, ESPN’s Kirk Herbstreit and Fox Sports’ Dave Wannstedt, have picked the Sun Devils to be among the four teams that will compete in the playoffs for a chance at the national championship. To make that even more interesting, the title game this season will be played at University of Phoenix Stadium. That would be a blockbuster deal for the state’s economy and a bonanza of major proportions for ASU fans.
– Perhaps the biggest human-interest feature to this game can be found on the Aggies’ side of the field. Quarterback Kyle Allen, who stepped in last year to direct the Aggies’ offense for the final five games and averaged 212 passing yards a game, will be under center to start this one. Allen, you might recall, graduated from Desert Mountain High School in Scottsdale, where he was a five-star college prospect courted by some of the most well-known programs, like Alabama, Ohio State, and Notre Dame. And yes, ASU head coach Todd Graham tried hard to keep him at home, preferably in Tempe. The sophomore comes into this game as a seasoned performer who proved himself last year by putting up 16 touchdowns while passing for 1,322 yards in the five games he played and leading the Aggies to a win in the AdvoCare Liberty Bowl – where he was named the bowl’s MVP.
– And there’s an equally cool story about ASU’s quarterback, senior Mike Bercovici. Like Allen, his starts last season were limited to three games when he filled in for the injured Taylor Kelly, and one partial game. But what he did in those four games cemented his starting role for the 2015 season. He beat two ranked teams in the three he started and set a new school record by becoming the first quarterback in program history to pass for more than 400 yards in his first two career starts. He threw for 1,445 yards and 12 touchdowns. His story is an inspiring one of persistence and loyalty after losing out on the starting job to Taylor his sophomore year, but hanging in there and waiting his chance to get the starting role. Now there are huge expectations for a big senior year and even some talk about him being a dark horse candidate for the Heisman.
– Even though ASU has never played Texas A&M before, this will be the third time Graham and Aggies’ head coach Kevin Sumlin have done battle. Sumlin won two of those while he was Houston’s head coach and Graham won the other while at Tulsa. But, what most people probably don’t remember is that Sumlin was in line to be the ASU head coach before the job was offered to Graham (phxfan article 12/3/11). Although both Sumlin and ASU officials denied it, The Arizona Republic had reported that the job had been offered to the then-head coach at Houston. There was even one story that said an ASU delegation, including school president Michael Crow, was ready to board a plane and fly to Houston to meet with Sumlin as soon as his team finished playing its bowl game.
– The state of Texas has a major role in the drama involved today. Graham is a native of Texas and got his start in coaching at Texas high schools. Eight active players on his current roster are from Texas and all could possibly see playing time. Graham has taken teams back into the Lone Star state twice in his first three seasons at ASU, beating Duke in the 2014 Sun Bowl and losing to Notre Dame in a game played in Dallas in 2013. Going forward, a couple more games are on the schedule with Texas teams, UTSA next season and Texas Tech in 2017. It’s also interesting to note that since 1955 ASU has played 18 games in Texas – and lost just one of those. And perhaps most important, ASU needs this visibility in Texas to continue mining that state’s talent-rich recruiting pool.
– If ASU wins this game, it will mark the first time a Sun Devil team has beaten an SEC opponent.
– Sun Devil fans have longed for the days of Frank Kush, the legendary coach who spent 22 years directing the program and building it to national prominence. His teams went undefeated in 1970 and 1975. And now Graham appears to be returning the program to those glory days. He has posted back-to-back 10-win seasons the last two years, the first time since Kush did it in the early ’70s, and his 9.3 wins per year in three seasons rank him at the top of the all-time list in that category.
There is so much more going on behind the scenes as we inch toward the 4 p.m. kickoff, but this should give you a little better appreciation of what’s at stake in just the first game of a new season.
Put a fork in ’em, Devils!
(Photo: ASU Athletics)