When coach Todd Graham first arrived at ASU after the 2011 season, he gave the ASU football team a cultural overhaul.
One of Graham’s most notable attempts was putting up large banners of the Rose Bowl logo on most of the team’s facilities. Well before his first season, Graham publicly outlined his goals declaring his team will win the Pac-12 Championship, a Rose Bowl title and eventually a BCS National Championship.
At that time, however, no one believed Graham’s preaching, and the Pac-12 preseason media poll projected ASU to finish ninth in the conference last season.
The Sun Devils ended 2012 with an 8-5 record and finished fifth in the Pac-12. The season concluded with a win at UA and ASU’s first bowl victory since 2005.
While the season fell short of Graham’s expectations, it exceeded many others.
“I don’t think that when I talked about winning championships last year, that (the players) believed it,” Graham said. “I think that after being so close last year, they saw that we can do this.”
ASU didn’t lose much talent over the offseason. The Sun Devils boast nine players on 14 award watch lists and have 15 returning starters. The most notable isredshirt senior defensive tackle Will Sutton, a consensus All-American.
Sutton said he contemplated leaving ASU for the NFL Draft after the season, but the nation’s third-leading sacker chose to return for his final year of eligibility to help ASU win a championship and extend his audition for pro scouts.
“I love my teammates, the coaching staff and the atmosphere around here,” Sutton said on returning. “We want to accomplish something that once again hasn’t been done here before, and I want to be part of that.”
On offense, ASU returns one of the nation’s most efficient quarterbacks in redshirt junior Taylor Kelly, a versatile running back tandem of senior Marion Grice and sophomore D.J. Foster and an offensive line headlined by redshirt senior center Kody Koebensky and redshirt junior left guard Jamil Douglas.
The Sun Devil offense had the fourth-most total yards per game average in the Pac-12 (464.5) and was second in points in 2012 (38.4).
Senior safety Alden Darby and redshirt junior linebacker Carl Bradford are expected to anchor one of the Pac-12’s top defenses with Sutton. ASU finished second in the Pac-12 in sacks and had the second-lowest yards allowed per game average (350.8).
The Sun Devils also picked up several intriguing newcomers, including redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong.
Strong, a transfer from Pierce Community College in California, impressed coaches and fans during fall camp with his acrobatic catches and will likely be one of Kelly’s top passing targets.
Wideouts Ellis Jefferson, Ronald Lewis and Cameron Smith also stood out during fall camp and should see time as true freshmen. Freshman safety Marcus Ball was going to open the season starting at field safety until he suffered a shoulder injury that will sideline him for 3-5 weeks.
The most glaring challenge ASU faces this season is its schedule, which is widely considered as one of the nation’s toughest despite not playing Oregon.
After its season opener against FCS foe Sacramento State, ASU embarks on a four-game gauntlet against No. 23 Wisconsin, at No. 4 Stanford, No. 24 USC and No. 11 Notre Dame at Cowboys Stadium in Arlington, Texas.
The Sun Devils end the regular season against UA with the Territorial Cup game, which the home team hasn’t won in four years.
But Graham said he believes ASU is ready.
“I can tell a sense of urgency. We know the challenges on that schedule, and this season is about winning championships, so I know our fans and our football team is excited,” Graham said. “We can’t wait to get started and take them one game at a time. The great thing about our schedule, all you got to do is win 13 games and you will be playing in a national championship because it’s a challenging schedule.”
The Sun Devils haven’t been faced with this many expectations since 2011, when they had a 6-2 start before dropping their final five games.
Could this finally be the year ASU upends UCLA for the Pac-12 South, or are the Sun Devils headed for another one of their signature collapses like in 2011?
Senior tight end Chris Coyle insists things are different this time around.
“It’s been the change of the mindset of how everyone wants to play for each other as opposed to being an individual and worrying about their own stats,” Coyle said. “The coaches, the players and everyone else are buying into the system and want to play for each other and want to play for the Sun Devil family. That’s definitely the difference between these two teams.”
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