Win or lose on Saturday, ASU football coach Todd Graham has earned his contract extension.
Saturday’s game will be one of the biggest ASU has had in recent memory. A victory on the road against UCLA will clinch the program’s first Pac-12 South Championship.
Graham received an extension on Sept. 18, locking him up and giving him a pay raise each year through 2018. Some thought it was too soon, while others said he hasn’t proven enough.
The extension was more than a reward for the team’s performance on the field this season, though. It also reflected a change in the program’s culture, something Sun Devil Athletics hopes to further develop.
What’s impressive about the on-field product is that very few Sun Devils are Graham’s players. He inherited a young team, including stars such as redshirt junior quarterback Taylor Kelly, senior defensive tackle Will Sutton and senior running back Marion Grice, from former coach Dennis Erickson. All three have become superb team leaders and have bought what Graham is selling. As a result, the rest of the team has followed, and the wins are adding up.
Meanwhile, Graham’s biggest recruiting success last offseason has immediately become a force. Redshirt sophomore wide receiver Jaelen Strong, a junior college transfer, has become Kelly’s favorite target, and the success rate of their nearly-impossible-to-guard back-shoulder passes has been incredible.
The difference between Erickson and Graham has been obvious and measurable, but just as important is the difference between Graham in 2012 and Graham in 2013.
Last year’s bunch started 5-1 but then went on a four-game losing streak to fizz out the hot start.
This year, his team started out 3-2, with two losses on the road but rebounded with a five-game winning streak, including two on the road, which has the Tempe faithful smelling roses.
ASU is 16-7 during Graham’s two seasons, including 10-2 at home with the last home loss coming more than a calendar year ago (against UCLA, ironically enough).
Last year, ASU finished one game away from winning the Pac-12 South. Had the Sun Devils beaten UCLA at Sun Devil Stadium, they would have won the division on the last day of the season, when they beat UA.
This year they have a chance for redemption. It’s simple: Win on Saturday, and the Sun Devils will at the very least play in the Pac-12 title game. A loss wouldn’t completely ruin their chances either, but they would need to beat UA and hope UCLA falls to USC in the last week of the season.
If everything goes as Graham planned, ASU has four games remaining on its schedule, all of which would be monumental: a potential Pac-12 South clincher against UCLA, a home Territorial Cup game, the Pac-12 title game and the Rose Bowl.
Graham and the Sun Devils still have work to do, but everything he has done up until now has been worth every dollar. All we can do now is hope the Sun Devils win and pray he doesn’t take a position at UT.
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