SAN DIEGO — On the last day of 2013, Arizona State returned home, a successful season soured by Monday night’s 37-23 Holiday Bowl loss to Texas Tech.
After winning seven in a row to advance to their first Pac-12 Championship Game, the Sun Devils closed with two losses, looking outmatched against Stanford and uninspired against Texas Tech. Against the Red Raiders, ASU played perhaps its worst first half of the season and never recovered. For the fan base, it was a performance that will take awhile to shake.
For the coach, too, even though he tried.
“I’m disappointed, but we’re a 10-4 football team,” Todd Graham said. “That’s a heck of a season. It’s not a great season, (but) it’s a good season. Pac-12 South champions. … Have we progressed forward? Are we in great shape? Yes, we are.”
Graham often says the Sun Devils are ahead of schedule in their Pac-12 championship quest. And in many ways, he’s right. Advancing to the conference title game was a significant achievement for a program that had not reached double-digit wins since 2007 and only twice in the previous 16 seasons. This season the Sun Devils played one of the nation’s more-difficult non-conference schedules, defeating Wisconsin in a controversial finish. They also knocked off rival Arizona for the second year in a row.
The challenge is building off it. Previously, ASU has had strong seasons only to slide back into mediocrity. When ASU walloped USC in September, a Los Angeles columnist wrote getting routed by a “mid-level Pac-12 program” was too much for then-coach Lane Kiffin to survive. That’s how the rest of the country sees the Sun Devils, as a non-contender that occasionally surprises.
Reversals take time, but Graham is less than patient.
In 2014, the Sun Devils will have holes to fill, particularly on defense. They lose eight starters, including two-time All-American Will Sutton. Overall, the line loses three starters. (A fourth, junior Carl Bradford, already has graduated and is exploring his NFL draft options.) The secondary also loses three. The Sun Devils will go from having one of the Pac-12’s more-veteran defenses to one of the least experienced.
Offensively, the biggest loss is running back Marion Grice, who ranked among the nation’s top playmakers before a foot injury suffered in late November ended his season. ASU loses center Kody Koebensky and left tackle Evan Finkenberg up front, as well as All-Pac-12 tight end Chris Coyle and steady receiver Kevin Ozier.
But Graham is optimistic for next season. “Anything less than 10 wins will be a disappointment,” he said.