Every game is an examination of a coach’s capability and for Todd Graham this one may be bigger than most precisely because it’s not that big of a deal at all.
It’s easy to be ready to play against big name non-conference opponents early in the season or meaningful games against Pac-12 rivals when an opportunity to play for a Rose Bowl berth hangs in the balance late.
But how does your team perform when it is playing an unranked squad that has lost five straight games in a bowl game that isn’t befitting of its terrific season?
Make no mistake, ASU is much better than Texas Tech and everyone who follows college football closely knows it. Everyone, in that case, would include ASU’s players.
The Sun Devils are a two touchdown favorite in Las Vegas and an ESPN simulator has them winning by an average of 22 points, a reality that has flashed across the network’s ticker countless times in the last week.
Putting aside the ridiculous Pac-12 bowl tie-ins that have the No. 3 pick in arguably the nation’s toughest football conference this season playing against the No. 5 Big-12 team from a clearly inferior league, The Holiday Bowl is not something you ever heard around the ASU program in 2013 until the day after it lost the Pac-12 title game at Sun Devil Stadium.
Playing in San Diego is a undeniable let down for a team that spoke openly about championship game aspirations for an entire year and won 10 regular season games despite one of the nation’s toughest schedules, including an 8-1 regular season Pac-12 record, better than any of its peers.
That is the emotional reality of this game for ASU. But it’s what enabled that type of season in the first place that will tested Monday. That’s what’s intriguing. A lot more so than the Red Raiders, a team that has given up 48.6 points per game in its five-game losing streak, a collapse that is remarkably impressive to behold for a team that was ranked No. 10 nationally in late October.
How does Graham’s team – the embodiment of his leadership approach – respond to this type of challenge, the first of its kind in his tenure at the school?
We’re going to get an answer to that question one way or the other relatively soon but our educated guess is the Sun Devils will pass with flying colors precisely because of one of Graham’s truest strengths.
Graham is nothing if not doggedly relentless in his messaging and demanding with regard to his team’s attention to detail and work ethic. Those things, as he has no doubt reminded his team incessantly in recent weeks, are unchanging in people who are great or aspire to be.
ASU’s last practice of the year in Tempe was one of its best, Graham said, and an impressive veteran leadership group coupled with the coach’s disciplined approach – which turned ASU from the most penalized team nationally in 2011 to among the least penalized in his first season in Tempe – are the signs of a program that isn’t likely struggle with overcoming the heartache of its missed opportunity.
“There’s 130-some years, I guess, of playing football at Arizona State,” Graham said. “This would be the sixth time, I believe, we ever won 11 games, so it would be monumental for us. For me personally, coming in and just being in my second year and how these guys have bought in and how far we’ve come has been remarkable to me.”
Numerous times in recent weeks Graham has mentioned the rare opportunity to win 11 games and send his impressive senior group off with a win, as well as the challenge presented by Texas Tech’s potent offense.
He’s hammered it home every chance he’s had, and the overwhelmingly likely outcome is his team will hammer an overmatched opponent Monday and return to the Valley having passed yet another test.