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College football top 25 countdown: No. 17 Arizona State

The Sun Devils have their sights set on a Pac-12 championship and a top-tier bowl game, but their schedule includes a four-game stretch against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame.

August 11, 2013|Chris Dufresne
  • Arizona State Coach Todd Graham, right, speaks next to quarterback Taylor Kelly, left, and Will Sutton during the Pac-12 football media day in July. Graham has brought order to the Sun Devils' program.
Arizona State Coach Todd Graham, right, speaks next to quarterback Taylor… (Jae C. Hong / Associated…)

Todd Graham enters his second year in Tempe and the most exciting news is that he's still there.

OK, that was last year's joke after Graham abruptly left Pittsburgh after one season to take the Arizona State job.

Graham got to town with a shaky reputation, and it seemed as if he might have more hat than he did cattle.

He worked hard, though, to make people care about Arizona State again as he repaired a brand wounded during the last, undisciplined days of Dennis Erickson and Vontaze Burfict.

The Sun Devils were 8-5 last season and have a chance to make big, big noise.

They've been picked by many to win the Pac-12 South and have a legitimate shot at their first outright conference title since the Jake Plummer-led team in 1996.

Graham isn't poor-mouthing his team the way Lou Holtz used to do every time Notre Dame played "University of Navy."

Graham comes right out and says, "It's the best football team that I've ever coached."

He is looking beyond a trip to a mid-tier bowl.

"We're looking forward to competing for a Pac-12 championship, Rose Bowl championship and ultimately a national championship," he said.

It's enough to get a coldblooded lizard excited until you see that schedule and its four-game stretch against Wisconsin, Stanford, USC and Notre Dame.

That's three quality games against schools that made Bowl Championship Series bowls last season and one game against USC.

But not even the schedule scares Graham.

"That's why we do this," he said. "We like the pressure… the great thing about our schedule, all you've got to do is win 13 games and you will be playing in a national championship."

If Graham hasn't lost his marbles this could be an exciting year for the UPF (University of Pitch Fork).

The optimism starts on defense and the surprise return of roadblock Will Sutton.

One preseason magazine (Athlon) had the audacity to write that Sutton was "arguably the best defensive lineman in the country."

The crazy part is that the magazine is based in Tennessee, in Southeastern Conference country, where everyone knows the nation's best defensive lineman is South Carolina's Jadeveon Clowney.

So as Athlon deals with the backlash we'll just say Sutton is the best lineman west of any Mississippi (Oxford or Starkville).

Sutton is almost as wide as he is tall (6 feet 1, 288 pounds) and is one of eight returning defensive starters. He ended last season with 13 sacks and 23.5 tackles for loss.

"I don't pay attention to Clowney," Sutton said when asked at Pac-12 media day. "I know he's a great player and the prototype for the next level… but I don't try to model my game after him."

The offense returns quarterback Taylor Kelly, last season's pleasant surprise who won the job and, oh, passed for 3,039 yards and 29 touchdowns.

Arizona State is two-deep at running back with Marion Grice and D.J. Foster, who combined for 1,172 yards and 13 touchdowns.

The problem is Grice and Foster were also two of the top pass catchers, totaling 79 receptions, although Graham thinks help is on the way through development and recruiting.

"We've got a chance to be more explosive outside," Graham said.

Just a little more pop in the shotgun could land Arizona State in any number of California bowls: Poinsettia, Kraft Fight Hunger, Holiday, Rose… gulp, BCS title game?

Top 25 so far: 25. Oklahoma; 24. Wisconsin; 23. Fresno State; 22. UCLA; 21. Texas A&M; 20. Notre Dame; 19. Oregon State; 18. Oklahoma State.

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