In the three previous years under Graham, the Sun Devils have had the advantage of opening their seasons against overmatched FCS opponents, in games that proved as anticlimactic as they appeared on the schedule.
This year’s season-opener is unlike anything the Sun Devils have experienced right out of the gates in recent years. Saturday’s showdown against SEC foe Texas A&M at NRG Stadium in Houston represents an opportunity for the program to continue gaining national recognition that has become so critical for sustained success at the college level.
After walloping Northern Arizona, Sacramento State and Weber State in successive years during week one competition, ASU now has the task of preparing to compete on a grand stage against a prestigious program without a live test-run.
Whether or not Graham has the Sun Devils firing on all cylinders remains to be seen, but the fourth-year head coach said there’s a considerable difference in the way ASU approaches important games now than it did at the outset of his tenure.
“My first year, the first time we played in a big game, I think it was Oregon, that was probably the first big game we played in and you asked if we were ready, I said, ‘Yeah,’ but evidently we weren’t,” Graham said. “For about a few minutes we did good, but no, I think our team is the most advanced team we’ve had when it comes to leadership and true action leadership, so heck yeah I think we’re ready.”
This year’s contest against the Aggies marks the second time in three seasons that ASU will play on Texas soil, as the Sun Devils lost 38-35 to Notre Dame in a 2013 nonconference affair at Cowboys Stadium. The 2013 defeat marked the first time the Sun Devils had lost in the state of Texas in their past 18 tries, but with the direction Graham wants to take the program, ASU’s historical success in the state means little compared to Saturday’s result.
“I think the best thing we can do for recruiting is win 15 games,” Graham said. “That’s all you have to do, so just the fact that winning and being successful and doing it the way we’ve done in the past has helped with that.”
ASU boasts nine players on its roster who hail from the Lone Star State, and aside from injured junior wide receiver Cameron Smith, the remaining eight could all play Saturday, with a majority starting.
The opportunity to play in front of family and friends is something many of ASU’s Texas natives have commented on in the weeks leading up to Saturday’s game, and sophomore WILL linebacker Christian Sam said he and his teammates have been craving this opportunity.
“I feel like the ones from Texas, I don’t want to say we have a chip on our shoulder, but we just can’t wait to get out there and be back in our home state and just fly around,” Sam said.
It’s no secret ASU wants to expand its recruiting pipeline in one of the nation’s most talent-rich regions, but the Sun Devil players are also cognizant of the fact Saturday’s contest isn’t just about how the program appeals to youngsters in Texas. Redshirt senior right tackle William McGehee, a native of Plano, said the 6 p.m. local start time in Houston will allow the entire country to see the brand of football the Sun Devils are excited to show off.
“It’s just for us to be able to show our talents and to bring a bigger stage to our audience,” McGehee said. “Since normally we play later games, not everyone is able to see it so this is a game for us to be able to really show our talents and show who we are as a program.”
Saturday’s season-opener won’t be the last time the Sun Devils try to make headway in the South, as the program will travel to San Antonio in 2016 to take on University of Texas-San Antonio, followed by a 2017 contest with Texas Tech in Lubbock. Nevertheless, Graham knows if ASU doesn’t begin to make even bigger waves with recruits in the form of results soon, the gravitational pull toward Tempe won’t be as strong.
“Does this game impact recruiting? It sure does,” Graham said. “You win every big game, you’re in, you’ll do pretty good in recruiting. I’m a firm believer in all that in recruiting, there’s too much made of cracker-jack recruiters, I just don’t see it. I think is perception is reality.”
Neutral in Name Only
Saturday’s matchup is part of the 2015 Advocare Texas Kickoff, which annually pits two high-profile schools against one another in an opening week neutral-site matchup. In Texas A&M and ASU, the organizers pegged two programs on the rise in the college football world, but it’s hard to imagine the stands will reflect anything other than a significant Aggie lean.
The Aggie fan base is notorious throughout college football for its raucous cheering section at Kyle Field, which is just a 90-minute drive from NRG Stadium in Houston. In a season-opener fraught with expectations and promise for both squads, Graham said the Sun Devils have done their best to simulate the atmosphere during practices.
“It’s impossible to show them what the crowd noise is going to be like,” Graham said. “Obviously I’m very familiar with what type of atmosphere we’re going into, and that’s why we took the game. It’s going to be one of the loudest places we’ve ever played, it’ll be a big time atmosphere, which is something hopefully we’ll have a lot of opportunities to play in.”
The Aggies’ national exposure has increased in recent years thanks to the school’s transition from the Big 12 to the SEC and to the national hype and fame surrounding Heisman trophy winner Johnny Manziel.
Under the leadership of head coach Kevin Sumlin and the flair of playmakers like Manziel and Mike Evans, the Aggies’ style of play has helped attract attention from casual fans throughout the country.
Graham has reiterated in the past few weeks he expects all of the elements to add up to a hostile environment, and redshirt senior quarterback Mike Bercovici said it helps to have a senior-laden group to convey that message to the younger players.
Bercovici said the group isn’t as focused on what the stadium will look like, but rather how the team will overcome all of the unfamiliar obstacles while pursuing a victory.
“Whether it’s pregame, we’ll go out there and go 1-0 in the pregame,” Bercovici said. “That coin toss, we’ll go 1-0 in the coin toss. And so on and so on. So what we have to do is control ourselves, and that’s what coach Graham has done an amazing job of is to establish that mindset is that the only people that are going to stop Arizona State is us, and we really believe that.”
For a player like Bercovici who has faced adversity in his career, it’s no surprise he is asking teammates to embrace the opportunity of opening up the season in unfamiliar fashion with open arms. Bercovici knows the crowd will be against ASU, but he said it’s a scenario players dream about.
“I think what I’ve learned about being in college football is that’s what you play for,” Bercovici said. “There’s no greater environment than walking out of the tunnel and being booed, that’s what you love, that’s what you signed up for. Obviously it’s going to be an incredible environment being at the Texans’ stadium, and we know that Sun Devil nation is going to show out and all you’ve got to see is a little maroon and gold and that’ll get you more fired up than anything.”
Aside from the obvious thrill of returning to his home state, Graham said Saturday’s game carries additional meaning for him because of what Texas A&M stood for as a program during his early days as a football coach.
Prior to his success at the college level, Graham took over the Allen High School football program in 1995 and idolized the likes of famous Texas coaches like Tom Landry and R.C. Slocum. Slocum was a coach who Graham took personal interest in, because of the way he structured the Aggie program, and Graham even admitted he dreamed of one day working for Slocum as a Texas A&M assistant.
“What we do defensively, how we attack and get after it comes from the years I spent studying R.C. Slocum when Phil Bennett was his defensive coordinator,” Graham said. “Obviously, Shawn (Slocum) was there. One of my goals in coaching was I wanted to work for R.C. Slocum, so RC and Texas A&M, especially when I was growing up was something that was important to me.”
The opportunity to work under Slocum never materialized as the legendary Aggies coach retired in 2002 when Graham was an assistant under Rich Rodriguez at West Virginia, but the coaching circle is small. Small enough, in fact, that Graham hired R.C.’s son Shawn to coordinate ASU’s special teams this offseason.
An assistant under his father at Texas A&M and an NFL assistant with the Green Bay Packers, Slocum boasts experience working at the highest levels of football. How well Slocum’s NFL pedigree would transfer to the Sun Devils was a question mark heading into the spring, but Graham said Slocum has adapted well to the teacher-first mentality ASU looks for in its coaches.
“He’s (Shawn Slocum) one of the best football coaches I’ve ever worked with,” Graham said. “One of the things that has really helped us as part of our model and what we believe is to be a consummate learner. So it’s been great to be around him because he has brought, I knew he was a really good football coach and he has exceeded my expectations.”
Slocum’s story isn’t the only example of coaches coming full circle on Saturday, as Graham will once again square off with Texas A&M coach Kevin Sumlin. In the late 2000s, Graham and Sumlin battled as Conference USA coaches, with Graham leading Tulsa and Sumlin heading up the Houston Cougars’ program.
In the three meetings between the programs between 2008-2010, Sumlin gained a series edge with a 2-1 record, including a 70-30 blowout win over the Golden Hurricanes in 2008. Still, Graham won the final battle between the two in 2010, and he said facing Sumlin in the past gives him a foundation for what to expect from Texas A&M.
“They’re going to be a very well coached team, very explosive offensively, every team I’ve played that he’s coached do a great job on special teams, they’re very explosive with their skill players,” Graham said. “That’s the key for us is not giving up cheap touchdowns, and making them earn everything they’ve get. We’ve had some great battles in the past, which have nothing to do with these two teams, so we expect to go against a very well coached team.”
Even though Saturday’s game doesn’t carry the same type of implications a Pac-12 conference game might, Graham and the Sun Devils have preached through fall camp about the importance of starting the season off with a victory.
With no shortage of potential motivators from the chance to return to Texas for many of ASU’s players, an opportunity to play against an SEC opponent on a national stage, or simply the experience of starting a brand new season, Graham believes his team is fully prepared to seize an important victory.
“People around me know I want to win every day, every game,” Graham said. “I don’t respond very good to when I don’t win.”