With one game left in the 2016 season, Arizona State has one final shot to become bowl-eligible and go to its sixth-straight bowl game as a program.
If ASU doesn’t beat Arizona in the Territorial Cup on Friday, it is unlikely ASU will qualify for a bowl game with a 5-7 record, due to a lower Academic Progress Ranking (APR) ranking than other five-win schools. APR is the tiebreaker used to determine which five-win teams earn bowl bids when there are not enough bowl-eligible teams to fulfill all 82 bowl slots.
ASU is No. 73 out of 128 schools in APR on a rolling four-year average.
However, for ASU head coach Todd Graham, going to a bowl game is a “minimum expectation” for the program.
“That’s something that is a minimum expectation for us and our goals are much higher than that,” Graham said. “It’s vital. It’s very important to our program. It’s not an easy thing to do every year.”
Sitting with a 5-6 overall record, 2-6 in the Pac-12, ASU senior tight end Kody Kohl described the mood in the locker room as “pretty cheerful and joyful,” but players feel like they could have done a lot better regardless of whether they make a bowl game or not.
“We still all love each other so that’s what really matters, our friendships,” Kohl said. “I still feel those are strong. There are some negatives just in football I guess you could say because of the record we have, but all we know is everyone thinks we should have done better than we did so it’s hard to say. Everyone is still disappointed I would say, but we are still cheerful.”
In all four years under Graham, the Sun Devils have gone to a bowl game. ASU has a 14-14-2 bowl game record all-time.
“I feel like it (making it to a bowl game) will be a weight lifted off our shoulders,” senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes said. “It sucks that it has to come down to this. We got to win one more just to be bowl-eligible, but it sucks, but it’s a challenge.”
ASU’s win in the 2012 Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl broke a three-game bowl losing streak under former ASU head coach Dennis Erickson. ASU lost the 2013 Holiday Bowl 37-23 to Texas Tech, won the 2014 Sun Bowl against Duke 36-31 and then lost the Cactus Bowl following the 2015 season to West Virginia, 43-42.
“Well the one, we’ve been to five-straight, year before I got here and four-straight since I’ve been here,” Graham said. “It’s huge for your program because obviously the extra practice, it’s like having an extra spring practice, you reward your players. You extend your season, that’s one of the big things.”
The extra practices are extremely beneficial for younger players according to senior linebacker Laiu Moeakiola. Moeakiola said the extra bowl practices are “vital for development for not only this year, but the following year.”
“Those practices are crucial for the future of the program,” Moeakiola said. “It’s actually getting those guys reps who haven’t got those reps all season long and getting their feet wet and getting acclimated to the tempo of the game for sitting out for so long. Maybe redshirting or whatever, it’s very crucial to the development of the team.”
Moeakiola said the bowl practices he participated in going into his sophomore year were critical to his development as a player and it was a chance for him to get acclimated with other players in his class who were still learning the ropes.
This year, Moeakiola hopes his last season will end on a high note.
“It would be great just to get that extra few days with the guys on the team and to send the seniors out with a bowl game victory would be something special we can hold to and always be remembered as,” Moeakiola said. “And a little bit of money too coming from the bowl check so it’s fun. Extra meals. It’s something we look forward to and something we are going to get done.”
Kohl also had similar memories to Moeakiola in terms of bowl practices helping him grow and develop. He called the 2013 bowl practices a “turnaround point” for himself.
“That first practice they saw something in me that was potential and they started to look into me more and unfortunately I got hurt, but the next year I ended up playing and starting and stuff,” Kohl said.
Kohl said it’s very important for him to get those extra bowl practices in because he still has work to do in terms of development and if he does decide to train to go to the next level, the access to equipment and more practice time would be beneficial.
“Those bowl practices make a difference,” Kohl said. “You can’t really have pads when you are training for everything and it’s just big. Also I just enjoy it. I like hitting and once it’s over, it’s over so I want as many chances as I can get.”
ASU redshirt freshman lineman Zach Robertson has already been to one bowl game in his career -- the Cactus Bowl -- with the Sun Devils.
Last year, the Sun Devils didn’t play in their bowl game until Jan. 2, so they had a full month of scrimmages for the younger players.
“Last year even though I didn’t play, we had our own separate practices for the younger guys and that’s when I got most of my big-time work,” Robertson said. “I was with the one’s and two’s the whole season, but when we got individual work with the younger guys and I got to be the leader of the group it definitely helped and brought me along a lot faster.”
Robertson sees bowl games as an experience to play a team out of conference and “seeing what type of guys come from there.”
“We want these seniors to go to a bowl game [this year] and we want them to finish their career off at a bowl and get another win so I think it is a little bit of pressure, but no matter what happens we will all stick together,” Robertson said.