Final two games critical for Graham, ASU

The last four weeks have forced Arizona State coach Todd Graham to reassess the state of his football team.

"It's not going to be as easy as we thought it might be," he said.

On Oct. 18, Oregon was coming to Tempe for a Thursday night showdown on ESPN. The Sun Devils were 5-1 and looking to prove themselves to a still-skeptical nationwide audience. They forced a Ducks turnover on the game's first possession and immediately scored a TD.

It seemed like big things might be at hand in year one under Graham.

Since that flashing moment, however, a harsh reality has set in. Oregon rolled out of Tempe with a 43-21 victory -- it was 43-7 at halftime -- and three more losses followed. Now the Sun Devils are 5-5, needing another win in their final two games to achieve bowl eligibility.

Washington State comes to town on Saturday. Then it's off to Tucson on Nov. 23 to face an Arizona team that has won three of four and is already bowl eligible under first-year coach Rich Rodriguez.

In other words, Arizona State would greatly prefer to take care of business on Saturday, thereby taking away from the Wildcats a chance to send the Sun Devils into the offseason with a losing record.

There surely is some temptation to compare this squad to the one that collapsed under Dennis Erickson in 2011. There is some symmetry. Last year, the Sun Devils also started 5-1 before losing to Oregon. That crew lost its final five games and got Erickson fired.

But that team seemed to quit amid a bickering locker room. It lost to a series of poor-to-middling teams, including three that finished with eight defeats. That's not the case this season. The Sun Devils have lost four consecutive games to teams ranked between No. 2 and No. 18 in the BCS standings. And they've shown consistent resilience.

"I love the character these guys continue to show," said Graham, stating something that couldn't have been honestly said in 2011. "These guys haven't folded one bit. I think it speaks volumes about their character and about this team and how they feel about each other."

The relentlessly positive Graham certainly is taking a different approach than the guy who will stand opposite him on Saturday: First-year Washington State coach Mike Leach. Leach has ripped his team multiple times, calling them "empty corpses" and "zombies." After a 49-6 loss to Utah, he said his team's performance, "bordered on cowardice."

The Cougars beat the Sun Devils 37-27 last year, so this game will be a reasonably good measuring stick for both programs.

Of course, it's one thing to lose tough, mostly competitive games to ranked teams. Arizona State's next two foes don't fit that description. So these games will make or break year one for Graham.

Win both, and a 7-5 regular season with a win over your in-state rival and a bowl berth makes the season feel pretty darn successful.

Lose the next two, thereby capping Graham's first year with a six-game losing streak? Well, no one in Tempe wants to even entertain that notion.

Said Graham, "We never thought it was going to be easy but our expectations are never going to change. We are going to be a program that is about winning championships. Period. That's our expectation."

Taking a positive step toward those lofty expectations begins with the next two, critical games.