Sun Devils enjoying boosted expectations

TEMPE, Ariz. -- Todd Graham is perturbed. Heads may roll. It's just a matter of time before Twitter will light up about the new crisis at Arizona State.

Graham and the Sun Devils have gathered after a spring practice, awaiting their training table. It's Tuesday. It's lunch time. That means one thing: Taco Tuesday. When a fellow shows up for training table on Tuesday at Arizona State, he expect tacos. That is the way. And it is good. Graham likes Taco Tuesday.

Yet there are no tacos to be found. These are the times that try men's souls. Graham makes sure everyone in the room knows he is perturbed. And enjoying himself, tacos or not.

What a difference a year makes.

Last year, Graham might have been the most hated coach in college football. Among those sane enough not to hate a coach for leaving one football program for another, as Graham did Pittsburgh for Arizona State, he was at least the most mocked for his undeniably peripatetic ways.

Because little was expected of the Sun Devils in 2012, the only subject that interested national reporters about the program was Graham's controversially abrupt departure from Pittsburgh. He was asked to explain his OUTRAGEOUS BEHAVIOR -- you know, leaving one job for a better one -- exactly 5,356 times.

"We loved that," he said. "It's our favorite subject."

Yet he answered all 5,356 inquiries without snapping over the redundancy. And then he coached the heck out of his football team, which showed impressive improvement both on and off the field.

The Sun Devils went 8-5 -- just the second time the program won at least that many games since 2005 -- and won a bowl game, its first in six seasons. But it was not only that. In 2011, they ranked last in the nation with 79.77 penalty yards per game. That was a talented but horribly sloppy and undisciplined team. In 2012, they ranked first in the Pac-12 and eighth in the nation with 34.92 penalty yards per game.

In 2011, the Sun Devils waived a white flag over a once-promising season, losing six of their final seven games against a weak schedule, with the locker room fracturing into antagonistic bailiwicks. In 2012, they bounced back from a four-game losing streak against quality opponents to win their final three games, including a comeback victory at rival and 24th-ranked Arizona.

And instead of racing out the door for an NFL paycheck -- as many Sun Devils have been wont to do -- consensus All-American defensive tackle Will Sutton, the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year, opted to return for his senior season.

The past is no longer interesting. It's all about the present, in which the Sun Devils find themselves as South Division co-favorites with UCLA, a team that beat them last fall on a last-second field goal with Sutton sitting out with an injury.

"We're not going to sneak up on anybody," Graham said. "People are expecting us to be a darn good football team. So how do you handle success?"

That's been a problem in the past. A preseason ranking in 2008 became a 5-7 finish, and Arizona State was 5-1 and ranked 18th before it imploded in 2011.

High expectations for 2013 are based not only on 16 returning starters, but on who's coming back. First, there's Sutton, who led the Pac-12 in tackles for loss and sacks per game. Then there's quarterback Taylor Kelly, who ranked second in the conference in passing efficiency in 2012 in his debut as a starter. Surrounding them is a strong supporting cast. Sutton has LB Carl Bradford (20.5 tackles for a loss), while Kelly has a deep stable at running back, led by D.J. Foster and Marion Grice, and an offensive line that should be much improved.

"This team has some very strong qualities," Graham said. "One, being the quarterback. Two, being we do have the capabilities of having a really good defensive football team."

Kelly, who was buried at No. 3 on the QB depth chart after spring practices last year, seems poised to take another step forward.

"I think he got better every single game," Graham said. "There is no substitute for experience. What gives me the most confidence in this team is we have a quarterback, and we have a quarterback who I completely trust, who has all the intangibles it takes to be a great quarterback and a great leader."

Folks should get a fairly good line on the 2013 Sun Devils by the first weekend of October. Last year, the early schedule was weak. That's not the case this go-around. After the opener against Sacramento State, Arizona State plays Wisconsin, at Stanford, USC and Notre Dame in Cowboys Stadium.

At that point, we should know if the Sun Devils are legit Rose Bowl contenders. Graham thinks so, and he wants his team to believe it.

"I believe these guys think they can win [the Pac-12]," he said. "I don't think they did last year."

The subject has changed in Tempe. The question heading into 2013 is whether that translates onto the field.