ASU ready to kick off national respect tour

Todd Graham thinks he’s got a pretty good football team. Now -- finally -- he’s going to have an opportunity to showcase it.

The Sun Devils kick off a four-game stretch that rivals any in the country in terms of difficulty. It starts this week with No. 20 Wisconsin coming to Sun Devil Stadium. They follow it up next week with a trip to No. 5 Stanford, then host USC and then to Dallas to face No. 21 Notre Dame on a neutral field.

This is not the time to be shying away from adversity.

“We get an opportunity to play the Big Ten champion, then the Pac-12 champion and then USC and Notre Dame, who played for the national championship,” Graham said. “We think that is a great opportunity for our program and great exposure for our program. We can take our program to the next level.

“Our kids are excited. I’m excited. Our fans are excited. It’s going to be a blackout game. This is what college football is all about.”

We’ll learn a lot about the Sun Devils over the next month. How good are they, really? Picked by some to finish second in the Pac-12 South, picked by others to win the division, the expectations for the Sun Devils are considerable.

A home victory this week lands them in the top 25. A loss isn’t devastating -- Graham has already said he values conference games above all else -- but losing at home would certainly be setback for a team trying to break into the national spotlight.

“We’re going to know exactly where we are,” Graham said. “We’re playing one of the best teams in the country. They’ve been to the last three Rose Bowls, defending Big Ten champion and their offense is 602 yards per game. The defense is physical. I don’t know about a coming out party or anything like that, but I think in this game we’ll find out exactly where we are at.”

In ASU’s favor is the fact that it gets the Midwest team -- probably not acclimated to the desert -- at home. The temperature at kickoff is estimated to be 100-degrees plus. Plus the Sun Devils -- specifically quarterback Taylor Kelly -- has played better at home since being named the starter last season. In seven career starts at home, Kelly is completing 74.2 percent of his throws with 19 touchdowns to just three interceptions. Worth noting, too, that the Sun Devils are 8-0 all-time against the Big Ten conference when playing at home.

“He’s been very efficient,” Graham said. “He’s faster. This year he has a mastery of the offense where as last year he was trying to learn it.”

Wisconsin, led by new coach Gary Andersen (once rumored for a couple of Pac-12 jobs), has opened 2013 with a pair of shutouts for the first since 1958. Impressive? Well, one of those teams was UMass and the other was Tennessee Tech, so it’s about as impressive as ASU blanking Sacramento State 55-0 in its opener. In other words, neither team has really been tested yet.

“We played a team we should dominate and we did,” Graham said. “... We want to get better every week because it’s only going to get tougher from here for us. This is our chance to show that we have a really good football program."