While Sun Devil nation has often been vocal about its negative feelings toward ESPN college football analyst Mark May, one ESPN personality that Arizona State fans should be impressed with is May's colleague Rece Davis.
Davis is ESPN's studio anchor for College Gameday and College Gameday Final and has kept a close watch on the college athletics scene throughout his career in the sports journalism business. This week, Davis is on tour with the Capital One Cup which is awarded annually to the each of the best men's and women's college athletic programs in the country.
House of Sparky's Kerry Crowley had the opportunity to interview Davis over the phone on Wednesday about a number of different topics in the college sports world. As an ESPN personality, Davis brought a national perspective to the conversation and had interesting things to say about the job Todd Graham has done at Arizona State.
In Graham's two seasons in Tempe, the Sun Devil head coach has led Arizona State to an 18-9 record and a Pac-12 South crown in 2013. The improvements have not gone unnoticed outside of the desert, as Davis believes the Sun Devils are beginning their ascent under Graham.
"I think that you're seeing steady improvement from Arizona State and I think it's something that's going to allow them to sustain being one of the competitors in the Pac-12 South over the long haul," Davis said.
Davis commended Graham for his commitment to the spread option offense employed by coordinator and Deputy Head Coach Mike Norvell despite being a defensive-minded coach at heart. Different aspects of the program now stand out to the national media, including the emphasis on discipline and details that Graham brings to the Sun Devils.
"He's a good coach, a lot of energy, demanding, detail-oriented kind of guy in terms of discipline so I think that he's done a very good job and will continue to do so," Davis said.
Sun Devil fans are still understandably bitter about their team's loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl, but Davis believes that the game might have been an aberration. Whether the Sun Devils showed up lacking motivation is a great unknown, but Davis feels that Arizona State is headed in the right direction.
"In terms of the Arizona State loss to Texas Tech, sometimes in bowl games things just happen," Davis said. "And I don't mean at all to dismiss the victory for Texas Tech, it was a great win for Kliff Kingsbury and his staff, I still think Arizona State's the better football team, they just didn't play as well."
Davis brought up a fairly important theme throughout the conversation and that was the notion that matchups are becoming increasingly important in college football. Sometimes a team that doesn't do as well in the standings is able to match up more consistently against a team ahead of them because their personnel creates issues for an opponent.
The Sun Devils met their most difficult match up against Stanford, but Texas Tech also forced Arizona State into tough situations because tight end Jace Amaro and wide receiver Jakeem Grant gave the Sun Devils' mismatches at the second level.
"Texas Tech played better than Arizona State in that game but Arizona State's a better team," Davis said. "It just happened to work out that way and I'm sure 'the Sheriff', my new nickname for him, Sheriff Todd Graham can get that rectified and have all of his charges in order and use it as motivation for the offseason."
Arizona State wasn't the only Pac-12 team to meet its match in bowl season as the Stanford Cardinal did as well. David Shaw's Cardinal dropped a heart-breaker against Michigan State in the Rose Bowl and Davis said the Cardinal also faced match up issues.
"College football sort of evolves into a game of matchups and I think that Stanford, while it might give a spread based team, a little bit smaller team, faster-paced teams like Arizona State and Oregon trouble right now, Michigan State is constructed very much like Stanford so it becomes who has more difference makers," Davis said.
With Stanford and Arizona State both losing their bowl games, the Oregon Ducks finished as the highest ranked Pac-12 team in the country at No. 9 in the final AP poll. The Pac-12's low rankings almost mirror the Capital One Cup Standings, where in the men's cup, the California Golden Bears are the highest-ranked program at No. 13.
The competition in the Capital One Cup is far from over, but for Arizona State to compete on the men's side, it's likely going to take a national championship on the baseball diamond this season. As much as Sun Devil fans don't want to hear it, the Pac-12 school with the best opportunity to lock down the top spot in the standings is Arizona.
"They (Arizona) would collect 60 points for winning the NCAA (basketball) championship if they were able to do that so Arizona's a team that leaps off the page to be able to compete once you move into baseball season," Davis said.
Davis also said a number of Pac-12 programs will have a chance to compete for a baseball title, so the Wildcats aren't the conference's only shot at a program securing $400,000 in scholarship funds from Capital One.
"There are a number of traditional powers and schools in recent years that have done very well in baseball," Davis said. "UCLA obviously, Arizona's got one of the top coaches in the country, Oregon's been good, Oregon State's been good, so I think there are a lot of opportunities for Pac-12 schools moving forward to do very well.
In the history of the Capital One Cup, on the women's side, Stanford has won the thing twice so I think the Pac-12 has been very well represented."
On the men's side, Pac-12 fans can take solace in the fact that there's only two SEC programs ahead of the top Pac-12 school right now. The Pac-12-SEC rivalry was waged during the football season and questions about overall conference depth came into play. In a surprising twist, both conferences lost two of their top bowl games, but Davis said that's nothing to be ashamed of.
"The SEC also lost its two BCS games which is not highly unusual, it's unprecedented in terms of the championship game," Davis said. "I don't think it means the SEC is headed for some steep decline nor do I think that a couple of bowl losses hurt the Pac-12's perception."
With the BCS era coming to an end, the college football postseason might include more Pac-12-SEC showdowns as part of the college football playoff. Only four teams will take part in the playoff, but would four competitors have been enough to crown a true champion this year?
In all likelihood, a final four bracket of Florida State, Auburn, Stanford and Michigan State would have appeased most fans, but the college football playoff committee may not have selected those four teams. When asked how many teams he thought could have competed strongly in the national championship game this season, Davis said he thought eight to ten teams might have been able to earn a victory out in Pasadena.
"A lot of it is matchup based, but I would say probably eight teams right now could say at the end of the season were sort of in a group where you could say in the right set of circumstances, they could have beaten and Florida State or an Auburn on that night," Davis said.
As college football transitions toward the playoff system, Arizona State fans can only hope that the Sun Devils will do well enough to compete for a spot in the near future.
To listen to the complete audio from Crowley's interview with Davis, click here.