From the day he was hired as the head football coach at Arizona State, Todd Graham has spoken of winning Pac-12 championships and going to Rose Bowls. However, with a record of 7-1 and sitting at No. 11 in the AP Poll, the Sun Devils are firmly in the race for another championship: The National Championship.
Aside from all of the bad blood over Notre Dame attempting to back out of the game and what happened in AT&T Stadium last season, Graham knows the importance of this game, not just for the fan base or the national perception of the program. Graham knows that the loser of this game is effectively out of the race for a national title and he wishes that was not the case.
"I want to coach in these games, our players want to play in these games and our fans want to see these games," Graham said at his weekly press conference. "We have Michigan State on the schedule (2018, 2019), next year we play Texas A&M and we have LSU (2022, 2023) on the schedule. But if the system is how it is now, we are actually hurting ourselves by scheduling games that you could possibly lose."
A victory over No. 8 Notre Dame likely propels Arizona State into the top 10 of just about every poll. With a favorable final three games and a potential showdown with Oregon looming in Santa Clara for a Pac-12 Title, if the Sun Devils win out they may be on their way into the college football playoff.
However, a loss likely erases any shot of a national title for Arizona State, even if they hoist a Pac-12 Championship. There will be just too many one-loss teams for an 11-2 Arizona State team to jump.
"I hope in the near future we will have a time where every conference plays the same of conference games, everybody has a conference championship game and it is the same for everybody," said Graham.
Graham is attempting to point out the imbalance in college football. The Pac-12 plays nine conference games and a Pac-12 title game on a neutral site. The ACC and SEC both only play eight conference games, meaning the likes of Florida State, Auburn, Mississippi State all get to schedule another non-conference game. The Big 12 does not feature a conference championship game.
Mississippi State's non-conference schedule consists of UAB, Southern Miss, South Alabama and Tennessee Martin.
"If you lose a conference game and lose one non-conference game and still win your conference championship, you could most likely not get into the college football playoff," said Graham. "As opposed to somebody who schedules three easy wins.
"The conference champion should be the most important thing. I'm in favor of expanding to eight teams and having each conference champion earn and automatic bid and having three at-large teams."
Games like the one the Sun Devils will play on Saturday are either boom or bust. A victory will boom Arizona State into the college football playoff discussion and a loss will bust their national title aspirations. It is a system that may not be fair to teams who schedule difficult non-conference games, but it is a system that is here to stay for now.
A lot has changed since these two teams met in Dallas last season. The Sun Devils replaced nine starters on defense and the Irish themselves saw a lot of turnover on their own defense. Perhaps the biggest, newest wrinkle that Notre Dame will throw at Arizona State is the addition of quarterback Everett Golson.
The senior signal caller was on academic suspension last season and did not play against the Sun Devils. Instead, Arizona State saw the less mobile Tommy Rees. Golson returned this season and has thrown for 22 touchdowns and 2,311 yards.
"He's a really good quarterback," said Graham. "The way he extends plays is the main concern. He's very accurate throwing the football and he has a strong arm."
Most recently, Golson threw for three touchdowns and ran for three touchdowns in a victory over Navy last weekend. Golson is completing 62.8-percent of his passes and is averaging 7.89 yards per attempt. However, he has thrown seven interceptions in his last five games.
We have to make sure that we keep him contained," Graham said. "He hurts people a lot in critical downs. It will be third down and six, everybody is covered and he runs six yards for a touchdown. He is the key to their whole offense and how it works."
- Graham complemented Notre Dame head coach Brian Kelly, telling reporters he feels Notre Dame is always very disciplined and well-coached. He also says Notre Dame is the most talented team the Sun Devils have faced this year along the offensive and defensive lines.
- The Sun Devils will be debuting their new "Desert Fuel" uniforms on Saturday and head coach doesn't seem to be too interested. Graham and his staff let the players pick the uniform and about the new jerseys he said: "They're cool, unlike coach Graham. The players like them."
- The Sun Devils are kicking off their salute to service initiative. The school will be honoring servicemen and women at athletic events beginning this week and running through November 14. This includes Saturday's football game, where Senator John McCain will toss the coin.
- Arizona State's game on November 15 will kickoff at 7:45 PT/10:45 ET and be televised on ESPN. Because of the time change, the contest will not begin in Arizona until 8:45 p.m.
- The national championship trophy will be on the field Saturday during the game against Notre Dame.