There is little doubt that when the Sun Devils play the Aggies of Texas A&M on Saturday night they will do so in a road environment. Despite the contest being labeled a neutral site game, Houston is just 100 miles from College Station and a heavy Aggie contingent is expected to greet the Sun Devils.
However, in the midst of the road atmosphere, at least one Sun Devil will feel at home: Head coach Todd Graham. Born in Mesquite, Tex., Graham spent eight seasons coaching in the Texas high school ranks. Graham's mother still lives in The Lone Star State.
"It's always good to go back to Texas. I'll have family at the game," Graham told reporters at his Monday press conference.
His coaching career began as an assistant coach at Poteet High/Middle School in 1988. After spending four years in Oklahoma coaching NAIA and high school for a year, Graham returned to Texas to coach famed Allen High School from 1995-2000.
"I was born and raised there and I coached Texas high school football. The person who I look up to the most and respect the most is Tom Landry," Graham said. "Growing up in Dallas, he was like an icon."
Graham has brought the Sun Devils into Texas in each of the last two seasons. ASU beat Duke in the 2014 Hyundai Sun Bowl and fell to Notre Dame in Dallas in 2013. Since 1955, ASU is 17-1 in games played in the state of Texas, and the Sun Devils won't have to wait long for their next trip to the state.
"If you look at our future schedule we will be going back their quite a bit," said Graham.
ASU returns to Texas to play UTSA in 2016 and Texas Tech in 2017. Normally, a road game against a C-USA opponent would open some eyeballs, however it is all part of the larger picture for Graham and his staff.
"It also has to do with our job here, we have quite a few kids from the state of Texas here and we are going to recruit there so it helps to play there," Graham said. "It's difficult to recruit in an area that you don't play in."
Chad Adams, Christian Sam, Nick Ralston, Cam Smith, Llyod Carrington, Zane Gonzalez, Ellis Jefferson, Laiu Moeakiola and Billy McGehee are the Sun Devils wilth Texas roots and like Graham will feel at home when ASU opens the season on Sept. 5.
Challenge of Playing Texas A&M
The Sun Devils are in some unfamiliar territory. In Todd Graham's first three seasons, ASU opened up with an FCS opponent in the friendly confines of Sun Devil Stadium. In those games, ASU has outscored their opponents 163-20 in season openers under Todd Graham.
However, this season the Sun Devils open with an SEC team that is a year removed from winning 10 games. Last year, Texas A&M started the season 5-0, including victories over South Carolina and Arkansas.
"Is it easy? No, it's not easy, especially going on the road like that and not having a return game. Not many people do that, but we'll do it. I think it's made our team better," Graham said. "I think our team has had a sense of urgency and preparation. I think our team is going to be tested in a big way, and I'm a firm believer that we're ready for that test."
The last time ASU beat a power conference opponent to begin the season was 1999 when Bruce Snyder led the Sun Devils over Texas Tech, 31-13.
"Scheduling this game first has been really an interesting experience because I don't know if I've ever -- I think maybe one year at Tulsa we played BYU to open the season, and it really impacted our summer. So we're excited and ready to load up," Graham said.
Unlike in past seasons, the season opener could be a make or break game for ASU. Even though the game has no conference significance, a victory on national television over the Aggies would boost the national perception of the program. A loss could eliminate the Sun Devils from the College Football Playoff discussion (assuming they don't run the table in the Pac-12).
"I like having this game there. I think when you play better people, it makes you better," Graham said. "It's like you can't win big games and never play in a big game. When you play in a big game every once in a blue moon, it doesn't help you. So I like that we're starting off this way in the season, and then when you start conference, you're going to start off in a big way as well."
- Graham was asked a few times about Texas A&M quarterback Kyle Allen, who hails from Scottsdale, Ariz. "Well, he's exactly what I thought he was when we were recruiting him. I mean, you can tell he's a high-character kid, very much in command, very smart quarterback, makes all the throws, executes their offense. Being able to play as a freshman is pretty impressive, and I thought he did a remarkable job."
- Arizona State is 0-6 all-time against the SEC. The Pac-12 has just one victory over the SEC since 2011. It was Oregon's 2013 win over Tennessee.
- Texas A&M is 15-0 in non-conference games since joining the SEC.
- Todd Graham and Kevin Sumlin have coached against each other three times. The two coaches met each year from 2008-2010 when Graham was at Tulsa and Sumlin was the head coach at Houston. Sumlin was 2-1 in those three games.