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Sun Devils have hearts set on Rose Bowl

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After going 8-5 in Coach Todd Graham’s first season, the Arizona State football team enters the 2013 season with the pressure of making it to their first Rose Bowl since 1997. But are those expectations fair for Graham and the Sun Devils heading into the next year? The answer is yes.

Last year, the Sun Devils finished tied for second in the Pac-12 South Division, but should have defeated UCLA as they let the game slip away in the final seconds. Had the Sun Devils defeated the Bruins, they would have been the ones to face Stanford in the Pac-12 Championship Game.

A big issue for the Sun Devils last year was consistency after they started the season 5-1. From there, they’d lost four straight, finally finishing the season on a three-game winning streak.

To be the best team in the conference and earn a berth to the Rose Bowl, ASU will have to play like the best team in each and every game and will have to survive their first five games.

The Sun Devils will play one of the toughest (if not the toughest) stretch of games in college football with four straight games against ranked opponents: home against Wisconsin and USC, on the road at Stanford, and a visit to Cowboys Stadium to face the Notre Dame Fighting Irish.

The Sun Devils schedule could help them decide their own fate as they finish the season with games against defending Pac-12 South champ UCLA and rival Arizona. They also benefit from not having to play Oregon.

In his first season as starting quarterback, Taylor Kelly opened all eyes with a 29-touchdown, nine-interception season but was horrible against ranked teams, throwing for only 182 yards per game and four touchdowns last year in the Sun Devils’ three games versus ranked opponents. Kelly is good enough to be the best quarterback in the conference but his nine interceptions last year all came in losses, meaning he will need to be at his best when ASU plays against the top dogs.

Running back Marion Grice returns for his senior season and will look to improve on his phenomenal numbers in his first season as a Sun Devil after transferring from Blinn Junior College. Grice led the Sun Devils in rushing yards, rushing touchdowns, and receiving touchdowns. Grice played his best when it mattered most in the 2012 season, as 273 of his 679 rushing yards came in the four quarter as he averaged a remarkable 7.58 yards per carry in the final 12 minutes of the game.

ASU got a huge boost in the offseason when defensive tackle Will Sutton announced that he would return for his senior season after considering entering the 2013 NFL Draft. Sutton was second in the nation last year in tackles for a loss with 23.5 and has been named to numerous preseason watch lists for awards.

ASU’s defense improved dramatically from 2011 to 2012 as they allowed four fewer points per game, and ranked third among Pac-12 teams in passing yards allowed per game. The Sun Devils return all but three of their defensive starters from last year, including all four of their defensive lineman, who were the main reason the Sun Devils finished second in the nation in sacks and tackles for a loss during the 2012 campaign.

The pressure of making it to the Rose Bowl will test the Sun Devils but with 23 seniors on the team and a second year under coach Graham’s no-huddle system, the Sun Devils are built and will be prepared week in and week out to face each opponent.

Expectations will be high in Tempe but when bowl season comes around in January, look for the Sun Devils to be playing on New Year’s Day in Pasadena.

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