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Evaluating College Football’s First-Year Head Coaches: Todd Graham

Unlike so many other first year college football coaches, Todd Graham didn’t inherit a broken program when he arrived at Arizona State in the winter of 2011. There wasn’t the need for a major schematic overhaul, no extreme talent infusion or even the dreaded “culture change” that so many first-year coaches promise when they arrive at a new destination.

Nope, all Arizona State really needed from Graham when he arrived in Tempe was a swift kick in the butt, after a laissez-faire, “whatever dude” attitude had fully permeated the program under previous coach Dennis Erickson. Well, Arizona State got that swift kick from Graham.

On paper, Arizona State’s 8-5 2012 season wasn’t a huge jump up from the 5-7 2011 final year under Erickson, but still, something just felt different. Boneheaded plays went to the way-side; dumb penalties were fewer and further between; and overall, Arizona State just played like, well, like a well-coached football team.

Of course with five losses, there is still plenty of work ahead as well.

So what went right in Graham’s first year in Tempe? Also, what went wrong?

It’s time to take a look.

What Went Right: The biggest jump appeared to be on offense, where a solid unit under Erickson was simply booming under Graham. The Sun Devils finished the 2012 season averaging 38 points per game, highlighted by a 52-point effort in a Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl beat down win over Navy.

Of all the pleasant surprises on the offensive side of the ball for the Sun Devils, none was more shocking than the emergence of Taylor Kelly as not only a competent quarterback but also one of the best in the Pac-12. Understand, that’s no knock on Kelly; the simple truth is that we just didn’t know anything about him entering the season. Prior to 2012, Kelly had thrown four career passes total. Well in his debut last year, he threw for 39 touchdowns and over 3,000 yards.

Add in a defense which went from 74th nationally (allowing 28.6 per game in 2011) to 40th nationally (allowing 24.3 points per game in 2012) in Graham’s first year at the school, and it’s safe to say that Arizona State football is on the upswing.

What Went Wrong: While those eight wins look great on paper, there does need to be some context added to them: Up until the final weekend of the regular season (and subsequent bowl game), the Sun Devils didn’t beat a single team that ended the year with bowl eligiblity. Their wins came against a slew of overmatched out of conference opponents (Northern Arizona, Illinois) and Pac-12 bottom-feeders (Utah, Cal, Colorado, Washington State).

Now granted, that all changed with a surprising Territorial Cup win over Arizona to close the season, but the fact remains that against good teams, Arizona State well, wasn’t that good. Four consecutive losses to Oregon, UCLA, Oregon State and USC are nothing to get too worked up about, but they also prove that this program has a lot of growing to do.

The next step in the evolution of Arizona State football is to not only compete with the conference’s best teams, but to beat them. That can, and should happen in 2013.

Which leads us to…

Where Do Things Go From Here: As good as things were in Year 1 under Graham, frankly, they should only get better in 2013. As we mentioned at the top, Graham didn’t inherit a talentless team, but instead one that simply needed sound coaching. They got exactly that in 2012, and the real dividends should start to show next fall.

Looking at things in the big picture, remember that Kelly returns at quarterback, as do the Sun Devils’ top rusher (Marion Grice), top receiver (tight end Chris Coyle) and essentially the entire defense  (although linebacker Brandon Magee will be missed). And while Graham’s first full recruiting class at Arizona State won’t blow anyone away on paper (it was ranked 34th nationally by Rivals.com), he did fill immediate needs on defense and along the offensive line with a slew of talented junior college players.

With USC slumping and Arizona “not quite there yet,” there’s no reason to think that Arizona State can’t compete with UCLA for the Pac-12 South title in 2013.

As good as Year 1 was under Graham, the best is yet to come.

Todd Graham’s First-Year Coaching Grade: B+

Jim Mora, UCLA

Urban Meyer, Ohio State

Bill O’Brien, Penn State

Charlie Weis, Kansas

Tim Beckman, Illinois

Kevin Sumlin, Texas A&M

Rich Rodriguez, Arizona

Mike Leach, Washington State

Larry Fedora, North Carolina

For all his opinion, analysis and insight on college football, be sure to follow Aaron on Twitter @Aaron_Torres.

Follow Crystal Ball Run on Twitter @CrystalBallRun.

About Aaron Torres

Aaron Torres works for Fox Sports, and was previously a best-selling author of the book 'The Unlikeliest Champion.' He currently uses Aaron Torres Sports to occasionally weigh-in on the biggest stories from around sports. He has previously done work for such outlets as Sports Illustrated, SB Nation and Slam Magazine.

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