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The Sun Devils are not who Todd Graham thought they were

Arizona State head coach Todd Graham, left, talks with D.J. Foster (8) on the sidelines during the second half of an NCAA college football game against Southern California Saturday, Sept. 26, 2015, in Tempe, Ariz. Southern California defeated Arizona State 42-14. (AP Photo/Ross D. Franklin)

TEMPE, Ariz. — When the 2015 college football season began, Arizona State was a fashionable pick to earn one of four bids to the College Football Playoff. Coach Todd Graham didn’t shy away from those projections, calling this the most talented team he has coached in Tempe.

Four games in, it appears Graham has oversold this group — and the gap between the listed and actual values is wide.

After watching USC’s thorough, 42-14 dismantling of the Sun Devils on Saturday at Sun Devil Stadium, the question isn’t whether ASU will make the College Football Playoff. It won’t.

The question is: Will ASU be bowl bound?

It’s important to acknowledge that football is constructed for overreaction, be it positive or negative. There is so much build-up each week that game days always produce emotional extremes. It’s either delight or despair.

That said, ASU is 2-2 and the upcoming schedule is just brutal. Next week, the Sun Devils travel to face unbeaten UCLA, which hung 56 points on Arizona in a Tucson whipping that wasn’t as close as that 26-point spread suggests.

After a breather at home against Colorado, the Sun Devils travel to Utah to face an undefeated Utes team that just handed Oregon a 62-20 loss at Autzen Stadium — the most points Oregon has ever allowed in a home game.

Speaking of those Ducks, they come to Tempe right after the Sun Devils face the Utes. Think they’ll be a bit ill tempered for the remainder of the season?

There exists the very real possibility, maybe even likelihood, that ASU will be 3-5 as it prepares to face Washington State in Pullman on Nov. 7. How did this season get so far off the rails so quickly?

It started in the season-opener against Texas A&M when it became clear that ASU had an average receiving corps, a pair of tackles who would struggle to protect and a quarterback whose best gifts didn’t seem to mesh with offensive coordinator Mike Norvell’s offense or the personnel around him.

On Saturday, however, the Sun Devils endured a complete breakdown in all three phases of the game. The offense turned the ball over three times, kicker Zane Gonzalez missed two field goals, Sun Devils return man De’Chavon Hayes fumbled a kickoff at his own 4-yard line and the defense was absolutely torched by a faster, more athletic Trojans receiving corps.

Safety Jordan Simone, one of the most likeable and admirable kids you will ever meet, had a difficult day on defense, getting repeatedly exposed in space.

“I’ve got to do better. I’ve got to be a better leader out there,” Simone said. “We’ve just got to cover them better. They beat us on plays and that can’t happen in the secondary.”

As it limped to the locker room trailing 35-0, ASU looked up at its first, first-half shutout since Sept. 21, 2013 at Stanford. That fact was just one bullet point on a long list of appalling achievements.

Saturday’s loss nearly eclipsed Graham’s worst home loss at ASU (a 62-27 loss to UCLA last season) and it’s not unreasonable to wonder if this season will wind up being Graham’s worst in Tempe.

His first three teams went 8-5, 10-4 and 10-3, leading Graham to note in the preseason that his program had proven it could win 10 games, now it wanted more. The Sun Devils will probably have to settle for less.

“This is the best team we’ve had overall,” Graham insisted. “We’re just not playing that way.”

Graham isn’t going to change who he is. His job is to sell the program — to boosters the fan base and recruits, many of whom were in attendance on Saturday. Graham clearly has a salesman’s slant, but he has worked tirelessly in the community and on the recruiting trail to awaken this supposed sleeping giant. He is exactly what ASU needed after the disappointing Dennis Erickson era came to a close.

There is nothing inherently wrong with building up your team; in wanting to take the program to the next level and shouting it from the rooftops.

But when you are so far off in your projections, it erodes credibility and leaves behind a sour taste, as losing always does. While three other Pac-12 South teams climbed the AP poll on Saturday, the Sun Devils looked nothing like the preseason No. 15 club that ESPN analyst Kirk Herbstreit had in his final four.

For the first time since Graham arrived in Tempe, it is fair to wonder whether the Sun Devils are still moving forward or if the program has once again plateaued.

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