Best case-worst case: Arizona State

August, 14, 2012
8/14/12
7:15
PM ET
This is the second in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.

Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.

We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).

Up next: Arizona State

Best case

While a 40-7 win over Northern Arizona wasn't terribly revealing, it became clear in la ast-second victory over Illinois what new Arizona State coach Todd Graham saw during preseason practices when he lauded quarterback Taylor Kelly's scrappiness.

The homestanding Sun Devils lined up fourth-and-goal on Illinois' 7-yard line with 10 seconds left and the Illini leading by four. Kelly took a quick drop but was immediately surrounded by orange helmets. He rolled to his right, reversed field around the pursuit, back-peddled and then, just after delivering a punishing stiff-arm to Illini end Michael Buchanan, he lobbed a ball across his body to the far corner of the end zone.

Where J.J. Holliday outleaped two defenders for the game-winning touchdown.

"Exactly how we drew it up," Graham quips after the game. "No, that's just a guy making a play on his own. That's what we saw this preseason and, more important, that's also what his teammates saw."

Also important: The Sun Devils have just one turnover and four penalties for 30 yards. None are personal fouls or unsportsmanlike conducts.

"That's still too many mistakes," Graham says.

The Sun Devils produce another thriller at Missouri, which was held to just 45 points in a SEC-debut win over Georgia. With the Sun Devils up 28-24 late in the fourth quarter, the Tigers face a second-and-goal on the Arizona State 1-yard line. Quarterback James Franklin tries to sneak it in, but he's met inches from the goal line by linebacker Brandon Magee, whose blow knocks the ball loose.

Mike Pennel, the 340-pound defensive tackle, nimbly scoops up the ball at the 10-yard line, and then takes an amusing minute and a half to rumble the other way for a touchdown -- Tigers bouncing off his rotund 6-foot-5 frame all the way down the field.

It's the ESPN Play of the Day, provided musical accompaniment by Henry Mancini's "Baby Elephant Walk."

The end result is a No. 20 ranking with No. 18 Utah coming to town.

"It's a battle of unbeatens in Tempe, the winner perhaps looking like the top contender against USC in the South Division," says Chris Fowler of ESPN's "College GameDay."

"And with Missouri stomping South Carolina earlier today, you might call the winner the early favorite in the SEC East," adds Kirk Herbstreit.

It proves to be a Cameron Marshall-John White IV battle, as both running backs eclipse 150 yards and score twice. The difference, however, proves to be Marshall turning a screen from Kelly into a 44-yard TD. Junior Onyeali's fifth sack of the season snuffs a late Utes drive and seals the 30-24 victory.

The Sun Devils are flagged just once for five yards.

"Still too much," Graham says.

It's not easy, however, for a program to cure all its bugaboos in a single season. The Sun Devils just don't win in the state of California very often and that holds true during a 20-17 loss to Cal in Berkeley.

The Sun Devils bounce back with a 42-17 victory over Colorado and, at 5-1, move up to No. 19 in the nation, but they get drubbed 44-19 by No. 3 Oregon the following weekend.

"This is about where we lost it last year," Marshall says. "We fell apart like we were Snooki taking the SAT."

A date with UCLA certainly doesn't bring back good memories. This is a different team, with different leadership, though. Alex Garoutte kicks field goals of 38, 48 and, with five seconds left on the clock, the winning 56-yarder in a 30-28 victory over the Bruins. That winning drive included the Sun Devils converting on a third-and-29 play.

The Sun Devils slip Oregon State 31-27, but get rocked 45-21 at No. 1 USC. A 44-40 win over Washington State pushes them to 8-3 and back into the top 25.

And so it's off to Tucson to try to take back the Territorial Cup from Arizona. The Wildcats need a victory to become bowl-eligible. An Arizona State win sends the Sun Devils to the Holiday Bowl in San Diego. A loss means El Paso, Texas, and the Sun Bowl.

Magee gathers his teammates.

"We've had a lot of bad times in this program since I've been here," he says. "But I wouldn't trade them for anything because that's how I got here tonight -- this moment -- with you guys. This is the best place to be in the world, right here in this locker room before we open a can of whup-butt. We are the beginning. We are the foundation. And for that, we will always be remembered. When Arizona State wins a Rose Bowl, wins a national championship, we will all celebrate together as Sun Devils. And then everyone that wears our colors will raise their hands and point at us and say, 'But it started with you guys.'

"Now let's go bust those guys to pieces."

Arizona State rolls 38-20 and earns a berth in the Holiday Bowl opposite Texas. A 41-28 victory over the Longhorns earns the Sun Devils a 10-3 finish and final No. 14 ranking.

The Sun Devils lead the nation in fewest penalties per game.

Pittsburgh finishes 3-9, with players taking to Twitter saying how much they miss Coach Graham.

"I've got great news," says Steve Patterson, ASU vice president for athletics. "Now that the economy is rallying and local housing prices are soaring, we are pleased to announced a $200 million anonymous donation that will help finance a $300 million renovation of Sun Devil Stadium."

It turns out that ASU alumni Nick Nolte, Jimmy Kimmel and David Spade pooled their money and gave the school the $200 million.

Says Spade, "Hey, 'Joe Dirt' was huge in France."

Worst case

It takes more than optimism and saying all the right things to transform a program. It doesn't take long for Graham to find out that talking about unity and discipline is one thing. Imposing it in the Arizona State locker room is another.

After whipping Northern Arizona in the opener, things go down hill quickly. Illinois sacks quarterback Taylor Kelly six times in a 28-10 defeat. Missouri QB James Franklin accounts for five touchdowns in a 40-17 loss, with Michael Eubank replacing Kelly in the second half but failing to rally the Sun Devils.

Eubank gets the start against Utah, but the Sun Devils turn the ball over three times in the first half and gain just 97 yards against a physical Utes defense. Kelly starts the second half but things don't get any better. Players are seen mouthing, "Put Mike Bercovici in!" on the sidelines.

After a blowout loss at California, the Sun Devils are averaging 105 yards in penalties per game.

Bercovici leads the Sun Devils to a 35-30 victory at Colorado, but he gets into a brief skirmish with Graham after he tells the punt unit to get off the field before a fourth-down play from the Buffs' 44-yard line.

It appears the Sun Devils completely surrender in a 52-3 loss to Oregon.

"This obviously isn't going to get fixed overnight," Graham says amid rumors of a post-game locker-room fight between offensive and defensive players. "It takes time to change a program's culture."

Just 24,000 fans show up to watch the Sun Devils fall to 2-6 against UCLA. The season further spirals down the toilet after a loss at Oregon State, a 56-6 evisceration at USC and a 42-21 home defeat to Washington State.

"I know this team will show up with some fight at Arizona," Graham says. "We always fight against the Wildcats."

Arizona whips the Sun Devils 44-24 and advances to the Holiday Bowl, where the Wildcats beat Texas and finish the season 9-4 and ranked 25th.

Tempe's own Priest Willis commits to Arizona, as do Jalen Ortiz and Cole Luke.

Arizona alumni Linda Ronstadt, Geraldo Rivera and Garry Shandling give the Wildcats athletic department $200 million dollars.

"We just want all their stuff to be way better than Arizona State's," Ronstadt explains. "Bear down!"

Pittsburgh wins the Orange Bowl.

Graham texts his players at 4 a.m. on Dec. 25 that he's leaving for the head coaching job at McNeese State.

"It's always been my dream to coach the Honey Badger," he types.

Tyrone Willingham hired to replace Graham.

Ted Miller | email

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PAC-12 SCOREBOARD

Saturday, 12/20
Monday, 12/22
Tuesday, 12/23
Wednesday, 12/24
Friday, 12/26
Saturday, 12/27
Monday, 12/29
Tuesday, 12/30
Wednesday, 12/31
Thursday, 1/1
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Saturday, 1/3
Sunday, 1/4
Monday, 1/12