Texas Tech and Arizona State meet in a top-25 college football matchup Saturday night at Jones AT&T Stadium. Wait, what?
Well, it’s a top-25 matchup in a manner of speaking.
CoachesHotSeat.com ranks the Sun Devils’ Todd Graham No. 1 and the Red Raiders’ Kliff Kingsbury No. 23 in its most recent list of coaches under pressure. Kingsbury started the season No. 18 on the list, but pushed the wolf back from the door in the season opener with Tech’s 56-10 rout of Eastern Washington, an FCS program with a recent history of giving power-five conference teams all they can handle.
The combination of that and last week’s open date has given Kingsbury at least a temporary respite from the tide of negativity that piled up last season.
The Red Raiders could take another step away from the heat by beating a Pac-12 team.
“You always want to keep that good feeling going,” Kingsbury said Tuesday. “We know it’s a good football team coming in here. We know it’ll take our best shot to beat them.
“It’s a night game. We need it to be packed, need it to be loud, need it to be rocking. They (Arizona State) had a great atmosphere last year, so we hope all those things are going our way and that we can execute at a high level.”
Graham, a Texan who played high-school ball at North Mesquite, was riding high after going 10-4 in 2013 and 10-3 in 2014, delivering Arizona State its first back-to-back 10-win seasons since the 1970s. Those were Graham’s second and third seasons in Tempe.
But he’s come under fire with the Sun Devils going 6-7 and 5-7 the past two years and getting off to a rocky start this year. ASU beat New Mexico State by only 37-31 in the season opener, then lost 30-20 at home on Saturday to San Diego State.
Graham was asked during his Monday press conference how he addresses social-media criticism of players.
“All you have to do is go out and perform on the field and then you don’t have to worry about that kind of criticism,” he said. “That is why I don’t spend much time on social media.
“On the same hand, there is no one more disappointed than I am. I have sunk my heart and soul into this place. It means a lot to me to get it right. I don’t have any negative feelings towards anything negative because you bring that upon yourself not performing. And that’s on us as coaches, not our players.”
Graham and Kingsbury both are signed through the 2020 season. ASU declined to exercise a one-year rollover in Graham’s contract after last season, leaving him with less than five years on his deal for the first time since he arrived.
Graham said criticism bothers him mainly in regard to how it affects his wife and kids.
“These players are like my kids,” he said. “At the end of the day, we talked about our program competing for championships. We have done that. We’re two games into the season. We have a ways to go before this season is evaluated. You bring criticism on yourself by not performing well, and we did not perform well and I deserve the criticism when you have that.”
Kingsbury and Tech athletic director Kirby Hocutt both said during the off-season the Red Raiders have to do better in 2017. Hocutt said, “We were in a position that we shouldn’t have been in last year,” but continued to express confidence in Kingsbury’s ability to be successful.
Tech would have to pay $6.775 million to buy out Kingsbury’s contract after this season. Hocutt would prefer Kingsbury simply get the ship headed in the right direction. The ease with which the Red Raiders won their season opener — and with a number of new players contributing — offered some encouragement.
The specter of Arizona State brings to mind the Red Raiders’ 68-55 loss last year when Sun Devils running back Kalen Ballage tied an NCAA single-game record with eight touchdowns.
However, middle linebacker Jordyn Brooks and safety Jah’Shawn Johnson are likely to be the only Red Raiders’ defensive players starting on Saturday who also started in last year’s game. Of the 23 players listed in Tech’s defensive two-deep, three starters and seven backups are newcomers.
Which prompts the question of whether the disaster in the desert still registers in the locker room.
“I don’t (think so), to an extent,” Kingsbury said. “I think obviously anytime somebody scores eight touchdowns on you, you’re going to know about it, but I think they understand this is a new defense, two teams in a new year, so last year doesn’t mean anything, really.”
Who: Arizona State at Texas Tech
When: 7 p.m. Saturday
Where: Jones AT&T Stadium
Records: Arizona State 1-1, Texas Tech 1-0
Last game: San Diego State 30, Arizona State 20; Texas Tech 56, Eastern Washington 10
Last meeting: Arizona State 68, Tech 55 last year in Tempe, Ariz.
Line: Tech by 7 1/2
Fast fact: Arizona State will be the first Pac-12 team to play at Jones AT&T Stadium since Oregon beat Tech 28-13 in 1991.