Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, August 28, 2014

2014 Rocky Mountain Showdown Preview

I will inflict upon the genophage the greatest insult an enemy can suffer: to be ignored. - Warlord Okeer

There's been a lot of hot air blowing around this week, even more than usual.  A lot of it has been weird, beyond-the-pale ramblings from the delusional up north (as well as some from the delusional down south). Like batshit insane stuff along the lines of 'we're actually happier being second rate.'


You know what, that's it.  I've had enough.  This isn't even fun in the awkward ways it used to be.  I no longer have enough give-a-shit in my body to care about the state's little farm college.  This year they pushed me over the edge.  I'm just flat done with them, their fans, and their Napoleonic fetish of being the little guy.  They want to be a minor league organization, then so be it, but I'm not being dragged down to Single-A.

Below the fold, you will find NO MENTION of tomorrow night's opponent.  I'm taking this opportunity to preview our Buffs, and no one else.

I ain't even kidding anymore, they ain't worth my time.


The 86th edition of the Rocky Mountain Showdown kicks off from Sports Authority Field at Mile High at 7pm MT on Friday. Coverage can be found on FOX Sports 1 (yep, even for you Dish folk), with Mark Johnson and the radio broadcast on 850 KOA.

For reference, you can find my previews from previous iterations of this series here, here, here, and here.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

The 2013 Colorado Buffaloes hit the offseason with a bad taste in their mouths, blowing numerous chances to capitalize on a bungling bunch of Utes throughout last November's 24-17 defeat in Salt Lake City.

The Buffs put up a fight in their season-closing loss, but were the vessel of their own destruction. Through some painfully bad execution on the goal line, a trio of devastating turnovers, and a number of key drops on offense, the team couldn't get out of their own way to capitalize on a reeling Ute squad that looked like they wanted to be anywhere but on a football field. Had CU put anything even close to a complete performance together, they would've claimed an important program-building victory.  Instead, it was coulda-woulda-shoulda in the Wasatch Range

To my eyes, the defense played well enough to win. While they repeatedly bent to the Ute's will, they forced turnovers when needed, and cut off scoring after the first half. Offensively, the team just made too many mistakes. Freshman QB Sefo Liufau played to his youth in the first half, looking skittish as he repeatedly overthrew receivers and coughed up two turnovers. Meanwhile, the offensive line was unable to open up holes on two ugly goal line scoring opportunities, a pair of opportunities lost that would've allowed the Buffs to steal a victory.

A poor first half from Liufau dug too deep a hole. From: the BDC.
Colorado outscored Utah 17-3 over the final 30 minutes of play, but had dug themselves an impossible 21-0 hole over the first 30.  A full 60 minute effort earns the 'W.'  Performances like that are not unexpected from a young program.  As the group continues to age and gel, look for the team to cut out the fat, and turn opportunities like last year's Utah game into wins.

Statistically Speaking -

2013 NCAA Statistics report can be found here

Last year was a season spent slowly climbing out of the statistical crater left by 2012.  CU improved their combined average scoring rates by a ridiculous 14 points (7.57 ppg better on offense, and 7.7 ppg better on defense), and saw major gains on offense (over 67 more yards per game).  Yet, still, the Buffs lagged behind both the nation and the conference in most major statistical categories, including boasting the Pac-12's 11th and 12th best efforts in defense and offense, respectively.  The old adage is 'Rome wasn't built in a day,' and neither, apparently, is an appealing stat sheet.

You can easily assign the credit for the offensive surge to a historically strong season from Paul Richardson. The star wideout, now a member of the Seattle Seahawks, seemed to be everywhere and anywhere for the Buffs last season.  Coming off a year lost to a torn knee ligament, the blur in pads was nearly impossible for opposing defenses to contain.  From the opening game in Denver - where he was repeatedly loose in the defensive backfield to the tune of 10 catches, 208 yards and two scores - to the end of a season that deserved more Belitnikoff attention than he actually received, he was incredible.  The final tally, 83 catches, 1,343 yards, and 10 scores against defenses designed to limit his every move on the field, is astounding, and stands as one of the best individual seasons ever in a Colorado uniform.
How did he get so wide open?  From: the Post
The task now becomes replacing his production.  Richardson was almost a third of all offensive production by himself, and accounted for 10 of CUs 31 scored touchdowns.  Nothing against returning receiver Nelson Spruce, but he's not going to put those numbers up.  It's going to have to be a team effort, because, of course, the offense will be much more balanced in 2014.  It has to be.  I'm not talking in terms of play calling (421 rushing attempts to 411 passing in '13), but in terms of production.  The simple fact is, when a player like Richardson puts up video game numbers on a struggling team like Colorado, opponents are going to key in on him.  As a result, it was far too easy at times for opponents to take Paul out of key plays to stall drives. Case-in-point, 804 of Richardson's yardage total came on first down, compared to only 189 on third. Unsurprisingly, with Paul in handcuffs, the Buffs were 107th in the country in third down conversion rate last year (33%).  I can't help but think that multiple options and a better rushing attack will see that rate improve in 2014.

Defensively, while CU was far from statistically sound, I did see some positive signs on the field.  The Buffs held opponents to a 38% third down rate, good for 54th nationally, were in the middle of the pack in the redzone, and made some big, game-changing plays when they needed to.  They even returned four for their 13 turnovers caused for touchdown, sealing a few wins in the process.  The unit was, by-and-large, fun to watch for large stretches of the year.  I expect continued improvement this campaign.
Oh, that's right, defense can be fun to watch. 
One area they definitely must improve on is getting to the quarterback.  They ranked 122nd nationally in adjusted sack rate, and only recorded 12 sacks in Pac-12 games.  In a league that's so dominated by quarterback play, that stat line is fatal.  Moving forward, any improvement must come without graduated DE Chidera Uzo-Diribe, who was, by far, their best pass rusher over the previous two seasons.  It'll be up to a fresh-faced line to make gains in 2014.

Star Players - 

The Buffs continue to be a young herd.  28 underclassmen litter the two-deep, third most in the nation.  That bodes well for the future, but could make for season filled with growing pains.  Luckily, while they may be young, this team has some interesting pieces who are clearly Pac-12 caliber.  As this group grows and matures, we could start to see some fireworks.

Offensively, this is now Sefo Liufau's team.  The sophomore from Tacoma, WA burned his redshirt as a mid-season replacement for struggling starter Connor Wood, and hasn't really looked back.  While his freshman campaign was far from perfect, he put up solid numbers, notching 1,779 yards and a 12-8 TD-INT ratio in eight games.  For a freshman, he displayed good poise and accuracy despite some rough patches.  After holding his own in 2013, he only solidified his place as the starter over the offseason.  As a result, the perception is that backups Jordan Gehrke and Cade Apsay are significantly behind him on the depth chart.
The Liufau era is in full swing.  From: the BDC
The young Liufau, then, stands to become what Colorado has sorely needed since Joel Klatt graduated - an under-center foundation with which to build the offense upon.  That's not me getting ahead of myself, and penciling the kid in for Klatt's record-setting production.  I'm simply postulating that Liufau, as the unquestioned leader of the offense with three years still to play, can reasonably be expected to serve as single voice of leadership for years to come.  The offense in Boulder has been screaming for that type of calming influence over the past nine seasons, and the prospect of its arrival is very much welcomed.

Protecting the young slinger is an offensive line that finally seems to be coming together.  The group is built around a pair of 5th-year senior guards in Dan Munyer and Kaiwi Crabb.  Behind their efforts, the line was 26th nationally in tackles for loss allowed in 2013, and their protection of their fledgling quarterback was a quiet source of pride for the program.  Even with the departures of graduating seniors Jack Harris and Gus Handler, I expect big things from this group this year.  Look for monster junior right tackle Stephane Nembot to take his game to the next level, and start to earn some conference recognition.
Nembot is just now learning to be great.
If the line can continue to block for Liufau, he's got some enticing targets to find for big yards.  While the great Paul Richardson is gone, I like junior Nelson Spruce to fit well into the lead receiver role.  He's more of a possession type than the flashier Richardson was, but Nelson is no plodding louse.  Look for him to be the target receiver on most passing downs.
Spruce has some big shoes to fill.  From: the CU Independent
Supporting Spruce in the receiving corps is diminutive senior D.D. Goodson, who finally seems to have settled on a position.  The Buffs will rely on his speed to stretch the defense. Freshmen Bryce Bobo and Shay Fields also figure to feature on the outside.

Tailback is interesting, where as many as four players look likely to contribute significant carries.  The biggest, and most consistent producer over the last few years has been Christian Powell.  The 6-0, 230 lb junior seems to have been leap-frogged, however, by sophomore Michael Adkins II.  The San Diego product came on strong last season, and finished only 27 yards behind Powell for the team lead in rushing yards while posting an attractive 5.19 yards per carry.  Expect a 'thunder and lightning' combo to develop between the two, with Powell used to throw body blows at the opposing line, and Adkins to level the haymaker on designed big runs.  Senior Tony Jones and freshman Phillip Lindsay will support.
This could be Adkins breakout year.  From: the CU Independent
Much like the offense, the defense is lead by a sophomore who looks poised to run the show for years to come.  Addison Gillam, a 6-3, 225 lb California product, started as a freshman in 2013, and posted a Jordan Dizon-esque 119 tackles (the first time ever a freshman has lead the Buffs in that category).  He also picked off or deflected six passes, en route to earning Freshman All-American honors.
Gillam leads the developing defense
Gillam is the truth.  Only more is expected of him in '14, and he joins Liufau as being named a team captain as a true sophomore (no small feat, that).  Expect the entire defense to be built around his ability to fly to the ball.

CU will certainly need his help to support a pass rush that really struggled a year ago.  To that end, there's a bunch of new faces on the edge.  Look for redshirt freshman legacy Derek McCartney to get an extended look in his first campaign, as practice reports gave him plenty of praise.  He should enjoy plenty of freedom to get off the edge against opposing lines, as returning tackles Josh Tupou and Juda Parker look to garner most of the double-teams.  Tupou, especially, is a mountain of a man, and seems to have a high upside.  The 6-3, 325 lb Californian needs to demand attention on every play to keep guards from getting to the second level against Gillam.
The best word to describe Tupou - hogmollie.
The emerging backfield should be a strength.  Coming from just a few years ago, when fringe wide receivers were forced into emergency starts, the corps is light years ahead of where they were.  Even without injured senior Jered Bell, this group is deep and explosive.  All those spent scholarships are beginning to bear fruit.

Greg Henderson returns for his final taste of college ball, on the cusp of completing a standout career. The 5-11, 195 lbs senior has been a consistent starter since his freshman year, and is the veteran rock that this group is built around.  He had a breakout 2013 campaign, when he recorded 10 pass breakups, 14 third down stops, and returned two turnovers for touchdown.  Another year like that, and he's going to earn some national recognition.

On the other side of the defensive backfield is junior Ken Crawley.  The 6-1 DC product came to Boulder with a lot of recruiting fanfare, and seems poised to live up to the billing in '14.  If teams start to go away from Henderson, look from Crawley to get his name read a lot.

The pair are supported by a pair of sophomore safeties.  Tedric Thompson and Chidobe Awuzie  need to play fast and aggressive to give the defensive line time to get to the quarterback.

Coaching - 

I'm still not sure what to make of Mike MacIntyre.  I certainly feel he has a better grasp of what it will take to improve the program than Jon Embree did, but every time I heard him talk about his 'CARE' initiative last season (necessary to save his player's beaten psyches), I couldn't help but think back to the days of 'Hawk Love.'  It was like a bad acid flashback, or an abused child reliving unspeakable nights.  NO, HAWK, NO!

But there's a lot of positive signs flowing from the program.  Outside observers have been universal in their praise, and an improved attention to detail shone through last year when the young Buffs lead the Pac-12 in fewest penalties committed.  I don't think anyone honestly doubts that this guy can coach.

Has Colorado finally found their coaching solution?
That said, it's important to note that 2013 was far from good.  MacIntyre was a historic rain storm and a rescheduling from Fresno State away from finishing 3-9 in year one, exactly as his predecessor did in his first campaign.  Beyond a general sense of optimism, and vague reports of 'they look better on the practice fields' I can't really point to one single thing that says 'yep, that proves the Buffs will be back.'  It's all hearsay at this point.

That's why this second season is so damned important for Mac 2.0.  He absolutely must put something on the field that says 'definite upswing.'  He absolutely must hit some of the goals I set yesterday.  This program cannot survive another year of 30 point blowouts and maintain any semblance of a fan base.  At the end of the year, there has to be some concrete source of pride for BuffNation to point to and puff their chests over.

Luckily for him, the infrastructure is in place.  The administration gave him the gift of the still forming Folsom upgrades, he's got a developing quarterback, and the roster is aging well together.  He's still a year away from having what I would consider the 'pieces in place,' but I don't think the youth and talent excuses will last much longer.

And thus, we enter the UNCOMMON era.  Get it done.

Prediction - 

(My record last season: 12-0. Against the spread: 6-5. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +1.17 pts/gm)

Line as of Thursday @ 11am - CU -3, O/U 59.5

Hey, I finished above .500 ATS last year.  That'd be good if I actually put money on these games, WHICH I DON'T SINCE SPORTS BETTING IS ILLEGAL. *ahem*

In an echo of 2003, last year's RMS was defined by big plays.  CU made more of them, so they got to be 1-0.  They'll need a repeat performance tomorrow.  As it's opening day, I expect the RMS to be defined by firsts.  First starts, first big plays, first scores.  For the record, CU has won 24 of their last 25 openers when they get on the board before their opponent.  That's a strong trend, and I expect that whoever gets their nose out in front first will probably end up winning.

The Buffs have been a team of quiet confidence this summer - confident that they're getting better, and that their coaches have them headed in the right direction.  We'll see how that translates on the field, but, for now, I'll give them the benefit of the doubt.

Give me Colorado and the under - 31-20


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