Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Thursday, September 1, 2016

2016 Rocky Mountain Showdown Preview

My views on the RMS are well known by this point: I don't care about the opponent, I don't care about the series, and I don't care about the venue.  It is the ultimate shoulder shrug of an event for me, and one that I feel Colorado Football would be better off to scrap in its entirety.  In that vein, I do not deem it worthy of a full preview.  Instead, bypassing the matchup in its entirety, I will choose to focus this space on the one thing involved that I do care about: the Colorado Buffaloes.

That's right, continuing the childish petulance of the previous two years, I flat out refuse to even name-drop tomorrow night's opponent.  You will find NO MENTION of that team below the fold.  I'm taking the opportunity to preview our Buffs, and only our Buffs. No, this isn't like my basketball preview, and nowhere near 20,000 words; don't be afraid.  Just a brief, superficial look at the team, and where I see them headed in 2016.

So, without further adieu, here we go...

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Hype music for the week: "Friday" by Rebecca Black

Have I mentioned before that I hate this series?  'Kill it with fire,' I say, which just so happens to be the same reaction I had the first time I heard this 'song' from pop star (?) Rebecca Black.  Oh, and, wouldn't you know, the RMS this year is being played on a Friday.  It's like this rat poison of a game and this ear cancer of a song were a match made in heaven!  So, those of you riding out to Mile High tomorrow, roll down your windows and crank this beast... 'cause it's Friday, Friday.  Enjoy!

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Kickoff from the *sigh* 88th edition of the Rocky Mountain Showdown will come Friday evening at 6pm from Sports Authority Field.  Much like the company named on the side of the stadium, the series itself has long since run its course, deserving of a complete and total rewrite, but I digress.  If, like me, you aren't going down to Denver to watch in person, you can follow the action on ESPN or AM 760.  If you are going to the game... don't forget to bring a towel... er, I mean, wear black.

For reference, you can find my previews from previous iterations of this series hereherehereherehere, and here.... my God, this is my seventh season of football coverage. If that ain't a plea for help, I don't know what is.

Click below for the preview...


When last we met - 

Last year the refrain was simple and repetitive: Same Old Buffs. While the product on the field improved in many ways, particularly defensively, Colorado still remained incapable of turning competitive efforts into wins against quality opponents.  Maddeningly, frustratingly, CU would tempt you with hope, only to pull the rug out at the last moment and faceplant into defeat.  So it went against teams like Oregon, Arizona, UCLA, and USC; Colorado would be close enough to tantalize, but still far enough from good to earn a hearty *sigh* at the end of the day.  In all, they would go 2-5 in one-possession ballgames over the season.
The Buffs had their chances.  From: Utah Utes.com
Their last effort of 2015, against Utah, was endemic of this issue.  On the far side of the Rockies, with the snow falling on a frigid November day in SLC, CU found themselves in yet another close ballgame on the season's final day.  The defense was holding strong, eliminating almost everything through the air while bending but not breaking on the ground.  On offense, despite yet another injury under center, the team was a credible threat in the fourth quarter behind a 3rd and 4th string tango at QB.  It all seemed to be setting up for a stunning, emphatic comeback final against a rival on road turf...

And then, just as hope was beginning to blossom in the winter air, it was wiped out as a swinging gate on the right side of the line was left wide open, exposing emergency relief quarterback Jordan Gehrke to onrushing defensive ends. His ensuing fumble killed the final-minute drive, leaving the team with a 20-14 loss and to rue the typical series of red zone collapses and turnover miscues that left them high and dry throughout the first three quarters.  Thus, the 2015 Colorado Football season died as it lived -- with the Buffs coming up just short against an opponent ready and willing to hand them a much-needed victory.
In the end, more of the same from Colorado.  From: KSL.com
There's really not much more to say at this point about the season that was. For me, while the team continued to 'look' better, the simple fact that the results did not match says it all.  They left plenty of opportunities to climb the ladder of success on the field, and were haunted by another winter spent in Boulder, and not at a bowl game.  In such light, and since their stated goal was to make a bowl - any bowl - I can't help but view that season as a failure.  Not a large one, mind you, but a failure none-the-less.  Same Old Buffs.





The Buffs in 2016 - 

But now comes the hope, annoyingly persistent as ever, that what was once true may have changed.  You can chart a course, over the previous three seasons, from non-competitive to *this close*.  It's a trendline that points decidedly upwards, and a new season offers the opportunity for the program to capitalize on that Rise, and turn potential into results.

It won't be easy, of course.  Nothing ever is in the zero-sum world of college football.  This year seemingly on the brink of success will commence in the face of a daunting schedule, almost destined to trip the Buffs up.  With a trip to play national power Michigan in the Big House on the slate, the likelihood of a sweep in non-conference play is essentially nil.  That means, in order to make a bowl game, the Buffs will have to do something they've never done before: win four Pac-12 games... oh, and the Pac-12 just happens to remain one of the most dangerous leagues in the country.
Defensive improvement was a welcome sight in 2015. From: the Post
I think the trick of the whole matter will be leveraging an improving defense to its full capacity.  Last year, under the helm of new defensive leadership, CU shaved a full 11.5 ppg off their scoring average.  While their total of 27.5 points allowed per game was nothing eye-popping (70th nationally, and 6th in the score-happy Pac-12), it marked a miraculous step over the 39 ppg allowed in 2014.  It was a defense that relied on stopping the pass (2nd in the league, only allowing 218 passing yards per contest) to do their damage, which certainly showed. Aesthetically, it always looked difficult to move the ball through the air against Colorado, and more than a few teams gave up early.  If that modicum of success can spread to short-yardage situations, particularly on 3rd downs (42% conversion rate against), you're cooking with gas, and it'll be damn difficult to score on the Buffs.  It all comes down to making the plays to get your team off the field, something Colorado has struggled with since the tail end of the Barnett era.  To that end, there are a lot of interesting talents in the unit, particularly in the defensive backfield, who can fly to the ball; I just worry about the front line.  What improvement is left to squeeze from the stone will have to come from the front seven, because I don't know how much better the backs can really be.

On the other side of the ball, we saw a lot of inconsistency.  97th nationally in points scored per game, cranking out just under 400 yards per, this was not a juggernaut, by any means.  The passing numbers (240 yards per, good for top-50s nationally) were acceptable, but they were largely propped up by a since-graduated superstar wideout (Nelson Spruce), and were balanced by relatively little on the ground (156 ypg, 86th nationally).  It translated into a unit that could move the chains a lot (41st nationally in total 1st downs gained, 11th nationally in short yardage rushing situations), but couldn't convert at all with real money on the line (120th nationally in Red Zone offense).  The coaching staff is acutely aware of these issues, and has been preaching better success in the RZ all fall camp, but it's still a big question mark headed into opening day.  Gone is bruising short-yardage back Christian Powell and the possession receiver Spruce; someone is going to step up offensively if the points are going to follow.  Continuing leadership under center will help here.
How will the Buffs replace the production from Spruce?  From: 9 News
Speaking of which, if I had to point to one thing that tells me that Colorado will continue their Rise this fall, it would be the number of returning impact performers on both sides of the field.  While the loss to graduation of former stars Spruce, Ken Crawley, and Stephane Nembot will hurt, in the grand scheme of things, Colorado lost relatively little to the viscous cycle of a four-year degree track.  Holistically, the team lists a junior or senior atop (or tied) every position on the depth chart, save one: right guard, where redshirt freshman Tim Lynott, Jr. won the job outright.  It's quality veteran strength, too, with the team retaining 80% of offensive and defensive production from 2015 (16th nationally).  These are all guys who have seen significant playing time in the past, and I'm always one to defer to experience.  Of course, much of that experience was spent coming up just short; these were the same guys, after all, struggling to put the ball in the endzone or stop the other team on 3rd down.  At some point, though, it all boils down to the theory that these players, who have seen some shit, will figure it out, and make their mark on the scoreboard.  I can't guarantee it will work, but I have hope...


Star Players - 

If stability under center is a blessing, then senior quarterback Sefo Liufau should be considered a gift from the football gods.  Entering his fourth year as starter, however, the product of Tacoma, WA has plenty of detractors.  They'll say he's error prone, lacking in outstanding arm strength and incapable of making winning plays against big opponents, while pointing to the fact that MacIntyre tried to go out and find a replacement over the offseason. They'll fret over his season-ending injury from last fall, and invent alternatives. To me, though, I see a kid who excels at highly accurate mid-range throws, has cut down his turnover numbers through the years (only six picks last season), is one of the best short-yardage rushers on the roster, and has the faith of his teammates in the huddle.  Would I like him to look down field a little more?  Sure, but I flat out deny that there is anyone else, currently in uniform, in better position to lead Colorado out of the tunnel in 2016.  Experience at this position is worth its weight in gold, after all, and you simply cannot deny that 31 games already played is an impressive resume.
In Sefo I trust.  From: BSN Denver.
Liufau's targets out wide are noticeably short the great Spruce, who now toils for the LA Rams. Without that safety blanket hauling in obscene numbers of grabs, it'll be interesting to see who can step up to become the #1 option in key passing situations.  Junior Shay Fields seems to be the safe bet, and he certainly is blazing fast and talented.  What remains to be seen, however, is what young Fields can do when circled on an opponent's pregame report.  It's for that reason that I wouldn't underestimate the importance of other receivers like juniors Bryce Bobo and Devin Ross.  The 'inside reports' always tend to talk up Bobo more than others, which leaves me looking in his direction (along with Ross' penchant for dropping catchable passes).  Overall, however, the receiving corps is hampered by the loss of JuCo transfer Juwann Winfree to a fall camp knee injury.  He would've made plays this year.

Backing Sefo up in the formation is one of my all-time favorite CU players: Phillip Lindsay.  The diminutive (5-8, 190 lbs) tailback from Denver South cares about wearing the Black and Gold, and runs hard from snap to whistle.  Entering his junior campaign, I'm expecting big things from a back that can feature every down, if allowed; 900 yards rushing and 300 receiving, that kind of thing.  Leave him in there, and he'll get you big, important yards.  That's not to say there's no depth behind him, however.  Fellow junior Donovan Lee, fully converted over from his time as a wideout, is no slouch, and will push for carries.
Phil could have a fantastic season in 2016.  From: the Post.

They'll all be operating behind an offensive line that should be kind of good, though short of world-beating.  Junior left tackle anchor Jeromy Irwin returns after an injury cost him most of his sophomore campaign, and will be able to plug back in and dominate from the start.  Senior center Alex Kelley had some monster games on the grade chart last fall, and stands to be a wonderful piece at the heart of the line.  The right side could be a little shaky at start, featuring the freshman Lynott and junior Sam Kronshage (who's stepping in for the graduated Nembot), but I bet it will solidify quickly. Tossing senior tight end Sean Irwin over there to bolster the line should clear things up a bit. All things considered, a pretty good unit.

On defense, the attack is lead by the single best player on the roster: senior defensive back Chidobe Awuzie.  A legit Thorpe candidate, albeit a dark horse, he's been playing since opening day of his freshman year, and never looked out of his depth.  He recorded 90 tackles as a corner last fall, and featured in a number of different blitz packages from the edge (four sacks, nine total TFL). Excelling at every phase of the defensive game, he will be a pro in short order.  Enjoy watching him this last go around, 'cause he's something special. 
Chido's got mad game.  From: BSN Denver
Chidobe is backed by a deep, versatile corps that is light years away from where they were, talent wise, in the Jon Embree era, when third string wide receivers were rushed into service as cover corners (#EspinozaIsland).  Senior safety Tedric Thompson is a play-maker capable of causing a ruckus on any down, and opposite corner Isaiah Oliver is a star in the making.  Also look for two-way freshman Tony Julmisse to feature on select series.  I'm really excited to see this crew go to work this fall.

The front seven is where it starts to get suspect.  It's a 3-4 setup, featuring a hybrid end (junior Derek McCartney), and boasts a number of fun, interesting pieces.  While promising on paper, however, it just didn't... gel last year.  Big, game-deciding plays never seemed to come from this group in conference play, as testified by the ugly third down rate.  There was a lot of activity from this scheme, and some turnovers were caused, but they never really made enough impact to approach the good work the defensive backs were doing.  This year, quite frankly, I'm hoping for more.
Having big Josh back on the line will help the front seven.  From: the BDC
It's good, then, to note the return of Josh Tupou from suspension.  The big, 6-3, 325 lbs defensive tackle projects to be a block-eater, opening up avenues of attack for his compatriots.  If he can take on double-teams with regularity, all of a sudden the blitz packages featuring linebackers Kenneth Olugbode and Jimmie Gilbert could start to bear fruit.  Addison Gillam is also back in the middle of the formation, meaning the corps is far from starved for talent. 

Special teams feature the return of Diego Gonzalez at place kicker (who I have been assured has been working on kicks from the left hash) and punter Alex Kinney.  Diego will make me nervous until proven otherwise, but I have developed a faith in Kinney.  After a horrendous start to the year last fall, when every punt was cause for an anxiety attack across the fanbase, he settled down, and put up solid numbers the rest of the way.  Kick returns will be the realm of Lindsay (kickoff) and Jay MacIntyre (punts).  Little Mac has a few gears to him, and could have a special moment or two out there, if opponents fall asleep.


Coaching - 

This is a make-or-break year for Head Coach Mike MacIntyre.  I'm not saying that Colorado has to go to a bowl game for him to keep his job, but, if they don't, I have to imagine only another year of visible progress will suffice.  That shiny new practice facility demands results, after all, and the outlay needs to bear fruit before pressure on the AD gets silly.
Mac has to start putting some legitimate win totals up.  From: the Colorado Daily
In many respects, that reality is a shame.  I like Mac, and think he's done a solid job rebuilding the foundation of the program in the wake of years of neglect.  The product on the field is, at the very least, competitive, and I fear what yet another coaching switch would do to the positive vibes emanating from atop the hill.  The albatross of ten-straight losing seasons remains, however, and Mac has his hands in that shitshow, too.  Wins have to start coming, and I think he knows it.

In that light, it's no coincidence that the offseason saw a major shakeup among the assistants. After his first two years, Mac saw that defense was a problem, so in came Pepsi aficionado Jim Leavitt to fix the problem. That move paid immediate dividends, as defensive points allowed was cut by over a quarter.  Naturally, with the defense 'solved,' the attention this spring was on revamping the offense, which took a step backwards last fall.  Oft-maligned Offensive Coordinator Brian Lindgren was shifted over to make room for program legend Darrin Chiaverini, who now has a hand in offense installation.  The hope is that this change will open up the attack, as Chiaverini, fresh off a stint in Lubbock, will bring some of the Red Raider's high-flying ways to Boulder.  That he's a former Colorado star, and a hell of a recruiter, doesn't hurt, either.  Time will tell, but just by virtue of the recruiting returns alone (CU currently has a top-35 recruiting class, according to Scout, which is streets ahead of where they have been in recent years) he's proved his value.  If he can also provide a Leavitt-esque 25% spike in offensive returns, as well, he'll be worth double whatever CU is paying him.


Prediction - 

My 2015 record: 12-1. Against the spread: 7-5 (I don't count games against FCS schools). Optimistic/pessimistic: CU -1.42 pts/gm.  Line as of Tuesday @ 7pm - CU -8, O/U 64.5

OK, let's get down to brass tacks.  I'm on record as saying the Buffs will win five games this year.  To do that, they need to put tomorrow night's game in the win column, no questions asked.  I have also been reliably informed that the version of tomorrow's opponent is not up to recent vintage (such as it has been), either, making it seem as if this is a three-foot putt. After all, it's not often that the Buffs enter a game as a more-than-touchdown favorite.

The RMS, however, is a tricky beast.  Expectations have a funny way of getting turned on their heads down in South Denver, and the game is usually fraught with drama and scattered activity. Just look at last year.  CU came out flatter than flat, but turned the game around on a pick-six; almost let it slip on a botched field goal try, only to secure it with a dramatic flurry of special teams triumphs.  Just bizarre, chaotic shit. So, while it may seem like the Buffs have this one in the bag, with everyone in Boulder looking for double-digits over the embodied inferiority complex, I'm positive something stupid will happen, and this one will be a nail-biter.  Oh, I'm still taking the Flagship to rule the Centennial State, just not in a blowout. 

I figure, first game with a new OC, there may be some hiccups.  Maybe, without a special teams coordinator on the staff, something weird happens in kick coverage.  An ill-timed mistake, either on offense or defense, leads to a bemusing score against all odds.  Hell, I don't know.  It won't be enough to turn the tide, but enough to give us all heart burn, and cost the cover.  No worries, the win's the thing; I'll take it as it comes.

CU 28 - little brother 23


GO BUFFS!  GET THAT WIN IN DENVER!

2 comments:

Unknown said...

Oh, ye of little faith!

RumblinBuff said...

I love being wrong!