Covering University of Colorado sports, mostly basketball, since 2010

Wednesday, December 28, 2016

2016 Alamo Bowl Preview - CU vs Oklahoma State

Bowl games are stupid.  I know that's probably not the message you wanted to receive, here on the eve of Colorado's first bowl game in nearly a decade, but it's true.  Bowls are, in all but a few cases, pointless, corporate money grabs of the lowest order, and sporting culture is all the worse for having to put up with them over the final weeks of the year.

Sure, there is some value to having marquee events, like the Rose Bowl or the Orange Bowl, at the end of the calendar.  Occasional exhibitions between champions, like these, held out of tradition and as a showcase of football at its finest, are be fine.  I could do without it, but to each their own. The system as is currently in place, however, blows past them to instill an 'everyone gets a trophy` mentality to the sport, where even teams that go 5-7 are rewarded. There is simply no excuse for the 8th-best team from one conference to be playing the 7th-best team from another with absolutely nothing on the line.  It's pure filler -- a desperate attempt to grab some of your hard-earned cash, either through your eyes on a tire commercial or you actually traveling to the event.  I actually feel bad for the handful of fans who would allow themselves to be duped into something as foolish as the 'Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.' (I use this example for no particular reason)

"But, it's more football!' you might be saying.  My response to that is simple:

The lure of 'more football,' such as it is, is wasted here.  I can get myself to care about Colorado football, and I can even trick myself into paying attention to truly meaningful games with inherent history, but detritus like the 'Motel 6 Cactus Bowl' or the 'Dollar General Bowl' can't even come close to drawing my eye.

My appeal, then, is simple: end the bowl system.  Expand the playoffs, turn the worthwhile remainder into some kind of NIT or 'champions league,' and punt the rest into the sun.  ESPN will just have to go through life without the sunk costs of 20-or-so backwater bowls no one will miss anyway.


Hype Music for the Week: 'China Grove' by the Doobie Brothers

My first thought for this game was to go with a country track, but that just ain't me.  Thankfully, the Doobie Brothers wrote this iconic 70s rock anthem about a tiny suburb east of San Antonio.  It features one of the best guitar riffs of all time, built around some jumbled lyrics about preachers and sheriffs with samurai swords.  Enjoy!


So, after all that ranting and raving about how awful bowl games are, you'd think I'd be avoiding this one like the plague.  Well, you'd be wrong.  I actually am going to the Alamo Bowl, at great personal expense, but do not consider my trip hypocritical.  Colorado appearing in a bowl, a semi-worthwhile one, at that, is like seeing a unicorn.  You can't expect me to miss an opportunity to see a unicorn. When the draw is the Sun Bowl next winter, that's when I'll stay home.

For what it's worth, much of BuffNation seems to agree with me that a trip down to southern Texas is a good idea.  Based on ticket sales through the Athletic Department alone, at least 6,000 CU fans will be hitting the highways and airports en route to San Antonio this week, with even more expected who source their tickets through non-traditional methods.  Should be a big group of Buffs down on the Riverwalk tonight and tomorrow.

For the game itself, kickoff from the Alamodome is set for 7pm MT on Thursday.  Those not headed to San Antonio can catch the action on ESPN prime.  Mark Johnson and the radio call will be on 850 KOA.

Click below for the preview...

When last we met - 

Colorado vs Oklahoma State is an old Big 8 rivalry that dates all the way back to 1920.  The programs were officially brought together in what was then called the Missouri Valley Intercollegiate Athletic Association when OSU rejoined the league in 1960.  From there, the pair met on the gridiron every year until the creation of the BigXII in 1996, and then twice every four years til CU bolted for the Pac-12 in 2011.  In all, CU leads the all-time series 26-19-1, though the Cowboys have won three of the last four, including the final meeting in 2009 (A 31-28 final that had the markings of Dan Hawkins all over it).  For those wistful elders of the fanbase, seeing a matchup like this surely gets the memories flowing.

For me, however, I don't really feel anything when considering 'Okie Light.'  They weren't much of a 'rival' when I was in school in the early 2000s; essentially no more than 'not Oklahoma or Texas' when it came to playing teams from the BigXII South. With that in mind, I'm much more interested in delving into the last time Colorado played in the Alamo Bowl -- December 28th, 2002.  That was my freshman year and my first bowl trip as a member of the Golden Buffalo Marching Band. My memories of that trip are far starker than those of any random tilt with the Cowboys over the last decade-plus.
Any excuse to talk about Chris Brown works for me.  From: Lawrence Journal-World
CU entered that game fresh off a loss in the BigXII title game to the Oklahoma Sooners.  With starting running back Chris Brown still out with a bruised sternum (he could've won the Heisman that year had that injury not popped up -- finished with 1,841 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns despite missing most of the final three games of the season), three painful missed field goals from kicker Pat Brougham were enough to doom the Buffs in a game that wasn't completely out-of-hand til the 4th quarter.  The result left Colorado settling for a trip to the Alamo Bowl and a date with a Wisconsin Badgers bunch that finished 8th in the Big 10 -- considering where the season started, with CU in the national top-10, it was a huge disappointment.

As disappointing as the season was for both the Buffs and the Badgers, the game itself turned out to be a firecracker.  The Buffs scored first, thanks to a monster 91-yard pick-six from defensive back Donald Strickland in the opening minutes of action.  Unfortunately, the issue of quarterback, which had nipped at CU's heels since Craig Ochs left the program after the week-two loss to San Diego State, then reared its head.  The under-center replacement for Ochs, Bob Hodge, threw the first of his three first half interceptions, setting the Badgers up with a short field that they used to tie the score. Colorado would bounce back with a touchdown drive of their own, but the offensive woes eventually allowed Wisconsin to build a 21-14 lead, headed into halftime.  Head Coach Gary Barnett had seen enough of Hodge, who had been serviceable, but far from spectacular throughout the season, and lifted him for backup Zac Colvin.
Colvin and the Colorado offense were largely ineffective.  From: San Antonio Express-News
After the break, CU took advantage of some Badger miss-steps to score 14 quick points -- the first touchdown was a Chris Brown plunge from four yards out, the second was a toss from Colvin to DJ Hackett.  Colorado now lead 28-21, headed into the 4th Quarter.  Those would be the last points put up on the board by the Buffs that day, however, as the offense continued to sputter.  Brown, still not 100% recovered from the injury, was getting very little on the ground (3.5 yards per touch on 28 carries), and was eventually pulled, while Colvin proved to be little better than Hodge at QB.  In total, CU would get just 200 yards of offense, and looked completely impotent.

With the Buffs stuck in neutral, Wisconsin finally took advantage on the final drive of regulation. Shrugging off two 4th-and-long situations, the Badgers marched down the field, scoring the tying touchdown in the final minute of play.  Into overtime, the very much expected happened.  Brougham, the goat from the title game, missed badly from 45-yards, setting Wisconsin up for the chip-shot winner.  The Badgers converted their field goal, and Colorado dropped the heartbreaker.
Colorado left the door open, and Wisconsin poured right through.  From: Getty Images
Here's to hoping for a better result from this trip to the Alamodome.

The Cowboys in 2016 - 

Now turning my attention to the matter at hand, Oklahoma State is a pretty interesting football team. Reveling in the modern mold of the BigXII Conference, they possess a pass-first, high-octane offense designed to put up a lot of points in a hurry.  The problem is, like most in that league nowadays, their defense is the practical equivalent of swiss cheese.  As a result, they haven't been in a single game this year where both teams have scored fewer than 30 points.  The Cowboys love their shootouts, and typically find themselves in one.

OSU's best win of the year is probably their 37-20 result over West Virginia back in late October. The Mountaineers were a pretty good team this year, and this actually marked their first loss of the season. After that, however, there's very little of note for the Cowboys.  They lost their annual affair with Oklahoma, lost to a bad, dysfunctional Baylor team, and even suffered a home loss to Central Michigan that in no way was a referee-aided fluke. Overall, OSU benefited greatly from a league in a down year; TCU, Texas, and Tech were all garbage this season, to go along with the usual dumpster fires that are ISU and Kansas.  Kudos to State for putting up nine wins, and all, but there's very little meat on that bone.
Beating the 'eers was the best result this season for the Cowboys.  From: USA Today
With the ball, OSU is a very efficient no-huddle passing team.  While the play-call distribution is pretty even (432 pass attempts, 450 rushes, including sacks), the vast majority of their 492 total yards per game come through the air, where they're 10th nationally in passing yards.  Its the product of high efficiency routes (156 rating), leading to near nine yards per attempt.  That's abnormally high output, but I don't think the Cowboys have seen a defensive backfield anywhere near as good as Colorado's. In fact, OSU has played just three teams with a defensive passing efficiency rating in the national top-70, and only one in the national top-40 (Baylor).  If CU has proven anything this year, it's that their corners can cover just about anyone, and I would expect that to continue for this game, even with Jim Leavitt sipping his Pepsi in Eugene.

That puts the focus on the Cowboy's rushing attack.  If OSU is getting gashers on the ground, it may not make much of a difference how many breakups the #MoneyGang is collecting in the backfield. It's not what they specialize in, but it can still be an effective weapon (170 yards per game, about four-and-a-half per touch).  To that end, however, I don't look at them as I did Utah, Washington or even Stanford -- CU should be winning the battles up front.
The offense can move... that defense, though.  From: Fox Sports
Defensively, the Cowboys are a nightmare... just not for their opponents.  108th nationally in total defense, they are as bad against the pass as they are against the run.  CU hasn't played a defense this porous since Arizona in early November, and the Buffs put 49 points up on them.  Simply, this is a team Colorado should move the football against freely, winning the battles in the trenches, and giving Sefo Liufau enough time to find open receivers in the secondary.  If they aren't racking up yards in bunches, something is wrong.

In the end, it's all about staying on the front foot, and forcing the Cowboys to pass in keep-up scenarios.  As good as the Pokes are through the air, every time they drop back, they'll be playing into the Buffs' hands.  If at any point the CU offense slows, however, and OSU is allowed to open up their playbook, it could get interesting.

Star Players - 

The QB under center racking up all those gaudy passing stats is Mason Rudolph.  The 6-5, 235 lbs junior from South Carolina is an impressive presence in the pocket, with the size and arm requisite for the position in a league like the Big XII.  He accumulated 3,777 yards and 25 scores against just four interceptions this year, making him one of the more efficient passers the Buffs have seen in the scouting report. He's not Luke Falk, though.  Nor is he Jake Browning.  Colorado has played, and shut down, better... at least with Jim Leavitt at the helm of the defense.
Rudolph is a fantastic QB.  From: News OK
Rudolph's primary target on the edge is James Washington, a 6-0 junior from Texas.  Fast, good hands, explosive; there's a reason he earned First Team All-Big-XII honors.  James is a game breaker who usually gets about 100 receiving yards per contest and about 20 per catch. Joining him out wide are Jalen McCleskey and Jhajuan Seales.  The trio combine for about 13 grabs per game.
Hill is riding a parabolic trajectory to the top of the BigXII heap.  From: Fox Sports
Not getting nearly enough credit in the offense, though, is running back Justice Hill.  The freshman burner out of Tulsa has burst onto the scene to collect over 1,000 yards in his first collegiate season to earn the Big XII's Offensive Freshman of the Year award. He's been getting better as the year has progressed, too; just 89 of those yards came prior to conference play.  It's always fun to see players like Hill blossom in college.  He was just a three-star prospect out of high school, with very little interest from the other Oklahoma in-state school.  Justice has turned out to be a gem, though, and one that will be getting big yards in Stillwater for the next few years.  One of his backups is a name you may remember: Barry Sanders.  The senior transfer from Stanford, and Cowboy legacy, will feature more in the special teams unit, however, where he's their primary kick and punt returner.

Over on defense, the main man to watch is big defensive tackle Vincent Taylor.  The 6-3, 310 lbs junior has recorded 44 tackles and six sacks this season; a mammoth interior anchor to their defensive line.  He was an All-Big XII first team selection this season, and will be the primary impediment on all those QB dives the Buffs will run on Thursday.
Taylor is a big piece in the middle of the formation.  From: News OK
At his back is a solid linebacker in the form of Devante Averette.  The Detorit product has 76 total tackles this season to go along with a pair of forced fumbles.  Past him, you're looking at productive defensive backs in Jordan Sterns and Ramon Richards.  The senior Sterns is the most interesting, as he's recorded near 100 total tackles this year as a safety.  It's a performance that earned him a 1st Team All-Big-XII selection.  The point remains, however, that the OSU defense, as a whole, is nothing special.

Coaching - 

Head Coach Mike Gundy is a man, now near 50.  Having taken over for Les Miles in 2005, he became most famous for his rant attacking a local reporter for their story about his decision to bench quarterback Bobby Reid. Gundy, however, is much more than a bellowing three-minute tirade.  He's also a pretty damn good head football coach.
He also has a mullet.  From: CBS Sports.
Under his tutelage, the Cowboys have reeled off 11-straight winning seasons after a 4-7 start to his tenure in 2005.  That includes seven campaigns of at least nine wins and a conference title in 2011. While there is something to be said for slightly underwhelming returns on the slick of T. Boone Pickens' oil cash poured down on the program over the last two decades (especially as he has largely been unable to tame the Oklahoma juggernaut with just two wins in 12 Bedlams), there's no shame in a 103-50 record with this program. Stillwater is, after all, the backwater of all backwaters.  How much more can you really expect?

Prediction - 

My 2016 record: 10-3. Against the spread: 6-6. Optimistic/pessimistic: CU +1.08 pts/gm.
Line as of Tuesday @ 8pm - CU -3, O/U 62.5

My last bet of the year will be going down on the Buffs.  With confidence, too.  Even with Jim Leavitt out of the program, the senior-laden defensive backfield should be up to the challenge of stunting the Cowboy aerial attack.  After that, CU matches up well, both offensively, and defensively against the run.  Maybe some special teams chaos ensues to trip up the result, but I just don't think so. Give me Colorado, one last time in 2016.

CU 38 - OSU 24


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