Charles Dickens leads off his immortal A Tale of Two Cities with the lines, "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times..." He may as well been having a divination about the experience that Mike MacIntyre had in his first season as the head football coach for the once-gloried Colorado Buffalo football team.
MacIntyre came to Boulder a year ago to take the reigns of what was, by just about any measure you applied to it, the worst FBS program in the land. 2012 was a nightmare for the fans of the Buffs. They saw a team that scored less than 200 points on the season, but surrender more than 500. They witnessed blow out after blow out including a mind-boggling loss to an FCS team and a 55 point stunner at Fresno St. The stood aphonic as they saw one of their favorite sons, former head coach Jon Embree, get run out of town after only two years in the saddle. It was a veritable dumpster fire and coach Mac was being brought in to put it down. Without a mask. Or a hose.
That was the worst of times. Fast forward a year later and the boat has been steadied. The Buffs were not a good football team in 2013, but they were not an embarrassment either. Take a look at the F/+ plot put together by Bill Connelly in his excellent preview of the Buffs. Note the huge dip in 2012 and the spike back up in 2013:
The dichotomy confronted by Coach Mac is that he has already orchestrated one of the most significant turnarounds in Pac 12 history (at least statistically speaking), but he still does not have a winning program to roll out there. At least not yet. Is 2014 destined to be the next chapter in the great Boulder turnaround? Let's see what's in the Gekko File.
2013 Recap - What I Said
Picking Colorado was about the easiest thing I did last summer - well, besides telling my kids to wash my car, shine my shoes and bring me a beer. Here are the metrics:
Here were some of my verbatims:
I don't like how this season plays out for Colorado. Their out of conference schedule features two teams that beat them last year in both Colorado State and Fresno State. Their P12 conference schedule has five road games with their home games featuring tough outs in Oregon and USC. They miss WSU (and Stanford). Their offense is being overhauled. Their defense has a long way to go. I'm sorry, but I'm not seeing it.
Aristotle once wrote that "Youth is easily deceived because it is quick to hope". While this quote may just as well describe the young people in the Husky fan base, it also relays the soaring sense of optimism that surrounded this Buffalo team last season when it was able to pull off two early out of conference games before getting their game against Fresno State postponed. Can you imagine? The Buffs were undefeated heading into Pac 12 play and their opening match against Oregon State. Of course, Connor Wood was still the QB, the competition had been Central Arkansas, Colorado State and flash flooding in the state of Colorado ... but, dammit ... UNDEFEATED!
Most know how the story played out from there. The Buffs got lit up by their first three P12 opponents, never getting within 27 points of the opponent's final score. Their makeup game against Charleston Southern fell awkwardly in the middle of the season and provided Coach Mike MacIntyre a nice opportunity to give true frosh and Pacific Northwest product Sefo Liufau his first career QB start. Sefo handled his business and took the job from Wood for the remainder of the season - a season that would see them lose every other Pac 12 game they played in save their matchup against Cal (thank goodness their miss was Stanford and not Cal in 2013!).
It was not a total disaster for Colorado. Their three OOC wins represented an improvement over 2012 when they went 0-3 and looked bad doing so. Their win over Cal was their third since joining the Pac (they actually won two in 2011) and was a definite confidence booster for a few of their young players (not to mention a demoralizer for the Cal fan base). Liufau showed a certain amount of "it" factor at the QB position and was particularly impressive in his visit to Westwood and UCLA when the Buffs stood toe-to-toe with the current darlings of the Pac. WR Paul Richardson was his usual outstanding self, carving up secondaries and earning himself a draft-day ticket to Seattle. Young players like RB Michael Adkins, DE Addison Gilliam and DT Josh Tupou all showed that they have legit Pac 12 potential. Importantly, Head Coach Mike MacIntyre demonstrated that he has a plan and the courage + patience required to implement it. 2013 was not a good season in Boulder, but hope was not lost.
Previewing 2014: The Buffaloes
There will be lots of attention on the quarterback position and the emergence of young Sefo Liufau as a leader in Colorado. That is well-deserved - he's a great kid and he is clearly the face of the program coming into this season. However, if you ask most people who watch Colorado football daily, most would agree that the potential on the Defensive front seven is the story line for this fall. Let's begin our preview there.
The one name that Pac 12 fans are starting to get familiar with is that of true sophomore MLB Addison Gillam. Gillam started all last season as a true frosh and was easily the most productive player on the Colorado defense. He is a tough guy MLB who is really good at making himself skinny and slipping blocks to make plays. He'll be flanked on either side by senior Woodson Greer and sophomore Kenneth Olugbode. Greer is a serviceable guy, but probably wouldn't start on most P12 teams. Olugbode, however, is a very athletic but inexperienced guy who is likely to make some head-turning plays in between a few bone-headed ones.
These guys will support a D-Line that is stronger in the middle than on the edges. Junior Josh Tupou and Senior Juda Parker are a physically ready duo who will anchor the line. Parker is more of a 3T guy who has probably peaked but can still generate an interior pass rush while Tupou looks like he has some upside to cash in on as a line-crasher. The ends are a little less proven. With their best player from a year ago, Chidera Uzo-Diribe, graduated, the Buffs will try to fill in with a hodge-podge of names such as Samson Kafavalu, Jimmie Gilbert and Tyler Hennington. Kafavalu looks like he could be a sleeper candidate, but the rest are going to have to grow up pretty quickly if they are going to help Colorado's pass rush.
The secondary is a source of some experience if not a strength. Jered Bell is a returning starter and team leader at Safety. His partner is Tedric Thompson - but expect former starter Terrel Smith to provide a stout challenge this fall. The Buffs also return two starters in senior Greg Henderson and junior Ken Crawley. Expect MacIntyre to rotate a lot of players here to keep up with Pac 12 QB's and to leverage the depth of talent he has here. Guys like sophomore Chidobe Awuzie, senior Marques Mosely (a former starter) and junior transfer from San Jose State Talianko make this an intriguing unit for Colorado Defensive Coordinator Kent Baer.
Offensively, the passing game is the issue on everybody's mind. Liufau was a revelation as a true freshman. However, he built his success on the back of an NFL talent in Paul Richardson. He gets back Nelson Spruce, an experienced possession-style receiver with some playmaker potential, as the most experienced ball catcher on the team. Beyond Spurce, questions abound. Big target RS Fr Bryce Bobo enters the rotation in 2014 while senior jitterbug D.D. Goodson will also play a key role. JC transfer Josiah Blandin is a very tall guy who could become a known name before it is said and done.
None of this means anything unless the Buffs can get their blocking figured out and running game going. The Buffs rushing attack last year was amongst the worst in the nation from an advanced metrics perspective, ranking 116th in Rushing S&P+. Still, it features a true "Thunder and Lightning" duo with the 230 lb senior Christian Powell and junior Michael Adkins. Adkins is your classic under-the-radar guy who surprised opposing D's to the tune of over 5 ypc last year. He made a pedestrian O-Line look good a year ago and may need to do it again. The Buffs return 52 starts on that O-Line, but 20 of those belong to one-time UW commit RT Stephane Nembot who is facing a "make or break" year as a junior. His right-side mate, Daniel Munyer, is a pretty good Pac 12 OG and will be the rock that the rest of the line is built around. This is a work in progress.
Three Questions and a Comment: Jon Woods, The Ralphie Report
1. Who are the team leaders for this Buffalo squad?
Defense is a combination of senior cornerback Greg Henderson and sophomore middle linebacker Addison Gillam. Henderson has been a rock for a Buffaloes secondary that has been torched over the last three seasons. He was thrown into the fire as a true freshman under Jon Embree and has steadily improved every season. He was rarely thrown at last year. While it seems that the media outside of Boulder is still overlooking Henderson, it's clear that the other coaches in the conference are not (editor's note: Neither is the Gekko!).
Addison Gillam came out of nowhere to lead the Pac-12 in tackles as a freshman middle linebacker. He has stepped up in a big way and has already become a leader on the defense as a sophomore. His ability to man the middle will help the other linebackers immensely and his success will have a huge impact on the team.
On offense the team will be led by Sefo Liufau, another sophomore who is being thrust into a leadership role at a young age. Liufau took over the quarterback spot halfway through his freshman season and didn't look back. While his play on the field was up and down, he immediately came and showed the skills required to be the guy for this offense.
2. How close are the Buffs to becoming a .500 team?
If it doesn't happen this year then it will in 2015. It's a long shot that the Buffs will get back to .500 in 2014 but the non-conference schedule sets up in such a way that it is certainly possible. But the program is building towards a winning season and a bowl berth in two years as the youth and coaching that Mike MacIntyre has introduced into the program will finally be able to pay real dividends. The facility upgrades will only help recruiting and a very small senior class will leave following this season.
3. Has moving to the Pac 12 been a Boom or a Bust for Colorado football?
It's hard to say that it's been either for a Colorado program that would have struggled in the Mountain West over the last three seasons but that was mostly just a timing issue. The Pac-12 is a fantastic place for the Buffaloes football program and you'd be hard pressed to find an alum that didn't feel the same.
You'll know CU football is progressing in 2014 if ...
... they get two conference wins and begin to shrink the margin of victory number against the upper echelon teams in the Pac-12. It may have been hard to notice but the program did take a step forward in the first year under Mike MacIntyre. Year two is where we really expect to see a big difference in this team, even if it doesn't necessarily show up in the win/loss column.
Predicting 2014: The Colorado Buffaloes
As much as I'd like to embrace Aristotle's optimism of youth, the outlook for this year's Buff squad doesn't strike me as overly positive. It is not so much that this team is stuck in neutral - it is clearly improving - but it is the case that the Buffs have the unfortunate luck of watching the rest of the Pac 12 take off all around them. In the South alone, we are seeing the end of USC sanctions, the emergence of a number of young players at UCLA, the explosion of offenses in Tuscon and Tempe and the return to health of Utah. That's a tough division for a young team with a new-ish coach trying to build a program up without the full benefit of the facilities and assets that their competitors all possess.
Sefo Liufau faces a situation very similar to the one that Jake Locker faced when he came to Washington. There is zero doubt that this is the brightest QB prospect that this school has had in a decade. However, it isn't clear that he will have the pieces around him during his remaining three years of eligibility to get Colorado over the hump - much less to do it this season. While I really like Spruce and I think that Adkins can be a pretty good tailback, it is hard for me to see how Sefo is going to keep his head from getting detached from his neck and punted through the goal posts by opposing pass rushers this season. Additionally, I'm not sure that the Colorado D is close to being able to help ensure that Sefo is playing from ahead more than he is playing from behind on the scoreboard. Their ability to generate any kind of pass rush being the critical question.
When you are in the general shape that Colorado is in, scheduling is hardly a concern. The priority is to simply get better at executing your game no matter who the opponent is. However, bowl eligibility is not impossible for this team, so let's take a look. The Buffs OOC is the toughest they've had in a few years but manageable. Home games versus Hawaii and Colorado State are winnable and a road trip to UMass, while a very long trip, is also one that can be had. Their P12 schedule features five home games, three of which Colorado fans hope to be able to put up a fight in: vs Oregon State, vs UW, vs Utah. Their misses are Stanford and WSU. In truth, I'm not sure that there is one win on this P12 slate much less three. However, there are three if not four games where I could see Colorado putting up a fight like they did at UCLA a year ago, so let's call it a two-win conference schedule. Unfortunately, this means another season of no-bowling and 15 fewer practices that Coach Mac will have relative to most of his P12 peers.