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the Gekko Files: Colorado Buffaloes 2015 Preview

Could the Buffaloes be bowl bound in 2015? Only the Gekko knows.

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Late on Christmas night of 1776, George Washington made a bold move to cross the icy and treacherous Delaware River with his army of 5,000 men as a first stroke in his surprise attack on the Hessian/British contingent in what would become known as the Battle of Trenton.

Commissioned by Thomas Jefferson in 1803, American explorers Lewis and Clark began the Corps of Discovery Expedition in May of 1804.  Thirty-three explorers, including a Native American woman named Sacajawea, would depart from the town of Wood River, IL on a mission to lay the groundwork for the settling of the western frontier.

In 1846, led by their newly appointed leader Brigham Young, a contingent of 14,000 Mormons abandoned their camps in Nauvoo, IL and began the harrowing journey that would become known as the Mormon Pioneer Trail.

Each of these great American treks started with a dream, faced impossible odds and led to changed the course of history.  The magnitude of the impact of each of these missions on the fabric of American history is almost too great to calculate.

If you are a Colorado Buffalo fan, you must often feel like you are George Washington, Lewis and Clark or Brigham Young.  You face daunting odds as you follow your team on an impossible mission.  But the payoff, if you are able to succeed, is so great that you have no choice but to soldier on.

Is this the year that Colorado reaches its promised land?  Could a bowl bid become a reality in 2015?  Let's see what the Gekko Files have to say about it.

2014 Recap - What I Said

Predicted Div Finish 6th
Actual Div Finish 6th
Predicted P12 Record 1-8
Actual P12 Record 0-9

Here were some of my verbatims:

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...

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....

In truth, I'm not sure that there is one win on this P12 slate much less three (to reach bowl eligibility).

I take very little pleasure in nailing a pre-season prediction as neatly as I did last year's Colorado forecast.  Still, it wasn't all a disaster.  Is it possible to have a winless conference schedule but to actually have gotten better as a team from one year to the next?  If so, that was Colorado in 2014.

It certainly didn't start that way.  After getting blown out in Week 1 by rival Colorado State, the Buffs struggled with their non-con schedule before starting PAC 12 play.  By the time they got to week five - their second PAC game was at Cal - the Buffs did manage to find a little rhythm.  They lost that game in a double overtime shootout, but it was a signal to the rest of the PAC that Colorado wasn't going to be an easy out the rest of the way.

Unfortunately for the Buffs, they would still be an "out" for every other team on that schedule.  There were some close calls to be sure - a 2OT loss to UCLA in the Rose Bowl and a couple of close ones against OSU and Utah at home - but they were all still losses in the end.

Despite the disappointing record, 2014 wasn't a complete wash for Colorado and their fans.  This team improved over 2013.  Blowout losses became nailbiter losses.  A young team became a little more seasoned.  Player leaders emerged.  A star or two were born on a roster that had not seen any in several years.  The Buffs enter 2015 surprisingly optimistic under a coach, Mike MacIntyre, that exudes commitment and positivity.

Previewing 2015: The Colorado Buffaloes

The Offense

Offensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Brian Lindgren WR Play
QB Experience
Rushing Attack
Pass Blocking
WR Nelson Spruce
QB Sefo Liufau
WR Shay Fields

RB Aaron Baltazar (txfr)
RB Donald Gordon

The Colorado passing game under QB Sefo Liufau is critical to the Buffs's chances in 2015

The passing game has to be the strength of this Colorado team if bowl eligibility is to be achieved in 2015.  Senior wideout Nelson Spruce is the true star of this attack.  He had a breakout season in 2014 with 106 catches, over 1100 yards and 12 TDs.  Together with true sophomore Shay Fields (50 catches, 5 TDs), the Colorado receivers are the strength of this offense.  Though they are losing a couple of key contributors in D.D. Goodson and Tyler McCulloch, they have young players like 6'2" sophomore Bryce Bobo and sophomore slot Donovan Lee seemingly ready to step into key roles.

Whether or not QB Sefo Liufau is the man to lead that passing attack is another question.  Husky fans to this day lament the fact that Sefo didn't end up a Husky (Troy Williams got the scholarship that many wanted Liufau to be offered).  However, Liufau stagnated some his sophomore season after a promising debut as a true freshman in 2013.  He struggled with accuracy, missed a lot of big plays and threw far too many interceptions (15).  But don't be fooled.  Liufau is a physically gifted player who has earned his leadership position on the team.  He has the tools to be a force if only his pass protection can hold up.  Colorado gave up the most sacks in the conference last season at nearly two a game.

The rushing attack, which includes that young offensive line, is a question mark.  The ball carrier rotation is far from settled with as many as four guys vying for starter carriers.  Senior Christian Powell is still around, but he seems to have fallen a bit back in the rotation as younger players like Michael Adkins II and sophomore Phillip Lindsay compete for carries.  If you are looking for a wild card here, watch out for Boise State transfer Aaron Baltazar.

The real test for that rushing attack will be the maturation of the Colorado offensive line.  One time UW prospect RT Stephane Nembot is the Buffs frontline anchor.  A classic late-bloomer, the senior from Cameroon finally came on at the end of last year and started to dominate.  He projects as a top offensive tackle in the PAC this season, particulary as a mauler in the rushing game.  Beyond that, things get a little dicey.  C Alex Kinney is a solid contributor and a Rimington Award watch list player, but the rest of the offensive line will be made up of players who have yet to distinguish themselves at the PAC 12 level.

The Defense

Defensive Coordinator Strengths Weaknesses Key Players Newcomers to Watch
Jim Leavitt Zone Coverage
Secondary Depth
Pass Rush
DL Experience
LB Addison Gillam
DE Derek McCartney
DL Samson Kofavalu
DE Jordan Carrell
DE Leo Jackson

Jim Leavitt is the new man in charge of the Colorado Defense.

With the 116th ranked scoring defense in the NCAA last season, it is not unreasonable to say that Colorado's defense was plain bad.  What do you do if you are a college football head coach and your defense stinks to high heaven?  You fire former Washington DC Kent Baer and you bring in a new coordinator.

Last we saw of Jim Leavitt, he was busy getting pushed out the door as the head coach of the University of South Florida Bulls over a controversy about a physical altercation with a player and a concerted effort to try to cover it up.  Leavitt is getting a second chance with Colorado after having once been viewed as "the next big thing" in college football head coaching circles.  He has spent the last three years coaching linebackers (pretty well, I might add) for the San Francisco 49ers and now will get the chance to mold a young Colorado defense in his own image.

What Leavitt will inherit leaves a bit to be desired.  He clearly has some pieces to work with - particularly with junior LB Addison Gillam, sophomore DE Derek McCartney, junior OLB Kenneth Olugbode and senior CB Ken Crawley.  There are pieces at each level that will allow Leavitt to implement his own playbook and to grow the program.

But don't expect Colorado to be good in any single area this year.  Not only will they be learning a new scheme, but MacIntyre remains committed to redshirting his incoming players.  Most, if not all, of the players that came in with the last recruiting class will be redshirted and those that came in last year will have to be broken in over time as redshirt freshman.  Depth is going to be a critical issue.  There will be a lot of pressure on the existing starters to play excessive snaps and for incoming JC transfers like DT Jordan Carrell and DE Blake Robbins as well as greyshirt DE Leo Jackson to each make an impact.

Three Questions and a Comment: Jack Barsch, Editor,  The Ralphie Report

1. Coach MacIntyre is taking a long-approach to building up the Colorado program.  Is this a make or break year for coach Mac in the eyes of the Buffs fanbase?

Well, as is the case with a lot of fanbase questions, it depends on who you ask. I know sitting on the fence isn't the best answer, but it's the most correct. Plenty of people, including myself, are willing to give Coach Mac the benefit of the doubt. It was his second year, we were competitive in most of the games (something that has been rare in Boulder), and he inherited an absolute mess. However, there is always the people who feel he didn't do enough, and being competitive just won't cut it. I think if you watched all 12 games CU played last year, there's no way to be disheartened at the end of the season. The growth the team showed from the stomping by CSU to the late game antics of Utah is enough to satisfy me going into this year.

2.  Colorado is still a young team.  How would you characterize it's emerging identity under Coach Mac?

Hmm... This is a tough one. Play style wise, I don't think there is much to latch on to, partly because Brian Lindgren is a good play caller. If you're looking for tendencies, there's a lot of power runs out of the shotgun and a lot of WR screens, but some of that may change this year. They love to use a rotation-heavy rushing attack, sometimes using four running backs a game. As far as "identity", I'd think to think we're physical, but we simply haven't had the players to have any sort of identity. I would guess the ideal offense for Mac and Lindgren would win the line of scrimmage every single time and have a lot of patterns over the middle.

Defensively, our identity was "better safe than sorry", but we were sorry more than safe. Kent Baer and his static formations are gone to Sin City, and Rick George (the AD) sent a gift from the heavens with the hire of Jim Leavitt. He immediately jumps into the top third of defensive coaches in the Conference of Champions, and his track record is ridiculous. Much like Coach Mac, leavitt doesn't have a trademarked play style or identity, but rather made his bread adapting his style to his personnel. He runs a 3-4, and I would guess aggression is a big key for him on defense.

3. Outside of guys like Spruce, Fields, Gillam and Crawley, who are some Colorado players likely to become household names to PAC 12 fans in 2015?

I'm surprised that you knew anyone outside of Spruce as we haven't really made an impression in the PAC yet.

It's hard to miss big Stephane Nembot out there. He made huge strides last year and is one of the better NFL prospects on the roster. He's a mauler at the RT spot, and he's getting better at edge protection.

My absolute favorite player to watch is Tedric Thompson (#9). Size, speed and attitude personified, Tedric is a prototypical safety, and he was having a terrific sophomore campaign before a scary head injury against UCLA. Tedric had 3 interceptions last year (the lion's share of CU's) and had a good amount of tackles, displaying his versatility.

The other fun guy to watch is Phillip Lindsay. When he's not fumbling against your Huskies (TWICE), he runs with an anger that punishes the guy trying to tackle him. He's fast, but not exactly shifty, and he's small, but he can run between the tackles. Quite the contradiction. Of the players on the team, his play style most resembles that of an actual buffalo, and you have to appreciate the realism.

The one upset that Colorado could pull in PAC12 play this year is ...

...USC. No, wait... maybe Arizona?

The Trojans come into Boulder on Friday the 13th, on a cold Colorado night. If there was ever a set up for a zany #Pac12AfterDark game, this is it. A young but insanely talented USC team versus a more experienced home team. I mean, we'll probably still be crushed, but it's fun to think about knocking USC out of the top 25.

The more realistic home win is Arizona. They face the second most brutal schedule in the PAC (second to us, if you were asking), and they face a murderer's row before they roll into the Buffs. They overachieved, and I'm expecting a regression towards the mean next year rather than another step up. If we improve enough, and they play more like the Wildcats of old enough, CU could walk away with a win

Predicting 2015: The Buffaloes

Success for the Buffaloes in 2015 will involve winning some games and having a chance to get bowl eligible when they play their "rivalry" game against Utah - a team that they've played pretty tough since joining the PAC.  Can they achieve that?  The short answer is "I don't think so".

My main concern with the Buffs is the lack of depth that they are enduring as they try to protect and develop the young players that MacIntyre has been recruiting the last few years.  Depth issues are going to become real as injuries and attrition strike various position groups over the course of the season.  I'm particularly concerned about offensive line, defensive line and linebackers.  In addition, I think it is fair to say that despite the presence of inspiring true freshman Steve Montez, the Buffs can ill afford to lose Liufau for any extended period of time.

Beyond that, I don't like how the schedule plays out for Colorado.  This is a 13 game schedule for them given their road trip to Hawaii in Week 2.  Not exactly an ideal scenario for a team struggling with depth.  Despite the extra game, they only play four conference home games in 2015 and two of those are Oregon and Stanford.  That's a lot of road games overall in a single season.  Add to that the fact that four of their last six are on the road and you have a pretty toxic mix for a team that is still trying to find its sea legs.

I do like what the Buffs are doing in terms of building their program.  They have good coaches and are bringing in good young players who ought to continue to develop.  As they took a step forward last year, I expect them to do so again this year.  I also expect that they will find a couple of wins on their schedule - at least one of them in the PAC.  But to get to seven wins and a bowl game seems just a bit out of reach at this time.  It will be another slog for Buff fans in 2015.