Before we jump into the Colorado Buffaloes, how about a shoutout for football?
The arrival of the annual Gekko Files series carries with it a big burden; a string of articles all ranging from 1500 to 2000 words covering the prospects of every single UW foe in the PAC-12 is a whopper of an obligation. But it also marks the turning of the proverbial leaf. It is an early warning system:
WARNING: FOOTBALL IS NEAR. PREPARE TO PREVIEW THE PAC
The Buffaloes usually kick off my annual series not because they hold a special place in my heart but, frankly, because they are the hardest to do. The fact of the matter is that we know very little about the once-proud Colorado Buffalo program because, well, they just haven't been a very good football team since their arrival in the PAC-12 and for many years before that.
Their impotence belies the fact the Colorado was once a high-flying NCAA football program. They are the owners of a national championship, having taken the title that UW was so close to procuring in the 1990 season. They have won four Big Eight and one Big 12 conference championships. They've won 12 of 27 bowl appearances. Their program has played over 1200 football games and won 58.3% of them - that's a respectable 30th on the all-time win percentage list. Heck, they even have a Heisman Trophy winner in RB Rashaan Salaam.
They also happen to be a party to the most (in)famous "fifth down" play in the history of college football.
But, like all programs experience, Colorado has seen their fortunes nosedive for the better part of the last decade. A decline in facilities, budget problems, drama in the Big 12, personnel problems, and a carousel for a coaching staff have led to a complete meltdown of football in Boulder. Since joining the PAC in 2011, Colorado has won just 14 games. That's 10 worse than the next worst team - Cal at 24.
Despite the poor results in the record book, it is hard to say that Colorado has not improved each year in the PAC. It is also hard to ignore the fact that the competition seems to be improving by at least the same rate as the Buffaloes. As such, the prospects for improvement are hard to project. Is 2016 the year that Colorado and Head Coach Mike MacIntyre finally break through?
|Newcomers to Watch
|QB Sefo Liufau
WR Shay Fields
RB Beau Bisharat (TFr)
The Buffs' offense is a mess as it heads into summer workouts. Almost all of this relates to the status of the quarterback situation, where incumbent star and OWW favorite Sefo Liufau is still recovering from the dreaded lisfranc injury. With his status unknown, the Buffs are looking closely at the potential of "QB-of-the-future" Steven Montez and wondering if the time is now (and, yes, I know about Jordan Gehrke, but I can't see how last year's third-stringer is going to fit into this mix).
I like Montez and I think that he will be a good QB in the PAC-12 someday. It's hard to project a QB that I've never seen, but it is easy to look at the history of young QBs on teams with fairly-ordinary-to-below-average offenses and realize that the odds are stacked.
The offensive line is a particular work in progress. There may not have been a worse one in the PAC last year. Always a patchwork affair that featured nine different starting combinations, Colorado gave up 40 sacks and 423 yards lost on TFLs - both worst in the conference. The good news is that a couple of really pedestrian performers have moved on. The bad news is that the replacements are complete unknowns which, when breaking in a new QB, can be an uneasy situation.
As for playmakers, the Buffs do have a few names to lean on. WR Shay Fields is a different kind of receiver than the now-graduated Nelson Spruce, but every bit the kind of #1 that every team needs. At the RB level, Colorado has several contributors they can rotate in, including their dynamic Junior duo of Christian Powell (thunder) and Donovan Lee (lightning). Beyond these guys, I can't tell you where the breakouts might occur. TE Sean Irwin is a big, reliable target. Both WR Bryce Bobo and WR Devin Ross can burn. Maybe a guy like JC transfer Kabion Ento can have an impact.
It's all hard to tell and, truthfully, it all probably hinges on the health of Liufau. Despite having a pair of decent RBs, the Buffs are an air-it-out football team and will only be at their best when the OL can protect and the passer-receiver connections are thriving. There are just too many questions in all of that for me to gain any confidence right now.
|Newcomers to Watch
|LB Kenneth Olugbode
CB Chidobe Awuzie
CB Kyle Trego (JC)
If there is going to be any hope for Colorado this year, it is going to begin with a maturation of the defense. Depending on what analysis you look at, the Buffs are returning around seven starters to a defense that was consistently just below average in every aspect of the playing defense.
That may not sound like a glowing endorsement, but consider some context here: the Buffs were young and they definitely had a few games where the potential popped and a glimpse of the future could be seen. In fact, in their last three conference games of the season, none of their opponents scored more than 27 points. The Buffs have never had a three-game stretch of such defensive stoutness since joining the PAC. Add to that the mere 13 points they allowed OSU, and the gutsy, physical throwdown they had against UCLA, and it isn't hard to see reasons why there might be some optimism.
My favorite player on the D is senior LB Kenneth Olugbode. He will anchor a unit that I think could be the best part of Jim Leavitt's defense in 2016. A hard-nosed and gritty player, Olugbode is an effective tackler against the run. He'll be joined by the seasoned Addison Gillam, who at one point was seen as a defensive star in the making. The pair will form a strong, experienced unit. If they can get contributions from junior UW transfer Drew Lewis and another year of growth from sophomore Ricky Gamboa, this unit could really shine for Colorado.
The defensive line, however, will be a challenge. Pass rush specialist Jimmie Gilbert is back. The senior led the team in sacks a year ago with six but has shown a propensity to fade in games. If he is going to be effective as a pass rusher, he'll need some help from his three defensive linemen. If 325-pound Josh Tupou returns from his season-long suspension in 2015, he might provide just such a kind of presence. If not, Colorado will have to lean on the experience if not the accomplishment of guys like senior Jordan Carrell (43 tackles) and junior Leo Jackson (24 tackles). There is enough girth there if not a steady pass rush.
The secondary will be a source of optimism for every Buff fan given the presence of two players that many believe are NFL prospects. Senior CB Chidobe Awuzie might be the best player on the Buffs' roster. He's a bit of a hybrid CB who, I think, is better in run support than he is as a cover guy. He isn't a shut-down guy as much as he is an efficient zone player. Senior S Tedric Thompson is a 200+ pound thumper who, like Awuzie, is more built for run support than pass coverage. Beyond those guys, there is experience to draw upon as well as some young talent. This unit could surprise.
One Breakout Star
The obvious breakout candidate is Montez at QB. However, one guy that I'll be keeping my eye on is sophomore CB Isaiah Oliver. At 6-1, 195 lbs, he has the stature to step into the role of "cover guy" in a defense that doesn't have many of them. He appears to be threatening incumbent starter Ahkello Witherspoon for a starting role. Given the experience around him and all the help he'll get, I could easily see Oliver putting some stats on the board as PAC-12 DCs try to test him out in the early going. It sounds like a good recipe for a breakout.
The Buffaloes need something big to happen, and they need it to happen in 2016. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to see how the stars might align for them.
The defense could very well take a huge step forward this season. It would not shock me in the least to see them emerge as a top-half-of-the-conference type of unit whose physicality makes up for the lack of overall team speed. There are potential stars in two of the three levels of that unit.
At best, however, they could only hold serve for an offense that simply has no real answers to the challenges that other PAC-12 teams will throw their way. A return from Liufau would certainly help, but without Nelson Spruce to eat up short passes and without a steady OL to help compensate for Liufau's compromised wheels, I don't see too many good days for the Buffalo offense.
The schedule is not helpful. The Buffs open up against their heated rival in Colorado State, get an easy W against Idaho State and then travel to Ann Arbor to take on Michigan. If that isn't enough, they follow that road trip with a road trip to Eugene. After a bit of break hosting Oregon State, they then get to travel to LA to take on USC. Sheesh.
It wouldn't surprise me to see Colorado already saddled with a 1-5 record before their young offense is even broken in. Even if Liufau is in there, 2-4 would be a major accomplishment halfway in. Unfortunately, that just isn't going to cut it if Colorado's goal is bowl eligibility. I'm predicting another long and painful campaign for the Buffs in 2016.