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1. "We're going to be pretty good, and that's kind of exciting"
It's been a confusing couple of decades for Colorado State football. When Sonny Lubick took over for Earle Bruce in 1993, the Rams had never been ranked and had attended only two bowls in their history. Lubick vaulted them to 10-2 and a No. 16 finish in 1994, then had them ranked for part of every season from 1997 to 2003. After long being an afterthought, Colorado State became a steady and powerful mid-major presence.
But after a disappointing 2003 season -- CSU began the season ranked 23rd but fell out of the polls immediately and limped to 7-6 -- the fortunes of the program changed quickly. Lubick went just 17-30 in his last four seasons and retired. Steve Fairchild took over, bumped CSU back to 7-6 with a bowl win in 2008, then went 9-27. The only clear reminder that the magical decade of 1994-03 had even happened was the playing field itself, named after Lubick at the end of that run.
In 2012, former Nick Saban assistant Jim McElwain took over in Fort Collins, inheriting a program that was good at producing an explosive player or two but couldn't maintain enough talent at once. And as with Fairchild, it didn't take him long to break through. After a 4-8 debut, McElwain's Rams went 8-6 in 2013, finishing 4-1 and taking down Washington State in a thrilling New Mexico Bowl to kick off bowl season.
So now what? Fairchild indeed built optimism early in his tenure, but things fell apart quickly. Can McElwain give CSU a level of sustained success the Rams haven't found since his current Rams were about 10 years old? He thinks so.
Colorado State rode an explosive running game and fantastic run defense last year, but both lines are getting rebuilt. The running backs who accounted for 2,567 yards and 35 touchdowns combined are gone. But an exciting quarterback and a deep, swarming back seven on defense give CSU reason for confidence.
2013 Schedule & Results
|Record: 8-6 | Adj. Record: 8-6 | Final F/+ Rk: 66|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Adj. Score||Adj. W-L||5-gm Adj. Avg.|
|1-Sep||Colorado||95||27-41||L||15.4 - 32.6||L|
|7-Sep||at Tulsa||94||27-30||L||14.2 - 30.5||L|
|14-Sep||Cal Poly||N/A||34-17||W||34.2 - 25.9||W|
|21-Sep||at Alabama||2||6-31||L||22.5 - 24.3||L|
|28-Sep||UTEP||119||59-42||W||41.1 - 38.1||W||-4.8|
|12-Oct||San Jose State||74||27-34||L||33.1 - 36.7||L||-2.1|
|19-Oct||at Wyoming||102||52-22||W||34.0 - 24.8||W||3.0|
|26-Oct||at Hawaii||82||35-28||W||22.0 - 22.2||L||1.3|
|2-Nov||Boise State||45||30-42||L||34.2 - 34.0||W||1.7|
|9-Nov||Nevada||88||38-17||W||35.0 - 24.1||W||3.3|
|16-Nov||at New Mexico||110||66-42||W||37.9 - 37.9||W||4.0|
|23-Nov||at Utah State||32||0-13||L||5.6 - 11.5||L||1.0|
|30-Nov||Air Force||113||58-13||W||36.2 - 17.2||W||4.8|
|21-Dec||vs. Washington State||53||48-45||W||33.1 - 27.1||W||6.0|
|Points Per Game||36.2||22||29.8||82|
|Adj. Points Per Game||28.5||65||27.6||64|
2. The proverbial light bulb
For two straight years now, Colorado State has finished strong. The Rams won four of six to finish the 2012 season and build a bit of hype for 2013, but a 2-4 start last season dampened most expectations. CSU didn't wait quite as long to find fourth gear, however.
Adj. Points per game (first 6 games): Opponent 31.4, CSU 26.8 (minus-4.6)
Adj. Points per game (last 8 games): CSU 29.8, Opponent 24.9 (plus-4.9)
Junior college transfer Kapri Bibbs rushed for 429 yards through the first six games of the year, but beginning with the October 19 trip to Wyoming, he erupted. He had 29 carries for 201 yards against Wyoming, 33 for 137 against Hawaii, 30 for 312 against Nevada, 38 for 291 against New Mexico. He got dinged up late in the year and got shut down by Boise State, but he still averaged 164 yards per game over the final eight games of the season. Despite a toe injury, Bibbs rushed for 169 yards in the bowl win, and despite only one FBS season, he declared for the NFL Draft following the season.
Late-season improvement is often sustainable if the reasons for the improvement return the following year. Bibbs was a large reason for the surge, and both he and his two backups are gone. But as you see above, defensive improvement was actually the biggest reason for the improvement. The Rams defense returns solid depth, but some of the biggest stars on that side of the ball are gone, too.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||44.9%||47||Succ. Rt. +||94.6||80|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||30.9||91||Def. FP+||95.4||103|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||5.1||5||Redzone S&P+||110.2||28|
|Q1 Rk||78||1st Down Rk||76|
|Q2 Rk||69||2nd Down Rk||61|
|Q3 Rk||90||3rd Down Rk||75|
Note: players in bold below are 2014 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|Garrett Grayson||6'2, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||297||478||3696||23||11||62.1%||21||4.2%||7.2|
|Nick Stevens||6'3, 190||So.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Coleman Key||6'4, 215||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
3. Things change
A year ago in last year's CSU preview, I talked up quarterback Conner Smith, then a sophomore. Smith had filled in for the injured Garrett Grayson and M.J. McPeek in 2012 and held his own, averaging 7.5 yards per pass attempt. In terms of on-field production, it appeared that he had perhaps surpassed Grayson. But then Grayson caught up in spring ball and passed him in fall practice. Grayson played a pretty exciting, off-the-cuff style of ball and held onto the starting job all fall, and Smith quietly transferred after the season.
Garret Grayson/Photo credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports
Heading into his senior season, Grayson is the unquestioned leader of the offense. He's a fun player, elusive and adept at making plays on the move, but in 2014 he'll be asked to make quite a few more plays. His receiving corps is seasoned and rather exciting, but the running game is starting from scratch, and he'll be protected by a green line. Grayson built some hype with his bowl performance (31-for-50 for 369 yards, two touchdowns, an interception, and six non-sack carries for 32 yards), but he'll probably have to improve just to match last year's numbers.
|Garrett Grayson||QB||6'2, 220||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||47||247||2||5.3||3.2||51.1%|
|Joe Hansley||WR||5'10, 180||Jr.||NR||11||61||0||5.5||3.2||63.6%|
|Eric Williams||RB||5'9, 200||So.||NR||5||3||0||0.6||0.0%|
|Jasen Oden||RB||6'1, 208||Jr.||NR|
|Bryce Peters||RB||5'11, 205||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Deron Thompson||RB||5'10, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Trey Smith||RB||6'0, 176||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Johnathan Lewis||RB||5'11, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
4. A complete reset in the running game
Colorado State running backs rushed 458 times last season, but those responsible for 453 of those carries are gone. Kapri Bibbs declared for the draft, Chris Nwoke graduated, and Donnell Alexander recently announced that he was transferring.
Colorado State offensive linemen had combined for 163 career starts at the end of the season; those responsible for 132 of those starts are gone. All four were seniors, and all four were multi-year starters, including center Weston Richburg.
McElwain appears to have recruited well at both running back and offensive line, but the quality of the recruiting will be tested dramatically in 2014. Three-star redshirt freshman Bryce Peters figures to be the primary running back this fall, along with converted defensive back Jasen Oden and a bevy of well-touted incoming freshmen. The line will feature more upperclassmen; all-conference senior tackle Ty Sambrailo returns (although he is out for the spring with an injury), and seniors Mason Myers and Mason Hathaway should play a role, along with juniors Jordan Finley, Sam Carlson, and Kevin O'Brien. Still, youngsters like Jake Bennett, Trae Moxley, and Fred Zerblis will also be involved, and it's really difficult to assume anything other than a drop-off in the run game.
|Rashard Higgins||WR||6'2, 180||So.||2 stars (5.4)||100||68||837||68.0%||21.9%||59.6%||8.4||36||7.9||84.5|
|Joe Hansley||WR||5'10, 180||Jr.||NR||81||53||614||65.4%||17.7%||66.7%||7.6||-23||7.5||62.0|
|Kivon Cartwright||TE||6'4, 245||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||54||27||462||50.0%||11.8%||68.0%||8.6||88||8.0||46.6|
|Charles Lovett||WR||5'8, 182||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||36||26||396||72.2%||7.9%||55.9%||11.0||98||9.8||40.0|
|Jordon Vaden||WR||6'3, 185||So.||2 stars (5.3)||36||22||255||61.1%||7.9%||61.8%||7.1||-19||6.0||25.7|
|Robert Ruiz||WR||5'9, 170||So.||NR||3||1||11||33.3%||0.7%||0.0%||3.7||-7||2.4||1.1|
|Elroy Masters, Jr.||WR||6'2, 208||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Sammie Long||WR||6'3, 180||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Steven Walker||TE||6'2, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Christian Montes||TE||6'4, 255||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Deionte Gaines||WR||5'8, 170||Fr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|John Freismuth||WR||6'4, 201||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
5. A shift toward the pass?
Colorado State operated from a quarterback-friendly system in 2013, throwing slightly more than the national average on standard downs (usually to possession options like Rashard Higgins, Joe Hansley, and tight end Kivon Cartwright) and running slightly more than average on passing downs. This is a good way to steal easy yards, and it both put Grayson in position to succeed and gave Bibbs open opportunities against defenses expecting the pass.
One has to figure we'll see either the same thing in 2014 or if there will be an even more pronounced difference. Higgins, Hansley, and Cartwright all return, as does big-play threat Charles Lovett. The receiving corps is as experienced as the running backs are inexperienced, and to prevent Grayson from facing second-and-8 after second-and-8, it's conceivable that CSU will pass even more frequently on standard downs.
|Weston Richburg||C||50||1st All-MWC|
|Ty Sambrailo||LT||6'5, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.1)||30||2nd All-MWC|
|Mason Hathaway||RT||6'5, 294||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||1|
|Sam Carlson||LT||6'4, 280||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Nick Callender||LT||6'5, 315||So.||NR||0|
|Mason Myers||LG||6'3, 300||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||0|
|Kevin O'Brien||OL||6'3, 290||Jr.||NR||0|
|Fred Zerblis||C||6'3, 295||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0|
|Tomas Rivera||RG||6'6, 310||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0|
|Blake Nowland||OL||6'6, 309||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Jake Bennett||OL||6'3, 265||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Trae Moxley||OL||6'5, 270||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Zack Golditch||OL||6'6, 260||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Jordan Finley||OL||6'3, 265||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||38.9%||30||Succ. Rt. +||105.8||38|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||28.7||96||Off. FP+||94.5||112|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Trip in 40||4.1||60||Redzone S&P+||102.3||48|
|Q1 Rk||51||1st Down Rk||74|
|Q2 Rk||69||2nd Down Rk||51|
|Q3 Rk||82||3rd Down Rk||80|
The bend-don't-break defense is popular at the college level. Live to play another down, sacrifice short gains in the name of preventing big ones, and perhaps you'll eventually force a mistake from the offense (or the offense will simply make a mistake of its own volition). It has worked for a lot of defenses, especially those that don't have blue-chip athleticism across the board.
Meet the Bag Man
Meet the Bag Man
Colorado State went the other way in 2013, the Michigan State way. Hammer the line of scrimmage, allow nothing easy, force passing downs, and take your chances on the big plays. If you can pull it off, it is the most satisfying, effective way to play defense, as efficiency means more in college football than we probably even realize. But it's hard to pull it off.
CSU didn't have Michigan State's secondary, and it cost the Rams quite often. But the Rams made a lot of plays near the line of scrimmage. They had one of the nation's best mid-major run defenses and a linebacking corps that went well beyond star pass rusher Shaquil Barrett (who was last seen making seemingly every play down the stretch against Washington State). They swarmed and attacked and forced passing downs; they also improved from 106th to 60th in Def. F/+. Co-coordinators Marty English and Al Simmons figured out which buttons to press in 2013. Now we get to see if they can do it again with a new cast of characters up front.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Terry Jackson||DT||6'1, 275||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||12||19.5||2.4%||5.5||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Joe Kawulok||DE||6'6, 250||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||13.0||1.6%||3.5||3.5||0||0||1||0|
|LaRyan King||NT||6'1, 285||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||8.0||1.0%||1.0||1.0||0||0||0||0|
|Josh Lovingood||DL||6'4, 250||So.||2 stars (5.3)||3||5.5||0.7%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Austin Berk||DE||6'5, 225||So.||3 stars (5.5)||5||2.5||0.3%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Justin Hansen||NT||6'5, 310||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||8||2.0||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Johnny Schupp||DL||6'5, 260||So.||NR|
|Martavius Foster||DE||6'3, 260||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Silvester Hayes||DE||6'3, 210||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
7. Rebuilding a thin line
How much of CSU's run success was because of the line, and how much was because of the linebacking corps? The answer to those questions will determine a lot of the Rams' defensive success in 2014. Virtually every linebacker returns this year (everybody but Barrett, that is), including a tackling machine in Max Morgan, dynamic run defender Aaron Davis, and pass rusher Cory James. But up front, starting end Eli Edwards is gone, as are two of the top three tackles. The Rams have a potential ace pass rusher in Joe Kawulok, who made 3.5 sacks among his 13.0 tackles in 2013, but the line has thinned out quite a bit. The linebacking corps will be asked to carry an even larger load this fall.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Max Morgan||MLB||6'1, 225||Sr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||102.5||12.7%||2.0||0.0||1||6||1||1|
|Aaron Davis||WLB||6'0, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||14||91.5||11.4%||7.0||0.0||0||3||3||1|
|Cory James||SLB||6'0, 240||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||44.0||5.5%||12.0||8.0||0||1||2||0|
|Nu'uvali Fa'apito||WLB||6'0, 221||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||10||15.0||1.9%||0.5||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Steven Michel||SLB||6'1, 225||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||12||13.0||1.6%||1.5||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Deonte Clyburn||WLB||6'1, 217||So.||2 stars (5.3)||13||9.0||1.1%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Danny Nwosu||BUCK||6'2, 233||So.||NR||14||8.5||1.1%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Ken Hulbert||MLB||5'11, 215||Sr.||NR||13||8.5||1.1%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Nolan Peralta||MLB||6'3, 230||So.||NR||10||3.0||0.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Bryan Ohene||BUCK||6'1, 215||So.||2 stars (5.2)||4||2.0||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Kevin Davis||LB||6'3, 230||Jr.||3 stars (5.6)|
|Kiel Robinson||LB||6'2, 205||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Evan Colorito||LB||6'4, 230||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)|
|Josh Watson||LB||6'2, 231||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
8. Best mid-major linebacking corps?
It's strange to lose a guy who made 20.5 tackles for loss and 12 sacks and forced fumbles and still say that the linebacking corps is going to be great, but ... CSU's linebacking corps is going to be great. The Rams are not only wonderfully experienced (three seniors and three juniors among their top eight returnees), but as mentioned above, they return some studs even without Barrett. If the line can just establish a certain level of competence -- not becoming a strength, but not becoming a weakness -- this unit will swallow up plays near the line of scrimmage just like it did last year.
Even if the run defense regresses a bit because of the line, the biggest concern for the defense will probably still be the secondary. CSU had a strong pass rush and aggressive defensive backs (corners Bernard Blake, Shaq Bell, and DeAndre Elliott combined for three picks, 27 break-ups, and 12 tackles for loss), and they made life difficult for opposing passers. But if you beat them, you beat them. The big plays the Rams allowed were bigger than most. It will be interesting to see what happens now that Bell is gone; he was the Rams' strongest defender near the line, but he was certainly prone to breakdowns as well. Without him, it's possible that CSU's pass defense gets a little more stable with a little less upside. But there are still play-makers here. It'll come down to the plays they allow.
|Rivals||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Kevin Pierre-Louis||SS||6'1, 212||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||13||55.0||6.8%||1||0||1||3||2||0|
|Bernard Blake||CB||6'0, 180||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||14||53.0||6.6%||4.5||0||1||12||1||0|
|Trent Matthews||FS||6'3, 210||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||14||49.5||6.2%||2.5||1||4||3||0||0|
|DeAndre Elliott||CB||6'1, 185||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||13||26.5||3.3%||0||0||1||10||0||1|
|Tyree Simmons||CB||5'11, 170||So.||2 stars (5.4)||14||26.0||3.2%||2||1||0||4||0||0|
|Jake Schlager||S||6'0, 195||So.||2 stars (5.3)||14||16.0||2.0%||0||0||0||1||1||0|
|Nick Januska||FS||6'2, 210||Jr.||NR||11||11.0||1.4%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Josh Bowman||S||6'0, 185||So.||2 stars (5.2)|
|Justin Sweet||DB||5'10, 181||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Preston Hodges||DB||5'11, 196||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Marcus Wilson||DB||5'10, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)|
|Kevin Nutt||DB||5'10, 186||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)|
|Hayden Hunt||6'1, 196||So.||68||41.9||4||12||14||38.2%|
|Jared Roberts||6'1, 205||Sr.||94||60.4||31||4||33.0%|
|Jared Roberts||6'1, 205||Sr.||58-58||13-15||86.7%||8-9||88.9%|
|Tyree Simmons||KR||5'11, 170||So.||3||24.0||0|
|Tyree Simmons||PR||5'11, 170||So.||11||14.2||0|
|Joe Hansley||PR||5'10, 180||Jr.||8||19.9||1|
|Special Teams F/+||62|
|Field Goal Efficiency||16|
|Punt Return Efficiency||55|
|Kick Return Efficiency||56|
|Opponents' Field Goal Efficiency||80|
9. Sew up that punt coverage
CSU's offense ranked 80th in Success Rate+ but 103rd in the field position it created for the defense. CSU's defense ranked 38th in Success Rate+ but 112th in the field position it created for the offense.
In other words, special teams gave away a lot of the gains CSU made on offense and defense. The Rams' return game wasn't bad (especially on punts), and place-kicker Jared Roberts was fantastic in making eight of nine field goals over 40 yards. But kick coverage was mediocre, and punt coverage was absolutely atrocious. Punter Hayden Hunt averaged a respectable 42 yards per kick but fewer than one in five punts were fair caught, and opponents averaged a solid 9.7 yards per return. This added up, and it tilted the field in opponents' favor even when CSU was doing well. If the CSU offense is going to struggle to run the ball, special teams will need to fill in the gaps.
2014 Schedule & Projection Factors
|6-Sep||at Boise State||18|
|27-Sep||at Boston College||80|
|1-Nov||at San Jose State||82|
|29-Nov||at Air Force||105|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-18.0% (112)|
|Two-Year Recruiting Rk||77|
|TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin*||2 / 5.5|
|Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.)||12 (5, 7)|
10. A "pretty good" team might win nine games
It appears Jim McElwain is pretty happy with how his squad is coming together this spring, and it's not hard to see why. He's got a quarterback who made a name for himself at the end of the season, he's got most of his receiving corps returning, he's got an incredible set of linebackers, he's got a good place-kicker, and he's got a secondary that at least makes as many plays as it allows (but does need to allow fewer big plays).
What's scary about Colorado State, however, is that the holes that do exist are huge. The Rams have no running back experience and lost both four starters on the offensive line and three on the defensive line. Plus, as good as the linebackers appear to be, it's never a good thing to lose a 20-TFL guy.
Recruiting has been strong and balanced: there are former three-star recruits in every unit on the team, and there are quite a few at defensive back and on the defensive line. McElwain appears to be building strong depth here, and that's exciting for the future. But it's still uncertain whether the Rams can avoid at least a temporary drop-off in 2014.
That said, a "pretty good" team could do some damage against this schedule. CSU plays only four teams projected better than 80th, and two of those teams (Tulsa and Utah State) come to Fort Collins. Even if the Rams aren't as good as they were last year -- certainly a distinct possibility -- a second-straight bowl should be in the cards. Considering CSU hasn't pulled off back-to-back postseason bids since 2002-03, that should be enough for now.