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Colorado State’s new stadium should be home to one of 2017’s best non-powers

Mike Bobo’s Rams have a chance to win almost any game on their schedule, if they find consistency.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Colorado State Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

This preview originally published April 13 and has since been updated.

A lot of what my S&P+ ratings do is search for upside. You aren’t going to learn all you need to learn about a football team in 12 or so games, but you can discern a team’s upside, downside, and consistency level.

Per S&P+, here’s a list of FBS teams that played in the 90th percentile or higher in at least three games in 2016 (adjusted for opponent):

  • 13: Alabama
  • 10: Clemson
  • 7: Florida State
  • 4: Auburn
  • 3: Baylor, Boise State, Colorado, Colorado State, Florida

Within that list are the two teams that played in the national title game, five power conference teams that spent time in the AP top 10 ... and two Mountain West teams that didn’t win their division.

Upside alone is not enough. To accomplish whatever goals you might have in a given season, playing incredibly well three or four times doesn’t really matter if you suffer too many letdowns in the other games.

The nine teams above produced just eight combined performances at the 25th percentile or lower; Colorado State had three of them. The Rams were dramatically inconsistent, losing to Colorado by 37, to Wyoming by 21, and to Idaho by 11, but also beating San Diego State by 32 on the road and playing nearly perfect ball against New Mexico and Fresno State.

The Rams finished 38th in S&P+. A 7-6 mid-major finished ahead of a host of nine-win power conference teams (Minnesota, Utah, Georgia Tech, Nebraska), plus four teams it lost to. That’s not normal.

Upside doesn’t tend to just disappear, as long as the reasons for it are still in town. And if the reason for the inconsistency had anything to do with inexperience, then 2017 could be a very special year in Fort Collins.

Bobo’s Rams return their starting quarterback, all three primary backs, their top two receiving targets, an all-conference center, three of their top four defensive linemen, nearly every linebacker, and nearly every defensive back [update: plus Utah grad transfer safety Jordan Fogal, eligible immediately after playing in 11 career games].

After a shaky few weeks, Colorado State hit a cruising altitude that few mid-majors achieved, and in 2017, the Rams get to prove it wasn’t a fluke. They also get to prove whether they can maintain this high level for more than just a few weeks.

Bobo came to town to prove himself. The Georgia grad spent nearly 15 years as a UGA assistant and spent the last few of those years serving as maybe the most underrated coordinator in the country. In terms of Off. S&P+, his Dawgs ranked 16th and 15th his first two years in the OC chair. And after a brief funk in which UGA was only a top-40 offense, they surged to sixth, eighth, and sixth from 2012-14.

His first CSU team was a little bit disappointing; the offense reset with a new starting quarterback, and the defense didn’t improve. But last year the offense surged. (The defense still hasn’t really improved.) Meanwhile, his last two recruiting classes have each ranked second in the conference, per the 247Sports Composite.

If Colorado State lives up to its S&P+ projections, this could be Bobo’s last year in Fort Collins. He could become a hot candidate for any number of jobs, especially opportunities closer to home. But that’s okay.

For two straight hires, CSU has gone after upwardly mobile coaches with minimal ties to the area. The Jim McElwain era ended with the Rams’ first 10-win season in 12 years. And if the school is looking for another new coach in about eight months, that means they just had another big year.

Just go find the next exciting coach, and bring him to town for three years, too. Let that become CSU’s model: an ambitious program with a gorgeous new stadium that finds ambitious coaches to lead the way.

Colorado State

2016 in review

2016 Colorado State statistical profile.

Midway through the season, Colorado State was legitimately disappointing. A competitive loss at Minnesota was far from embarrassing, but the Rams were unconvincing offensively in a 23-14 win over UTSA and unconvincing defensively in a 47-21 win over Northern Colorado. Losing by a combined 82-24 to Colorado and Wyoming was unacceptable.

The season swung with a 31-24 win over Utah State. The Rams trailed 24-10 at halftime. CSU played a nearly perfect second half, surged to win, and looked mostly fantastic the rest of the way.

Colorado State vs. Vegas
  • First 5 games (2-3): Avg. percentile performance: 44% (~top 75) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 5.9, CSU 5.5 (minus-0.4) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-8.7 PPG
  • Next 7 games (5-2): Avg. percentile performance: 79% (~top 25) | Avg. yards per play: CSU 7.2, Opp 6.0 (plus-1.2) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-13.6 PPG

A couple of tight losses spoiled the surge. CSU lost a 28-23 tossup game to Boise State, then outgained Air Force by 1.7 yards per play in a 49-46 road loss. Still, the Rams rallied to 7-5 and absolutely humiliated soon-to-be MWC champion San Diego State, 63-31, in San Diego.

The season wrapped up with CSU walking into a hornet’s nest. The Rams faced soon-to-be-FCS Idaho in the Potato Bowl, and in cold, sloppy conditions, they ran into an angry Vandals team with something to prove and a far greater desire to be on the field. Idaho raced to a 41-7 lead midway through the third quarter, and while the Rams did an admirable job of fighting back to only lose by 11, it was still disappointing.

There were massive highs and lows in 2016. That will probably even out, one way or the other, this fall.


Offense

Colorado State offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

The CSU defense had its moments late, but the Rams’ second-half surge was driven by offense.

I mentioned overall percentile performances above, but here are CSU’s offense-only percentile performances for the last eight games of the season: 86 percent, 76 percent, 84 percent, 84 percent, 93 percent, 98 percent, 97 percent, 79 percent.

After the 38-17 home dud against Wyoming, CSU’s offense found fourth year (34 points per game and 6.1 yards per play over the next four games), then found fifth (52 points per game and 9.2 yards per play over the last four).

Most of the reasons return. Third-year starting quarterback Nick Stevens raised his passer rating from 138.7 to 171.3 last year, but it didn’t come without drama. He was dreadful against Colorado in the season opener, going 6-for-20 for just 31 yards with two sacks and two picks. Backup Faton Bauta went 6-for-17 the next week against UTSA, so freshman Collin Hill took the job.

Hill was phenomenal against Northern Colorado and decent against Minnesota and Wyoming, but he tore his ACL, and Stevens took full advantage of his second chance.

Hill appears to be a promising option moving forward, but odds are that this is Stevens’ job again. And he has a hell of a receiver duo. Michael Gallup and Olabisi Johnson combined to catch 104 passes for 1,898 yards and 18 touchdowns at a clip of 11.5 yards per target last year Gallup was responsible for a majority of that, catching at least four balls for at least 91 yards in each of the final eight games of the year. He peaked with 22 for 339 in games against Fresno State and Air Force.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Air Force
Michael Gallup
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Being able to run helped to settle the QB situation a bit. Dalyn Hawkins had 53 carries for 203 yards (3.8 per carry) through five games but erupted for 716 yards (6.6 per carry) the rest of the way, and the emergence of Izzy Matthews and Marvin Kinsey Jr. allowed CSU to lean on the ground game. Once opponents had to compensate for that, the Rams went deep.

All-conference center Jake Bennett returns, but all-conference guard Fred Zerblis does not, nor do honorable mention all-MWC guys Nick Callender or Paul Thurston. CSU returns two starters and two others with starting experience, but the Rams combined a No. 9 ranking in power success rate with a No. 11 ranking in stuff rate (run stops at or behind the line). That’s a nice combination, and it might be hard to replicate.

Meanwhile, injuries could create issues in the receiving corps. That Gallup and Johnson are back is great, but the No. 3 and 4 wideouts are gone, as are the top two tight ends. Dawkins is the only other returnee who caught more than seven passes last year. Bobo has recruited well, and leaning on three-star youngsters like sophomore Anthony Hawkins, freshmen Warren Jackson or E.J. Scott, or redshirt freshman tight end Isiah Pannunzio might pay off. But you never want to have to rely on young guys.

NCAA Football: Fresno State at Colorado State
Nick Stevens
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Colorado State defensive radar

When Bobo came to Fort Collins, he retained the services of former CSU co-coordinator Marty English, first as linebackers coach, then as coordinator in 2016. The results were familiar, if nothing else.

Over the last five years, CSU’s Defensive S&P+ rating, presented in the form of an adjusted points per game figure, has been 31.3, 33.1, 31.8, 31.9, and 31.4. The Rams having a below-average defense (above-average for the MWC) has been one of the sport’s constants, no matter who the head coach or coordinator is.

Of course, CSU arrived at that after a plethora of ups and downs. The defense was awful against Colorado and excellent against UTSA, mediocre for a few weeks in a row but great against Fresno State (even after adjusting for opponent). The awesome CSU offense played with a slow tempo and controlled the ball, which helped to keep some opponent scores pretty low, but when the defense had to step up, it couldn’t with regularity.

At the least, this year’s defense will be more experienced. The Rams could start as many as eight seniors, and with more help, an aggressive linebacking corps could create havoc.

CSU ranked 11th in linebacker havoc rate in 2016, a figure that would have meant more if the Rams hadn’t also ranked 101st in defensive line havoc and, more importantly, 112th in defensive back havoc.

Still, five different linebackers recorded at least seven tackles for loss, and four of them return. Evan Colorito and Tre Thomas are dynamic at stuffing the run — they combined for 14.5 tackles for loss, and 12 of them were of the non-sack variety —and while starting weakside linebacker Kevin Davis is gone, Deonte Clyburn, who missed 2016 with a blood-clot condition, should return. He had nearly as many TFLs in 2015 (7) as Davis did last year (10.5).

NCAA Football: Texas-San Antonio at Colorado State
Evan Colorito & Josh Watson
The Coloradoan-USA TODAY Sports

In the 3-4 structure, the job of the linemen is to occupy blockers, not create havoc themselves. They did that pretty well, but CSU’s run defense was inconsistent and finished just 100th in Rushing S&P+. In a ridiculous run league like the MWC, that’s going to hold you back. Three of the top four linemen return, and Bobo plumped up the tackle two-deep with a couple of JUCOs — 270-pound, three-star play-maker Christian Howard and man-mountain Jamori Fox.

CSU did come after the quarterback well, and perhaps CSU’s lack of havoc in the back came because they were playing conservatively to allow risk-taking up front. Regardless, the Rams didn’t get hands on many passes but ranked 65th in Passing S&P+. And while two of the top three corners are gone (if a star recruit like mid-three-star Christian Cumber is able to get up to speed quickly, playing time is available), the safety unit is loaded with experience. Seniors Jake Schlager and Justin Sweet, junior Braylin Scott, and sophomore Jamal Hicks have all gotten reps and shown potential.

Potential is good, and experience is great, but ... now that needs to turn into improvement.

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Fresno State
Justin Sweet
Cary Edmondson-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

CSU ranked a healthy 24th in Special Teams S&P+ last year, but a lot of that had to do with Hayden Hunt’s punting leg; Hunt averaged 44.1 yards per kick last year and allowed returns of any sort on just 17 of 56 kicks. He’s gone.

Wyatt Bryan’s back, though. He took advantage of the thin air to go 8-for-9 on field goals under 40 and 3-for-5 over 40. His return should keep CSU in the top 50, and the ceiling is high depending on the punter.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
26-Aug Oregon State 54 4.1 59%
1-Sep vs. Colorado 50 1.1 52%
9-Sep Abilene Christian NR 47.2 100%
16-Sep at Alabama 1 -31.3 4%
30-Sep at Hawaii 109 14.2 79%
7-Oct at Utah State 73 4.4 60%
14-Oct Nevada 117 20.6 88%
21-Oct at New Mexico 110 14.5 80%
28-Oct Air Force 116 20.4 88%
4-Nov at Wyoming 80 6.7 65%
11-Nov Boise State 29 -1.1 48%
18-Nov San Jose State 105 18.5 86%
Projected S&P+ Rk 43
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 21 / 82
Projected wins 8.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 7.1 (38)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 69 / 79
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -1 / -0.8
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 79% (84%, 74%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 8.1 (-1.1)

Colorado State chose the right time to open a new stadium because man oh man, CSU might be playing some big-time football. This year is a massive opportunity.

S&P+ projections are a mix of recent performance data, recruiting, and returning production. CSU is near the top of the MWC in all three, so it would stand to reason that the Rams project well.

At 43rd overall — 21st on offense, 82nd on defense — they are given at least a 48 percent chance of winning in 11 games (a September 15 trip to Alabama being the obvious exception) and at least 59 percent in nine. They project to win at least eight or nine games, and the ceiling is obviously higher.

When you hire a coach like Bobo, you’re looking for a short-term bang. He could stay a while if he doesn’t succeed too much, but the best-case scenario is him going out with a bang in 2017, winning the Mountain West, and setting the table for his successor, the next bright coach on the list.

If CSU doesn’t break through this year, it might take a couple of years. Bobo has recruited well, and the ceiling is high for the freshmen and redshirt freshmen, but there are a lot of seniors in the lineup. That might increase urgency even more than saying, “We could have a huge year,” does.


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