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Colorado football faces life after a dream season

Can Mike MacIntyre’s Buffs keep the magic going, or will defensive collapse kill the fun?

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Most of us aren’t fans of a top team. Most don’t have memories of countless championships. For many of us, the defining moment of our fandom comes from something we never saw coming.

From 2009-12, Colorado went 10-36. From 2013-15, the Buffaloes went 10-27. This once-proud program produced five top-10 finishes in an eight-year span from 1989-96 and nearly reached the BCS Championship in 2001, but hadn’t been to a bowl since 2007 or had a winning season since 2005. A generation of young CU fans had no memory of success. Attendance hadn’t averaged over 40,000 since 2012.

Head coach Mike MacIntyre was building toward a third-year breakthrough in 2015, but his Buffs were obliterated by injury and went just 4-9, falling from 77th to 98th in S&P+. They were unlucky from a turnovers perspective, they lost a lot of close games, their starting quarterback was hobbled, and their two-deep at linebacker and defensive back was a smoking crater.

In 2016, they got healthy.

The injuries that hurt in 2015 had created depth for 2016.

The Buffaloes fielded one of the most experienced two-deeps in the country.

Second-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt finally had the pieces.

But we could only see it in hindsight. It was the Buffs’ turn to make a run. And they checked every box on the dream season checklist along the way.

The Colorado Buffaloes are college football’s 2016 dream-season team

When the words “pitchers and catchers report” dangle in front of a Major League Baseball fan’s face in January or February, their eyes get a little bit glassy, their hearts full. At that moment, no matter which team you’re a fan of, you are the most optimistic version of yourself. If your team was good but came up just short last year, this is the year. If your team was bad last year, this is where the bounce back begins.

College football has its own version of that. Everybody’s always feeling good about Backup Running Back A and Redshirt Freshman B in spring football. True Freshman C is really turning it on in fall camp.

Usually, though? Our team this year is going to be about what it was last year. Except when it’s not.

The dream season is why most of us keep coming back. It is rare, and it takes sometimes absurd faith to believe it might happen to our team. And sometimes it does.

Colorado was once a mainstay on the national stage. The Buffaloes spent time in the AP top 15 13 times in a 14-year span from 1989 to 2002. Though they never reached No. 1 again after 1990, they finished third in 1994 and nearly made the BCS title game in 2001. They were one of the sport’s steadiest powers.

After a decade in the wilderness, Colorado finally returned to said stage. The Buffaloes began the 2016 season 4-2 with competitive road losses to awesome Michigan and USC teams, then ripped off six straight wins to secure the Pac-12 South title. They found themselves ranked for the first time since 2005, then jumped into the top 10 for the first time since 2002.

Sure, the end of the season was rough — against Washington in the Pac-12 title game and Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl, the Buffs were outscored by a combined 79-18. But most dream seasons aren’t about the final chapter.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Colorado
Mike MacIntyre
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Of course, in sports, there is rarely a true final chapter. It’s 2017 now, and all of the incredible moments of 2016 are now simply a prelude to whatever follows. Is Colorado “back” now? Was 2016 a sign of things to come or a time capsule, buried and unrelated to, and providing minimal context for, what followed?

There are just enough of last year’s faces gone and just enough returning that you can see what you want here. The pessimist could point out that starting quarterback Sefo Liufau is gone and that QB continuity is a huge thing for turning an out-of-nowhere surge one year into sustained quality the next. And the pessimist could certainly point out that defense was the strength of last year’s team and that defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, the top three defensive linemen, and about half of the primary linebackers and defensive backs are all gone.

The optimist, meanwhile, could note that new starting quarterback Steven Montez got his feet wet when Liufau was hurt last year and showed some exciting explosiveness. The optimist could definitely point out that last year’s skill corps returns virtually intact, as does the offensive line, and that while a lot of edge play-makers are gone from last year’s defense, the backbone — particularly the inside linebacker and safety positions — appears sturdy and experienced.

S&P+ basically splits the difference between optimism and pessimism. After surging from 97th to 18th last year, MacIntyre’s Buffaloes are projected 50th in 2017. That probably means a bowl game but minimal South division contention. It would obviously be quite the drop from last fall, but considering that the roster is dominated by underclassmen everywhere outside of the skill corps, and considering MacIntyre just signed CU’s best recruiting class in nine years, that would be a decent bridge toward future solid seasons.

That might be the most lasting takeaway from last season’s dream run: There’s a Colorado future worth talking about now. Welcome back, Buffs.


2016 in review

2016 Colorado statistical profile.

If you somehow saw last season’s incredible run coming, you had the opportunity to make quite a bit of money on Colorado early in the season. It took quite a while for both S&P+ and Vegas to catch up to the Buffs. The same went for opponents, I guess.

Colorado vs. S&P+ and Vegas
  • First 5 games (4-1): Avg. percentile performance: 83% (~top 20) | Avg. yards per play: CU 6.4, Opp 4.3 (plus-2.1) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-23.3 PPG
  • Next 7 games (6-1): Avg. percentile performance: 77% (~top 30) | Avg. yards per play: CU 5.2, Opp 4.9 (plus-0.3) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: plus-1.4 PPG
  • Last 2 games (0-2): Avg. percentile performance: 27% (~top 95) | Avg. yards per play: Opp 6.0, CU 4.0 (minus-2.0) | Avg. performance vs. S&P+ projection: minus-29.2 PPG

Perhaps the most impressive part of CU’s 2016 run was how the Buffs so quickly learned to grind out results against solid teams while destroying lesser ones.

They allowed teams like Idaho State (56-7), Oregon State (47-6), and Arizona (49-24) minimal hope while figuring out ways past pre-collapse Oregon in Eugene (41-38), Stanford in Palo Alto (10-5), and Utah at home (27-22). The offense was awful against UCLA, but the defense rose to the occasion. The defense couldn’t get a handle on Oregon, but the offense carried the day.

This all came to a screeching halt late in the year, once CU had secured the South title. But the final two games don’t completely change the effects of the first 12.


Offense

Colorado offensive radar

Full advanced stats glossary.

All signs points to at least some degree of regression for a Colorado defense that leaped from 89th to 12th in Def. S&P+ last year. That puts quite a bit of pressure on an offense that itself rose from 95th to 47th in Off. S&P+; the Buffs’ attack appears far more likely to sustain its gains, but it will have to do more than that if CU wants to remain a South threat.

The co-coordinator combination of longtime MacIntyre assistant Brian Lindgren and former Buffs captain and Texas Tech assistant Darrin Chiaverini found some sparks in its first year. CU was explosive early in the season and able to grind later on. The Buffs figured out ways to move the chains with quick passing and strong short-yardage rushing, and early in the season, Montez was every bit as good at this approach as Liufau.

Montez’s redshirt freshman campaign was dramatically up-and-down. He went 0-for-7 when Liufau got hurt against Michigan and 9-for-21 in the blowout losses to Washington and Oklahoma State at the end of the year. But when he had a moment to prep as the No. 1 passer, he showed major promise. Against Oregon, Oregon State, and USC, he was 67-for-99 for 823 yards, seven touchdowns, three interceptions, and a 154.8 passer rating.

If that’s the Montez we can expect with a full offseason to prepare, then CU’s offense will be ridiculously good. That’s an “if,” not a guarantee, but it’s on the table.

NCAA Football: Oregon State at Colorado
Shay Fields
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Montez’s supporting cast is deep and exciting.

  • Tailback Phillip Lindsay is back after combining 1,252 rushing yards with 520 receiving yards in 2016. He struggled at times behind a line that had to start nine different guys due to injury and shuffling; he averaged 4.6 yards per carry through the first four games, 7.6 over the next four, and only 4.1 thereafter. But he’s steady and versatile, and he doesn’t move backwards that much.
  • Slot receivers Devin Ross and Jay MacIntyre combined for 101 catches, 1,199 yards, six touchdowns, and a 51 percent success rate in possession roles. Senior receiver Bryce Bobo provided decent efficiency (46 percent success rate) with decent explosiveness (12.5 yards per catch) over about five targets per game.
  • Wideout Shay Fields was the big-play guy, averaging 15.8 yards per catch with a solid-for-a-big-play-guy 58 percent catch rate. Plus, in limited roles, senior Kabion Ento and senior Johnny Huntley III combined to catch nine balls for 128 yards, 14.2 per catch.

This is one of the most experienced sets of skill corps talent in the country, and while you’d like to see a little bit more explosiveness, perhaps that will come. Montez appeared to be a more aggressive passer than Liufau at times, Fields has all sorts of deep ball potential, and quite a few youngsters — Huntley, redshirt freshman Derrion Rakestraw, maybe a freshman like KD Nixon, Laviska Shenault Jr., or Jaylon Jackson — could provide an occasional over-the-top threat.

A little bit more explosiveness in the run game wouldn’t be a bad thing, either. The Buffs were efficient on the ground but rarely carved out chunks larger than five yards. That assured second-and-manageable, but it also meant CU had to go quite a few plays without a mistake to score points. Lindsay wasn’t particularly explosive, but he was Dalvin damn Cook compared to backups Kyle Evans and Donovan Lee. A steadier line — one that returns all-conference tackle Jeromy Irwin and honorable mention all-conference guard Gerrad Kough — could help.

NCAA Football: Pac-12 Championship-Colorado vs Washington
Phillip Lindsay (23) and Tim Lynott (56)
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Defense

Colorado defensive radar

If Montez is the real deal and one more big-play guy emerges, the CU offense could potentially rise into the top 30. That would be preferable because the defense is probably going to drop out of the top 30. There are quite a few veterans back, and as mentioned above, the backbone of the defense could be solid. But you simply don’t lose this many playmakers, plus your defensive coordinator, without a drop-off.

  • Defensive ends Samson Kafovalu and Jordan Carrell and tackle Josh Tupou combined for 14.5 tackles for loss and nine sacks, solid production from linemen whose top job was to occupy blockers and not necessarily make plays. They were also almost the only three linemen who played major minutes. None missed a game, and only one other lineman (end Leo Jackson III) made more than 6.5 tackles.
  • Linebackers Kenneth Olugbode and Jimmie Gilbert combined for 20 TFLs, 12.5 sacks, eight passes defensed, and seven forced fumbles. They, too, didn’t miss a game, nor did returning inside linebackers Rick Gamboa and Addison Gillam. These four made 86 percent of CU’s tackles at linebacker.
  • Corners Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon and safety Tedric Thompson combined for a patently absurd nine TFLs, four sacks, and 58 passes defensed, plus three forced fumbles. They also didn’t miss a game. Neither did the top three returnees. Six DBs accounted for 93 percent of CU’s DB tackles. Half are gone.

In these previews, I try to focus mostly on who’s back, not who’s gone. But ... damn. In one year, CU improved from 71st in havoc rate to 31st, from 21st in DB havoc rate to an easy first. Almost all of the reasons for that improvement are gone, and it’s all but certain that the injury bug is going to bite harder than it did last year.

Hawaii v Colorado
Derek McCartney
Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images

New defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot is in a thankless position; the former Kentucky defensive coordinator inherits a defense nearly guaranteed to fall backwards a bit, but he might have the right approach. His hire was honestly a bit curious to me — in four years as UK defensive coordinator, he managed a Def. S&P+ ranking better than 68th just once, and his 2016 D ranked just 86th — but to the extent that UK had defensive success last year, it came in the form of big-play prevention. The Wildcats allowed 194 gains of 10-plus yards (90th in FBS) but only 26 of 30-plus (49th).

They were also dreadfully inefficient, though. Again, a curious hire.

If Jackson, junior tackle Jase Franke, and either of two JUCO transfers (end Chris Mulumba or 350-pound man-mountain Javier Edwards) can occupy blockers up front, the linebackers should be able to flow well to the ball. Gamboa is back, as are juniors Drew Lewis and N.J. Falo, and senior Derek McCartney, basically the only regular to miss significant time with injury last year, is vital. He had 11.5 TFLs for a 2015 defense that lacked disruption. He could fill a similar role this year.

The safeties should be rock solid, too. Afolabi Laguda and Ryan Moeller were key members of last year’s rotation, and junior Nick Fisher saw some minutes, too. But the Buffs are almost starting over at cornerback. Converted receiver Anthony Julmisse is the official veteran leader opposite Isaiah Oliver after recording seven tackles and a single interception last year. JUCO transfers Dante Wigley and Kevin George will be asked to contribute immediately, and if they don’t, I’m not sure who does.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Stanford
Isaiah Oliver
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

Not every Colorado unit improved last year — special teams remained pretty bad. The return game, with Anthony Julmisse on kick returns and Jay MacIntyre and Isaiah Oliver fielding punts, was explosive and reasonably efficient. But punts and kickoffs were shorter than you would think in Boulder’s thin air, and CU tried three place-kickers with minimal consistency. They combined to miss three PATs and make just 74 percent of their under-40 field goals, about 10 percent lower than you’d prefer.

Most of last year’s pieces are back, but the legs desperately need to improve.


2017 outlook

2017 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep vs. Colorado State 43 -1.1 48%
9-Sep Texas State 129 29.0 95%
16-Sep Northern Colorado NR 28.3 95%
23-Sep Washington 13 -11.4 25%
30-Sep at UCLA 34 -5.8 37%
7-Oct Arizona 68 5.0 61%
14-Oct at Oregon State 54 -2.0 45%
21-Oct at Washington State 40 -4.6 40%
28-Oct California 55 3.2 57%
4-Nov at Arizona State 58 -1.7 46%
11-Nov USC 7 -15.3 19%
25-Nov at Utah 45 -3.4 42%
Projected S&P+ Rk 50
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 47 / 57
Projected wins 6.1
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -4.3 (89)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 47 / 61
2016 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 6 / 7.3
2016 TO Luck/Game -0.5
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 53% (77%, 29%)
2016 Second-order wins (difference) 9.2 (0.8)

Little improvements could go a long way for Colorado in 2017. The No. 50 S&P+ projection makes sense to me, but it creates a schedule overloaded with relative tossups.

The Buffs have a win probability between 37 and 61 percent in eight games. There are two likely losses (Washington, USC) and two likely wins (Texas State, Northern Colorado), and everything else is up for grabs. If the offense exceeds a frankly conservative No. 47 projection, or if Eliot can keep his finger in the dam for a while on defense, an eight- or nine-win season is very much within reach.

On the flip side, of course, if injuries pile up and the defense collapses, then having only two sure wins makes the floor awfully low.

There’s still quite a bit to like, though. Montez really did look awesome in his midseason audition, and he’s got countless experienced weapons around him and a better line in front of him. And McCartney’s return and a new set of JUCOs might give CU just enough options on defense to hold the fort.

Big-time football made its return to Boulder last year. Now we get to see if Mike MacIntyre can keep it around a while.


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