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Was Colorado’s good year a mirage? Because 2017 looked like the same old, and 2018 might as well

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Mike MacIntyre spent a ton of goodwill in 2017.

NCAA Football: Colorado at Utah Jeff Swinger-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

The shine can wear off pretty quickly.

In the first week of December 2016, there wasn’t a better story in college football than Mike MacIntyre’s Colorado Buffaloes. In his fourth year in Boulder, MacIntyre had pulled off a rise that would have made Bill McCartney proud. The engineer of CU’s mid-1980s rise, McCartney had won seven games across his first three seasons before winning seven in his fourth and never looking back.

MacIntyre’s feat was similar: 10 wins over the first three seasons, 10 in the fourth. Colorado surged from 98th to 18th in S&P+ thanks to a solid offense and an aggressive defense. They were projected to fall thanks to turnover, but once you’ve broken through, you never want to think previous depths are possible again.

They’re very much possible.

The good feelings subsided before the 2017 season began, and not because 2016 ended with two blowout losses. MacIntyre was punished over the summer for his handling of domestic abuse allegations regarding one of his assistant coaches.

Days after MacIntyre learned of the allegations against former defensive assistant Joe Tumpkin from Tumpkin’s ex-girlfriend, Tumpkin was promoted to defensive coordinator, a role he served during CU’s bowl game. CU later suspended him, then asked him to resign amid a restraining order and impending criminal charges.

Fair or unfair, the case made it look as if Colorado tried to brush dirt under the rug because it didn’t want to disrupt its newfound ability to win.

And then CU also stopped winning.

Colorado S&P+ progression

The Buffaloes’ trajectory would make a lot more sense if 2016 just hadn’t existed. They averaged a ranking of 75th in Off. S&P+ from 2013-15, then 70th in 2017. In Def. S&P+, it was 99th from 2013-15 and 98th in 2017. After a 3-0 start, the Buffaloes lost seven of nine in conference play to finish bowl-free for the ninth time in 10 years.

Granted, there were issues with turnovers luck and injuries. CU’s turnover margin was about six turnovers worse than national averages suggest they should’ve been, which, based on the point value of the average turnover, cost them two to three points per game.

Plus, the defense, already thinned out by graduation and attrition, got waylaid with injury. Only three of six regulars on the line, three of eight linebackers, and three of nine defensive backs played in all 12 games. Only one offensive lineman started more than 10 games, as well, and six ended up starting between five and 10 games.

If you’re the optimistic type, you could say that this trajectory remains on par with McCartney. But it takes some positive spin.

  • Win percentage, first 3 years: MacIntyre 0.250, McCartney 0.227
  • Win percentage, next 2 years: MacIntyre 0.577, McCartney 0.542

Both Colorado and MacIntyre have a whole hell of a lot to prove after losing trust on and off the field.

Offense

2017 Colorado offensive radar

Steven Montez produced right at the level that was expected of him last year. The junior had averaged 6.9 yards per pass attempt (including sacks) with a 59 percent completion rate while replacing starter Sefo Liufau in 2016, and with the full-time reins last fall, his numbers were 6.7 and 61 percent.

Perhaps you’d hope for more improvement, considering the continuity in the receiving corps, but since the running game was as sketchy as ever — 94th in Rushing S&P+ — Montez had awkward downs and distances.

Entering 2017, tailback Phillip Lindsay was still in the backfield, and the top three receivers (Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields, and Devin Ross) remained the same. This time, Montez is the only constant.

NCAA Football: California at Colorado
Steven Montez
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Lindsay finally departs after what seemed like 13 years in Boulder. His career ended with 3,770 rushing yards and 1,079 receiving yards, and while his per-touch averages were never that impressive, his carries rarely moved backwards, and he was a security-blanket receiving threat.

There are plenty of candidates to replace him, but none has proved much.

  • Senior Donovan Lee (5’9, 185) was a bit player in 2016 (35 combined rushes and receptions for 143 yards) and redshirted in 2017 after a spring ankle injury.
  • Junior Beau Bisharat (6’2, 220) was a high-three-star prospect who has yet to carve out a niche, rushing 36 times for 106 yards in two years.
  • Redshirt freshman Alex Fontenot (6’0, 195) and true freshman Deion Smith (6’0, 180) are very similar prospects, while another true freshman, Jarek Broussard (5’9, 175), is of the Lee mold.

There’s potential but no proven production. For that, MacIntyre leaned on the graduate transfer market. Travon McMillian (6’, 210) comes from Virginia Tech after producing 2,152 rushing yards, 357 receiving yards, and 23 combined touchdowns over three seasons. After a 1,000-yard freshman campaign, his production trailed off after head coach Justin Fuente came to town.

NCAA Football: Virginia Tech at Miami
Travon McMillian
Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Bobo, Fields, and Ross are all gone, as well, Of last year’s top five targets (which included Lindsey), only Jay MacIntyre, son of Mike, returns. He took on an extended role late in the year, making half of his 28 receptions in the final four games, but he was primarily used in four-receiver packages.

CU needs wideouts. And again, there are candidates.

  • Senior Juwann Winfree had by far the best marginal efficiency rate of any regular CU receiver at plus-24 percent (meaning, his success rate was 24 percentage points higher than expected based on down, distance, and field position) and could produce higher than or equal to Fields’ in the Z-receiver spot. He could also have the size and potential to move to the primary, X role.
  • Senior Kabion Ento and sophomore Laviska Shenault Jr. are small-sample all-stars. Ento caught eight of 16 passes for 175 yards in 2016 before redshirting, and Shenault caught seven of nine passes for 168 yards in 2017.
  • Slot receiver and former star recruit K.D. Nixon wasn’t asked to do much in 2017 (three targets, two catches, 17 yards) but appears to have athleticism. So do redshirt freshmen Maurice Bell and Jaylon Jackson. And incoming slot receiver prototype Dimitri Stanley was one of the stars of the 2018 signing class.
  • Tight ends could play a role this year. MacIntyre has stocked up on them (he signed JUCO transfer Darrion Jones in February) but barely used them in the passing game, with fewer than 15 targets in either of the last two years.

Of the seven players who started at least five games up front last year, only four return. All-conference left tackle Jeromy Irwin and two other primary starters are gone, and the quality of recruiting could be tested, as at least a couple of the nine linemen CU has signed the last two years could make the two-deep. But there’s a decent base of veteran talent with the return of interior guys Tim Lynott and Aaron Haigler, juniors who have already combined for 40 career starts.

One more change: the coordinator. Brian Lindgren, MacIntyre’s longtime OC, left to take the same position at Oregon State, a move that a little bit foreboding for CU, but one that offers a shot at some new ideas.

Former Colorado receiver and Texas Tech assistant Darrin Chiaverini and another longtime MacIntyre assistant, OL coach Klayton Adams, are now co-coordinators. I’m not expecting a huge identity change — Montez’s right arm will still bear most of the responsibility.

Defense

2017 Colorado defensive radar

From last year’s CU preview:

New defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot’s 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.

Combining the departure of coordinator Jim Leavitt with the loss of breakthrough talent like cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Akhello Witherspoon was going to lead to a drop-off no matter what, especially when you factor in the injuries and constant depth chart shuffling.

Still, the identity shift confused me. Leavitt’s is an aggressive, efficiency-first defense, and it looked good on the Buffs. Even Eliot’s less poor units have been mostly bend-don’t-break oriented. Sure enough, everything about CU’s defense changed last year.

  • Success rate: 24th in 2016, 105th in 2017 (minus-81 spots)
  • IsoPPP (big-play prevention): 70th in 2016, 59th in 2017 (plus-11)
  • Points allowed per scoring opportunity: 16th in 2016, 64th in 2017 (minus-48)

Colorado grew far less efficient, didn’t improve enough at big-play prevention to pick up the slack, and — while taking on bend-don’t-break tendencies — grew far worse at red zone defense. Not the greatest combo.

The pass defense regressed (from ninth to 42nd in Passing S&P+), and the run defense collapsed (from 32nd to 106th in Rushing S&P+). 2016’s biggest weakness (run disruption) remained poor, and the pass rush vanished, too.

And now, of last year’s top six havoc guys, only two — safeties Evan Worthington and Nick Fisher — are back.

NCAA Football: California at Colorado
Evan Worthington
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Stalwart inside linebackers Drew Lewis and Rick Gamboa are back, as is a trio of veterans up front (end Chris Mulumba and tackles Javier Edwards and Jase Franke).

But from the standpoint of front-seven disruption, the primary hope comes from youngsters. Sophomore linebackers Nate Landman and Akil Jones combined for just 17 tackles last year but packed four tackles for loss and three forced fumbles into that. Plus, junior N.J. Falo (4.5 havoc plays in 11 tackles in 2016) returns this fall. JUCO transfer Davion Taylor established himself this spring, too.

In the back, well, we’ll see. Worthington and Fisher are keepers at safety, but the cornerback position is uncertain after the loss of second-round draft pick Isaiah Oliver. From a foursome of sophomore Trey Udoffia (six passes defensed in 2017), junior Dante Wigley (six), redshirt freshman Chris Miller, and JUCO transfer Delrick Abrams Jr., a reliable duo must emerge.

NCAA Football: Texas State at Colorado
Rick Gamboa
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

Special Teams

At least special teams rebounded. The Buffs improved from 103rd to 12th in Special Teams S&P+, ranking in the top 40 in every individual efficiency category but kick returns. And now, every primary figure — place-kicker James Stefanou, punter Alex Kinney, kickoffs guy Davis Price, return man Ronnie Blackmon — is back.

2018 outlook

2018 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
1-Sep at Colorado State 95 1.4 53%
8-Sep at Nebraska 60 -9.0 30%
15-Sep New Hampshire NR 17.5 84%
28-Sep UCLA 39 -8.1 32%
6-Oct Arizona State 57 -4.4 40%
13-Oct at USC 15 -21.1 11%
20-Oct at Washington 4 -31.0 4%
27-Oct Oregon State 110 7.6 67%
2-Nov at Arizona 33 -14.8 20%
10-Nov Washington State 41 -7.5 33%
17-Nov Utah 28 -11.5 25%
24-Nov at California 65 -8.5 31%
Projected S&P+ Rk 89
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 80 / 100
Projected wins 4.3
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -1.7 (77)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 43 / 57
2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* 0 / 5.7
2017 TO Luck/Game -2.4
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 47% (44%, 51%)
2017 Second-order wins (difference) 4.8 (0.2)

MacIntyre probably needed some new blood, and he got it at offensive coordinator, the offensive skill corps, and parts of the defense.

After major reversals in fortune in both 2016 and 2017, S&P+ doesn’t like the odds of a third reversal this fall. (Of course, it didn’t predict 2016 or 2017 right, either.) The Buffs are projected 89th overall — 80th on offense, 100th on defense — more or less in line with most of the last half-decade, 2016 aside.

Worse, an unforgiving schedule features trips to Nebraska (which, with a coaching change, is reasonably likely to overachieve its No. 60 projection), USC, Washington, and Arizona. CU is given a greater than 33 percent win probability in only four games, with five games coming between 25 and 33 percent.

The Buffs will have to overachieve their projections by a good amount to sniff a postseason bid. They haven’t really conformed to the math of late, but this will be an uphill trek.

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