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After the briefest taste of success, Colorado starts over once more

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First-year CU coach Mel Tucker hopes his brilliant coaching DNA translates in a tough job.

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

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

Mel Tucker likely recognizes good coaching when he sees it.

  • He played for Barry Alvarez in the early-1990s, when Alvarez was turning Wisconsin around.
  • His first coaching job was as Nick Saban’s graduate assistant at Michigan State. He coached for Saban again at both LSU (2000) and Alabama (2015).
  • His first full-time gig came on Terry Hoeppner’s Miami (Ohio) staff. Hoeppner would enjoy six straight winning seasons in Oxford.
  • Jim Tressel lured him from Baton Rouge to Columbus in 2001, and he spent four years at Ohio State, ending up as defensive co-coordinator before making a jump to the pros.
  • He spent 10 seasons in the NFL, beginning as Cleveland’s DBs coach and then seven seasons as a coordinator at Cleveland, Jacksonville, and Chicago.
  • After a year back with Saban in 2015, Kirby Smart hired him as his first defensive coordinator at Georgia, where he spent the last three seasons.

That’s some ridiculously impressive DNA.

Tucker comes to Boulder at an interesting time. MacIntyre re-awakened the fan base after more than a decade of dreadful football and proved you could still win at CU, but couldn’t continue clearing the bar he had set.

From the moment 2002 ended, Colorado fell into a slow-motion spiral. They had won 19 games with two top-15 S&P+ finishes in 2001-02 but then averaged 6.7 wins and a No. 42 rankings over the next three seasons, then 4.2 and a No. 64 ranking over the next five. Former CU player Jon Embree took over in 2011, and everything fell apart: the Buffs went 4-21 in two seasons and fell into the triple digits in S&P+.

MacIntyre needed a while to get things going, winning just 10 games in his first three seasons, but everything came together during a run to 10 wins and the Pac-12 South title in 2016. They were as high as the mid-20s in S&P+ late in the year, but after losing by a combined 79-18 to Washington and Oklahoma State to finish the season, they finished 53rd. Then they went 5-7 in each of the next two seasons.

NCAA Basketball: UCLA at Colorado
Mel Tucker
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Going 5-7 is bad enough, but the way that CU went 5-7 in 2018 did MacIntyre no favors. They pulled off an unlikely win over Nebraska and knocked off both UCLA and Arizona State at home on the way to a 5-0 start. Projected 84th in the preseason, they were up to 45th after the ASU win.

They finished the year with seven straight losses. After semi-competitive defeats to USC and Washington, they collapsed at home and fell to lowly Oregon State. They were outscored 62-14 by Washington State and Utah at home as well.

Attendance for the ASU game was 52,681, the highest for a CU home game since a 2010 visit from Georgia. Attendance for the Utah game six weeks later: 39,360. There was snow, sure, but it was clear the balloon had deflated. Can Tucker fix it?

It always concerns me a hair when a coach used to working with a massive talent advantage — Tucker’s last three college jobs were at Georgia, Alabama, and Ohio State — takes a job in which he will never really have such a thing.

Since the turn of the century, Tucker’s only even-talent situations were in the NFL, and he did not thrive there. Only once in seven years as an NFL DC did a Tucker defense rank better than 20th in DVOA, while he finished in the bottom five four times.

He could upgrade the talent at CU, but he’s playing from behind. In the Pac-12 era, CU has yet to sign a class that ranks better than eighth in the conference and hasn’t signed a class better than 35th overall since 2008. As gorgeous as Boulder is, it’s hard to recruit to, and Tucker’s going to have to figure out how to win games despite recruiting rankings, not because of them.

Offense

Tucker retained a few MacIntyre assistants — RBs coach and CU legend Darian Hagan, WRs coach Darrin Chiaverini, ILBs coach Ross Els — but he also brought some friends with him. Both of his new coordinators, Jay Johnson and Tyson Summers, boast previous coordinator experience but spent 2018 as quality control assistants at UGA. So did new OLBs coach Brian Michalowski and DBs coach Travares Tillman.

CU’s 2018 offense was its worst in four years. The Buffaloes passed semi-efficiently and broke the occasional big run, but they moved backward a lot and found themselves constantly in third-and-long situations.

NCAA Football: Arizona State at Colorado
Laviska Shenault Jr. (2) and William Sherman (78)
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Things were certainly better when Laviska Shenault Jr. was healthy. Despite missing three games and losing his edge late in the year, Shenault still ended up catching 86 balls for 1,011 yards.

Shenault was particularly explosive early in the year, but as CU’s run game began to prove hopelessly inefficient, he basically became the run game. He caught 13 passes against Arizona State, 12 against UCLA, 11 against Colorado State, and 10 against Nebraska and Washington State. He didn’t average over 10.2 yards per catch in a game after September.

Johnson has been an offensive coordinator for nine years — three at Southern Miss (best Off. S&P+ ranking: 55th in 2005), five at UL-Lafayette (41st in 2012), and one at Minnesota (76th in 2016). His best moments have come in run-heavy attacks with an at least semi-mobile QB.

Montez might fit that description. Not including sacks, he rushed 64 times for 432 yards (6.8 per carry) and a 47 percent success rate. Considering CU’s running backs had a ghastly 33 percent success rate, Montez’s contributions were desperately needed.

Last year’s top three backs are gone, but I’m not going to pretend that is a massive loss. Their numbers were replaceable, though I guess that doesn’t automatically mean someone on the roster can replicate them.

With Beau Bisharat moving to tight end, your “leading” returning backs are sophomore Alex Fontenot (11 carries, 43 yards) and junior Chase Sanders (four carries, eight yards). It goes without saying that recent recruits, including incoming high-three-star freshman Jaren Mangham, could earn plenty of playing time.

The line was a disaster last year. Only one player — Colby Pursell, a freshman — started all 12 games, and eight started at least two. Four of those eight were freshmen. They’re all back, including left tackle William Sherman, who earned honorable mention all-conference honors despite his youth.

NCAA Football: Colorado at California
K.D. Nixon
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Mobility aside, Montez has proved far more with his arm than his legs. And while depth in the receiving corps could be an issue, the return of Shenault, K.D. Nixon (52 catches, 636 yards), and Tony Brown (32 catches, 333 yards) is a boon.

If either of a pair of mid- to high-three-star redshirt freshmen (Dimitri Stanley, Dylan Thomas) or one of three such freshmen (Vontae Shenault, Braedin Huffman-Dixon, Tarik Luckett) can provide some level of threat, Montez should have the weapons in the receiving corps.

Defense

MacIntyre’s hire of former USF head coach Jim Leavitt as defensive coordinator in 2015 was a game-changer. The Buffs improved from 118th to 71st to 28th in Def. S&P+ in his two seasons. He left for Oregon, and the Buffs averaged a 71 ranking in 2017-18.

Summers isn’t nearly as experienced as Leavitt was, but his back story hits some of the same notes. He was a successful DC under George O’Leary at UCF, peaking at 22nd in Def. S&P+ in 2014, and after a year at Colorado State, he was hired as Georgia Southern’s head coach at age 35. Safe to say, he wasn’t ready — he went just 5-13 and was fired midway through his second season — but he took on a rehab gig at UGA, and now he’s back as a DC.

Summers’ best UCF defense combined solid run containment with aggressive pass defense. So did Colorado’s in 2018. The Buffaloes ranked 11th in rushing marginal explosiveness and 40th in completion rate allowed and created disruption with an active set of linebackers. Granted, they let people off the hook a lot — 83rd in blitz downs success rate, plus some awful red zone numbers (76th in points allowed per scoring opportunity) — but with four of last year’s top six havoc creators back, Summers might have some pieces to work with.

NCAA Football: Utah at Colorado
Nate Landman (53)
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Summers inherits stars at each level — end Mustafa Johnson (15.5 tackles for loss, 7.5 sacks, 16.5 run stuffs), linebacker Nate Landman (15 TFLs, four sacks, 24.5 run stuffs), nickel back Davion Taylor (10 TFLs) — but depth is precarious.

Johnson is the only of last year’s top six linemen back, Landman is the only of the top three linebackers, and both of the other safeties opposite Taylor (Nick Fisher and Evan Worthington) are gone, too.

Tucker brought in three JUCO linebackers (including four-star Jashua Allen), two JUCO linemen, and Auburn nose tackle transfer Jonta’vius Johnson to shore things up. Leaning on that many newcomers at once isn’t generally a recipe for immediate success.

Johnson — who might or might not play for CU this fall after re-entering the transfer portal — and Landman are almost literally the only two proven pieces in the front seven, but the good news is that Johnson and maybe linebacker Alex Tchangam or Nu’umotu Falo Jr. could be the only senior starters. The continuity heading into 2020 could be strong.

NCAA Football: Washington State at Colorado
Davion Taylor (5), Delrick Abrams Jr. (1), and Mekhi Blackmon (25)
Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports

There’s more reason for immediate optimism in the secondary. CU’s pass defense numbers were at least decent despite not having much of a blitz and not keeping the starting lineup on the field. Taylor and corner Dante Wigley were the only DBs to play in all 12 games, and the shuffling was constant. That at least means the replacements for Fisher and Worthington had a chance to get their feet wet.

Veterans like corners Delrick Abrams Jr. and Mekhi Blackmon and safeties Derrion Rakestraw, Aaron Maddox, and Trey Udoffia could round out the DB rotation alongside Taylor and Wigley, though if a youngster like sophomore Chris Miller or incoming freshman Mark Perry broke into the lineup, that wouldn’t be the worst thing.

Special Teams

Special teams units can be flaky at times. Colorado knows this as well as anyone: the Buffs have ranked 103rd, 12th, and 89th in Special Teams S&P+ in the last three seasons.

Last season’s numbers were done in by the legs. Starting punter Alex Kinney missed much of the year with an injured collarbone, and backup Davis Price struggled. At kicker, MacIntyre went through three options. It appears everyone’s back, and Kinney’s solid, but we’ll see if there are any decent place-kickers in this bunch.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
30-Aug vs. Colorado State 109 14.5 80%
7-Sep Nebraska 45 -2.4 45%
14-Sep Air Force 90 7.8 67%
21-Sep at Arizona State 49 -6.7 35%
5-Oct Arizona 52 -1.2 47%
11-Oct at Oregon 20 -14.6 20%
19-Oct at Washington State 36 -9.7 29%
25-Oct USC 29 -6.5 35%
2-Nov at UCLA 63 -3.8 41%
9-Nov Stanford 32 -5.8 37%
23-Nov Washington 15 -13.4 22%
30-Nov at Utah 17 -16.1 18%
Projected S&P+ Rk 68
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 73 / 62
Projected wins 4.8
Five-Year S&P+ Rk -0.3 (78)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 43
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -4 / -4.3
2018 TO Luck/Game +0.1
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 67% (71%, 64%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 5.4 (-0.4)

When the ball’s in the air, Colorado should be alright. Montez, Shenault, and Nixon should be able to produce some strong moments on offense when they’re all healthy, and a veteran secondary (plus Johnson’s pass rushing) should produce competitive numbers.

When the ground games are involved, however, the Buffs could be at a massive disadvantage. That will probably catch up to them as often as not.

S&P+ projects CU to improve a bit, from 80th to 68th, and the Buffs will be slight underdogs a lot. There are four games with win probability under 30 percent and two at 67 percent or higher. In the other six games, they are one-possession underdogs.

This suggests that, if they overachieve a bit — if a healthy offense produces top-50 numbers or so — a lot of wins are on the table. But there are no guarantees, and in a coach’s first year, underachieving is just as likely as overachieving.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.