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The Colorado Buffaloes And The Reunion Tour

Jon Embree, Eric Bieniemy and company head back to Boulder to return wins and pride to the Buffalo program. Can the old band rekindle the magic? And if so, how long will it take?

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NOTE: Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And if you hate numbers, skip to the words.

Boulder, Colorado: home of one of the more beautiful drives into town one could ever ask for, all the organic food you can eat, possibly my favorite school chant in all the land ("Buff Buff Buff Buff Buff, C-U!" makes me giggle every time), an Old Chicago that gave me the worst indigestion of my life in 1999 (or maybe it was just the game), and a one-time football powerhouse. With money an issue, facilities that aren't terrible but aren't amazing, and a hire that seemed right but wasn't, the Colorado Buffaloes have tumbled quite a bit from the highs they experienced in the late-1980s and early- to mid-1990s.

We had an ongoing joke at Rock M Nation for a number of years: no matter the situation, no matter the talent, and no matter the recent results, a majority of college football writers were guaranteed to name Colorado a sleeper in the Big 12 North. It was the case in 2007, again in 2008, and again in 2009. Once you have won big in college football, people assume it will happen again any moment now. It hasn't, however, for the Buffs, at least not recently. Since their Big 12 title run in 2001 and their solid nine-win season in 2002, Colorado has finished with a winning record just twice and has not won more than eight games in a season. In five autumns with Dan Hawkins in charge, the Buffs failed to finish above .500 even once. This winning thing really is pretty hard, and even a golden resume (Hawkins was quite successful at Boise State) and a position at a relatively recent winner don't guarantee W's.

Slowly but surely, Colorado has forgotten how to win. It began under Gary Barnett (even as the Buffs were winning a couple of North titles by default) and continued with verve under Hawkins. The pride and the belief in Colorado as a great program instead of a once-great program have gone away; to remedy this situation, athletic director Mike Bohn looked inward. Jon Embree, a tight end under Bill McCartney during the earliest stages of Colorado's glory days, was hired to lead the program. Former great Buff running back Eric Bieniemy? Offensive coordinator. Former Bill McCartney (and Gary Barnett, and Dan Hawkins) assistant Greg Brown? Defensive coordinator. Former All-American defensive tackle Kanavis McGhee? Defensive line coach.

There is a strong Buffalo influence everywhere you look now. Whether that translates into success is obviously unclear -- among other things, both Embree's and Bieniemy's new positions are the highest they've ever held, so there is almost no track record from which to glean -- but never mind that for now. The band is getting back together, and that always feels good for a little while.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 3-9 | Final F/+ Rk**: 71
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
4-Sep Colorado State 24-3 W 21.6 - 12.7 W
11-Sep at California 7-52 L 20.1 - 35.8 L
18-Sep Hawaii 31-13 W 34.8 - 18.5 W
2-Oct Georgia 29-27 W 31.9 - 32.0 L
9-Oct at Missouri 0-26 L 20.8 - 23.7 L
16-Oct Baylor 25-31 L 30.0 - 38.8 L
23-Oct Texas Tech 24-27 L 17.8 - 25.3 L
30-Oct at Oklahoma 10-43 L 18.7 - 33.8 L
6-Nov at Kansas 45-52 L 28.8 - 42.4 L
13-Nov Iowa State 34-14 W 20.7 - 22.2 L
20-Nov Kansas State 44-36 W 36.0 - 30.5 W
26-Nov at Nebraska 17-45 L 26.2 - 32.4 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 24.2 84 30.8 91
Adj. Points Per Game 25.6 74 29.0 72

Dan Hawkins' final season as Colorado head coach, one he likely only received because Colorado didn't have enough money to fire him, unfolded quite a bit like Hawkins' other seasons had. The Buffs showed flashes of high quality -- in this case, knocking off Georgia in Boulder -- but a lack of athleticism rendered the offense too ineffective to be counted on in any reliable fashion. Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen bounced in and out of the starting lineup at quarterback (What was that, Tyler? There may have been a little nepotism at play? It's okay, you can say that now, even if it was minor.), the defense was solid but not solid enough, et cetera.

In the end, the offense got a bit better and the defense a bit worse, but it was more or less the same episode Buff fans had already seen. With his contract getting ready to expire, Hawkins was shown the door.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 65 72 54
RUSHING 88 84 90 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 40 53 30 96
Standard Downs 81 82 78 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 39 41 36 43
Redzone 52 77 44
Q1 Rk 73 1st Down Rk 102
Q2 Rk 70 2nd Down Rk 58
Q3 Rk 12 3rd Down Rk 21
Q4 Rk 114

Among other things, Colorado showed us in 2010 that third-down conversions are not all they're cracked up to be. While scrambling to move the chains is a good trait -- and Hansen in particular was great in making just enough happen to earn a new set of downs last year -- getting bunches of yards on first or second down is better. Against teams with a winning record in 2010, the Buffs converted third downs at one of the highest rates in the country ... but they also went 2-5 against such teams. They ranked 21st in the country in 3rd Down S&P+ ... and 102nd in 1st Down S&P+. You win early in games and early in series of downs ... and Colorado did neither very well last year.

So what's in store for 2011? Who the hell knows? We know Bieniemy was a stud running back himself, and he spent last season tutoring Adrian Peterson and the Minnesota Vikings' run game, so the odds are pretty good that establishing the run will be key for this new staff. Of course, it was a key last year, too, and they still couldn't do it very well. A line that included first-round draft pick Nate Solder ranked among the bottom 25 in the country in run-blocking, doing running back Rodney Stewart almost no favors whatsoever. How much can change in one offseason?

The good news, if it's good news, is that every line starter not named Solder returns, as do Stewart (1,318 yards, 4.5 per carry, -3.3 Adj. POE, 10 touchdowns; 290 receiving yards), backup Brian Lockridge and fullbacks Tyler Ahles and Evan Harrington. Hansen and his wheels (+5.3 Adj. POE in 2010) do too. Virtually everybody in the backfield is a senior. If this specific group was ever destined to run the ball well, it will happen in 2011.

Other tidbits:

  • Three receivers were the focus of almost 70% of Colorado's passes in 2010, and two return. Scotty McKnight departs after a distinguished, 16-year career as Colorado receiver. However, Michigan transfer Toney Clemons (483 yards, 11.2 per catch, 54% catch rate, 3 touchdowns) and sophomore Paul Richardson (514 yards, 15.1 per catch, 55% catch rate, 6 touchdowns) are back. Both showed decent play-making ability, but you can't have both of your top two targets with sub-55% catch rates and expect to field a consistent offense. You typically make your biggest leaps between your first and second year, and between your second and third; that suggests that Richardson could be ready for a breakout year. But the catch rates are still alarming. Beyond these two players lies a grab bag of potential contributors.
  • Moment of silence, please, for the career of backup lineman Max Tuioti-Mariner. The former blue-chip recruit tore his ACL and MCL as a senior in high school, then started as true freshman for the Buffs in 2008, then tore his ACL again that October. He then tore his other ACL in March 2009 and missed the entire season. He missed the entire 2010 season as well and was attempting a comeback this spring before, apparently, officially calling it quits. Some guys can't catch a break. And for a while there, it seemed like no CU lineman could catch a break.


Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
OVERALL 61 63 59
RUSHING 30 28 41 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 87 95 83 35
Standard Downs 55 51 57 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 88 98 82 58
Redzone 51 49 49
Q1 Rk 23 1st Down Rk 76
Q2 Rk 87 2nd Down Rk 49
Q3 Rk 56 3rd Down Rk 55
Q4 Rk 101

While the Colorado offense was consistently poor under Dan Hawkins, the defense was consistently above average. The offense finally began to improve in 2010, but the defense made it a zero-sum situation by regressing, espeically in terms of efficiency. Colorado fell from 24th to 63rd in Def. Success Rate+, from 16th to 28th in Rushing Success Rate+, and from 35th to a devastating 95th in Passing Success Rate+. They got pushed around, failed to generate much pressure without blitzing and failed to go after the ball to any memorable degree.

Now, they were still pretty efficient overall against the run, and that could come in handy with Greg Brown running the defense. After a stint as Colorado secondary coach and defensive passing game coordinator, Brown became co-coordinator for an Arizona defense last year that was fierce against the run and leveraged teams into passing downs with fantastic success rates. (His 2010 defense had the efficiency that Colorado lacked, and if recent history and recruiting are any indication, it had a bit more talent and athleticism as well. But that doesn't change the fact that the hire might address some weaknesses.)

So Brown was the co-coordinator for a great run defense last year, and he has extensive experience in game-planning against the pass. Seems well-rounded enough. He'll have to get along in 2011 without a couple of players with whom he became very familiar in recent years. Cornerbacks Jimmy Smith (61.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 5 PBU, drafted 27th overall by the Baltimore Ravens) and CB Jalil Brown (37.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks, 3 INT, 5 PBU, drafted 118th overall by the Kansas City Chiefs) won't be around to fend off opposing pass attacks, nor will linebacker Michael Sipili (72.5 tackles, 10.5 TFL/sacks) be around to plug up the middle. A large number of 2010 contributors return, but the ones that don't could be key.

Other tidbits:

  • If run defense is key for Greg Brown, he should like what he sees up front. Tackles Will Pericak (37.5 tackles, 5.0 TFL/sacks, lovely totals for a tackle) and Curtis Cunningham (27.5 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks) return, as do ends Josh Hartigan (21.0 tackles, 8.0 TFL/sacks) and Chidera Uzo-Diribe (10.5 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks). Hartigan and Uzo-Diribe were both prototypical all-or-nothing ends; they did not make a ton of plays overall, but every single one counted for something. Their TFLs-to-tackles ratio is very high, and they combined for 13 "third-down stops" as recorded by, but they'll need to make more 'standard' plays to take pressure off of a linebacking corps that is without a true playmaker. Linebackers Tyler Ahles, Patrick Mahnke, Liloa Nobriga and Jon Major combined for 130.5 tackles last year ... and 5.0 TFL/sacks. Not going to cut it.

    Former four-star local boy Nick Kasa is either about to blow up, or he's about to become a victim of tweener-itis. At 6'6, 275 pounds, Kasa (15.0 tackles, 2.0 TFL/sacks has seen time at both end and tackle ... and has yet to thrive at either one.
  • (Side note: I love what does with the stats on their page. They record and track more unique stats -- Third-Down Stops, Touchdown Blocks, Pressures Allowed, Tackles For Zero, Downed Punts, Quarterback Chasedowns, etc. -- than all other schools combined. Love, love, love them.)

Colorado's 2010 Season Set to Music

To spread a little Hawk love one last time, we'll go with The Who's "Eyesight to the Blind (The Hawker)." It was either that, or U2's "Hawkmoon 269."

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit


Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's
Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 75
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 48
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** 0 / -1.5
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 16 (9, 7)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +1.9

Last year, our Football Outsiders Almanac predictions bombed on quite a few teams with new coaches. We could see it in advance -- Texas Tech, Tennessee and Kansas were all projected a lot higher than it felt they should be -- and then we saw it in the present tense. Trying to predict what will happen when a new coach comes aboard is the ultimate crapshoot because no matter how you try to categorize an incoming coach -- by previous occupation, by years of experience, etc. -- it takes about five seconds to find an example of a success and five seconds to find an example of a failure. When discussing a staff where the head coach has no head coaching experience, the offensive coordinator has no coordinator experience, and the defensive coordinator has one year of co-coordinator experience ... well, good luck. That Colorado's move to the Pac-12 isn't the biggest unknown they face says something.

What we know for sure: 1) Colorado has drastically underachieved compared to their recruiting rankings, which suggests, at least in theory, that their upside is still reasonably high, at least "minor bowl bid" high, this year. 2) Colorado returns quite a few seniors, especially in the offensive backfield, and quite a few starters overall. 3) Colorado's offensive line wasn't very good last year with a first-round pick, so it's unclear how much of a positive "four returning starters" really is. 4) The defensive line is potentially outstanding; the back seven returns plenty of players with experience and no proven play-making ability.

And though we don't discuss special teams much in these previews, 5) somebody other than Aric Goodman is finally Colorado's kicker, which is a good thing because ... well, my wife has been feeling our future daughter kicking pretty strong recently (alarming since we're not to prime "feeling her kick" weeks yet), and that's all the evidence I need to know that I'd trust her to make a field goal over Goodman. Okay, that was mean, especially since Goodman was a much more respectable 10-for-15 last year. But we all have to have our unreasonable grudges in life (it makes life worth living), and I was endlessly baffled by Goodman's 2008-09 atrocities (he was 15-for-32) and the fact that he continued to be Colorado's place-kicker. But I digress. Severely.

So basically, we don't know much. With trips to Hawaii, Ohio State, Stanford, Arizona State, UCLA and Utah and home games against Oregon, USC and Arizona, it is unlikely that Embree will be able to manufacture a bowl season this first time around. But if they can start 4-1 with wins over Hawaii, Cal, Colorado State and Washington State, the game changes.


* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter. For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.