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1992 Season Preview – “Air Bill”

// Jun 28 - 1992

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1992 -“Air” Bill

National and Big Eight Recap – 1992

The 1992 college football season was dominated by the Miami Hurricanes.

That is to say, at least Miami dominated all the way up to its National Championship showdown against Alabama in the Sugar Bowl.  There, the Crimson Tide throttled Miami, 34-13, to win Alabama’s sixth national title, the first for head coach Gene Stallings.  Alabama finished the season 13-0, claiming the nation’s first undisputed title since 1979.

Miami’s quarterback Gino Toretta, despite having a quarterback rating of no higher than 19th in the country, was nonetheless awarded the Heisman Trophy.  The nation’s leading rusher was San Diego State sophomore Marshall Faulk, who posted 1,630 yards in only 10 games.

In the Big Eight, it was the return of the Big Red, as Nebraska claimed its first undisputed championship since 1988.  The Cornhuskers finished the 1992 campaign 9-3, 6-1 in conference play.  After falling to Florida State in the Orange Bowl, 27-14, Nebraska finished the season ranked No. 14.

Colorado finished 9-2-1, 5-1-1 in the Big Eight.  The Buffs, however, also fell in the postseason, succumbing to Syracuse in the Fiesta Bowl, 26-22, to finish ranked at No. 13.  The only conference team to post a bowl win was Kansas, which completed an 8-4 season with a 23-20 win over BYU in the Aloha Bowl.  The win allowed the Jayhawks to crack the final poll at No. 22.

Up, Up, and Away

Colorado head coach Bill McCartney was not about to allow the football world pass him by.  The “I-bone” offensive set, featuring two running backs, had gained for the Buffs no fewer than three straight Big Eight titles from 1989 to 1991.

Still, for the 1992 season, the I-bone was being scrapped.

In its place was to be a more open, pass-oriented attack utilizing one running back and three wide receivers.  “When you stretch a defense vertically and horizontally, which is what the one-back does”, said McCartney as he prepared for the 1992 season, “I think it is more difficult to defend.”

McCartney hadn’t convinced everyone of this new concept, though, as even some of his own players were skeptical.  Senior offensive tackle Jim Hansen, all 6′ 6″, 275 pounds of him, was fond of the old reliable smash-mouth running game.  Said Hansen, who after the 1992 campaign would be honored as the 5th Colorado football player ever to become a Rhodes Scholar:  “I really like 99-yard drives, like last year (1991), when we went to Oklahoma and drove the length of the field.  That really demoralized them.  I enjoy watching defenses break down.”

McCartney was not to be dissuaded.  Speed was now the name of the game, and he was not about to be left behind.  “I want to be on the cutting edge,” said the Buffs’ head coach, “I don’t want to be late making the change.”

McCartney, who was entering his 11th season at Colorado, had now come full circle.

In 1982, McCartney came to Boulder with a passing attack.  Three years produced only seven wins, however.  With his job in jeopardy, McCartney switched to the ultra-conservative wishbone rushing attack.  Success with the wishbone evolved into a championship-caliber I-bone.  Now, McCartney was returning to the pass.

“It’s full speed ahead”, said McCartney, “Whether it works or not, we’re committed to it.”

Preseason – 1992

As a new passing era dawned in Boulder, the national prognosticators were not convinced that this innovation would lead the Buffs to even higher levels.

With no quarterback set to take the place of Darian Hagan (junior Vance Joseph and sophomore Kordell Stewart were the most likely candidates), Colorado was an unknown quantity.  The receiving corps -sophomores Erik Mitchell and Michael Westbrook along with junior Charles E. Johnson – was talented but untested.

The offensive line was anchored by senior Jim Hansen, but was otherwise young, featuring two sophomores and a freshman. “I’m guardedly confident, but tempered with caution,” said Bill McCartney of his new offense after spring practices. “I recognize this is a time of transition, and only after we’ve played several games will we be able to assess where we are.”

The strength of the Colorado team was its defense, and the strength of the defense appeared to be in its linebackers.

On the outside were great athletes, Chad Brown and Ron Woolfork, who were first-and second-team All-Big Eight in 1991.  Inside, senior Greg Biekert, himself first-team All-Big Eight in 1991, would be paired with sophomore Ted Johnson. (Author’s Note:  By the end of their Colorado careers, all four starting linebackers would be drafted into the NFL).

“We want to be less predictable and much more aggressive on defense,” said McCartney. “We’re going to be a defense that, from one down to the next, the opponent won’t be able to predict much. We won’t be obviously stationed down after down.”

In addition to strong linebackers, the defensive line had tackle Leonard Renfro and nose tackle Jeff Brunner receiving pre-season accolades, while in the secondary, pre-season All-American cornerback Deon Figures was teamed with Ronnie Bradford at corner, with the safeties – Dwayne Davis and Chris Hudson – also set.

Would the 1992 defense be the best in Colorado history?

“The potential is there to have a strong defense,” said McCartney, “but to say anymore than that would be to undermine what other defenses here have done. But the potential is there.”

The special teams were also likely to be a strength in 1992.

Punter Mitch Berger returned, after earning honorable mention All-Big Eight as a sophomore, and would compete with senior Pat Blottiaux for the place-kicking duties. The kick returning corps, led by Deon Figures, T.J. Cunningham, Chris Hudson, and Erik Mitchell, was considered to be one of the best units in the nation.

If the returning Buffs were not up to competing for a national title by themselves, the incoming freshman class of 1992 offered some immediate help.

In one of the most decorated recruiting class in Colorado history, 20 of the 24 players received some form of high school All-American recognition.  On offense, players such as Koy Detmer, Rashaan Salaam, Rae Carruth, James Kidd, Chris Naeole and Heath Irwin looked to contribute immediately, while future defensive stars such as Shannon Clavelle, Sam Rogers, Steve Rosga, Dalton Simmons and Matt Russell waited in the wings for their opportunity to continue the Buff tradition.

The schedule, as usual, was daunting for the Buffs.

In addition to the usual gauntlet of solid teams in the Big Eight, the Buffs would go on the road for two non-conference games. Colorado would travel to face Baylor in Waco, a team which finished 8-4 in 1991, as well as Minnesota. At home, Colorado would face in-state rival Colorado State, as well as Iowa. In 1991, the Hawkeyes went 10-1-1, with their only loss to co-national champion Michigan.

“It’s another challenging schedule, a typical tough schedule that we’ve been accustomed to playing,” said McCartney. “It’s a schedule that will continue to test us right on through the season. Each team has a little different style, posing a little different test each week.”

The consensus for the 1992 Buffs was that they would struggle on offense, but be bailed out by a tough defense which returned eight starters.  Despite winning at least a share of the Big Eight title for three consecutive seasons, and despite going 20-0-1 in conference play over that span, most pre-season magazines tabbed Colorado for a finish outside the top ten.

When play commenced in the fall of 1992, Colorado was given a pre-season ranking by the Associated Press of No. 12.

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