Preseason – 2005
Despite winning the Big 12 North Division title three of the previous four years, and despite having 17 starters returning, the Colorado Buffaloes entered the 2005 season in search of national recognition. The titles of the past and the promise of the future were offset by a lack of overall success. After all, it was argued, the Buffs finished only 8-5 overall in 2004, played in a lackluster division, and had backed into the 2004 title with a 4-4 conference record when Iowa State failed to win its final game at home against Missouri. The record showed that Colorado had been trampled by Texas (31-7) and Oklahoma State (42-14) during the regular season, then embarrassed by the Oklahoma Sooners, 42-3, in the Big 12 title game.
Not exactly the stuff of legend.
In addition, the black cloud of scandal continued to hang over the Boulder campus.
Gary Barnett had returned from a spring suspension and had retained his job with wins on the field, but President Elizabeth Hoffman and Athletic Director Dick Tharp were no longer with the school.
Replacing Tharp was Mike Bohn, named as Colorado’s fifth permanent Athletic Director in April. Bohn grew up in Boulder and had strong ties to the community. He had taken over lackluster programs at Idaho and San Diego State and had turned both around in short order. Now Bohn was charged with creating a positive atmosphere on campus, a positive opinion about the athletic department off campus, and a positive balance on the books. It helped that in May a judge threw out the discrimination lawsuit against the University. Yet the stigma remained, and it would take more than wins on the field for it to be removed.
Still, the Buffs were the reigning North Division champions, and while a case could be made for any of the six North teams winning the title in 2005 (with the possible exception of Kansas), there was reason for optimism in Boulder as well. Seven starters were returning on offense; ten on defense; and both kickers were slated for national honors.
On offense, the Buffs were led by senior Joel Klatt, looking to become the Buffs’ first three-year starter at quarterback since Kordell Stewart (1992-‘94). Klatt was already in the top five in the CU record books in many passing categories. The downside was that Klatt had thrown 15 interceptions in 2004, compared to only nine touchdowns, and had a career record of only 12-10 as a starter. Junior James Cox, with one career start, was the likely second choice to play if Klatt faltered.
The running game would miss Bobby Purify, who had posted 1,016 rushing yards in 2004 while displaying great heart and leadership. Returning to the Buffs’ backfield was talent, if not experience. Senior Lawrence Vickers, the Buffs’ “V-back”, returned, along with sophomores Hugh Charles and Byron Ellis. All three had positive elements to their game, but none was seen as being the catalyst for the 2005 offense.
This left production on offense to the passing game. There, however, questions marks were also numerous. After watching film of the 2004 campaign, CU coaches counted 39 dropped balls, way too many for a championship-caliber team. Senior Evan Judge was the returning leader (29 receptions for 336 yards and three touchdowns). Junior Blake Mackey and sophomore Dusty Sprague, both of whom had shown signs of brilliance, would be counted on now for consistent production. (Blake Mackey’s season, though, would end before it began. Mackey injured his knee on August 16th, and was lost for the season).
At tight end, the Buffs had two seniors to plug into the line up. Joe Klopfenstein, one of the heroes of the Houston Bowl, was mentioned on several pre-season award lists, while Quinn Sypniewski was back as a sixth-year senior after receiving a medical red-shirt for the 2004 season. (Sypniewski was the first six-year Buff in modern history, having been granted medical red-shirt seasons in both 2003 and 2004).
The offensive production, though, would begin and end with the effectiveness of the CU offensive line. Three starters returned, with juniors Brian Daniels and Mark Fenton slated as tight guard and center, respectively, while senior Clint O’Neal was back at tight tackle. Sophomore Edwin Harrison was tabbed as the new split guard, while fellow sophomore Tyler Polumbus was expected to start at the split tackle position. This group would need to be a strength if the Buffs were to improve on CU’s overall rankings from the year before: 89th in rushing offense in 2004; 56th in passing offense; 85th in total offense; and 81st in scoring offense.
With such mediocre numbers from the offense, it would be easy to assume that the defense had carried the team to its title the previous fall. Unfortunately, the Buff defense was just as spotty as the offense. The good news was that ten starters returned. The bad news was that ten starters returned – from a team which had given up over 260 yards passing/game (105th in the nation), and 421.6 yds/game overall, 95th in the nation (out of 117 teams).
There was cause for optimism, though, as the Buffs’ defense entered its second year under coordinator Mike Hankwitz. The defensive line was anchored by senior tackles James Garee and Vaka Manupuna. The defensive end positions were to be handled by juniors Abraham Wright and Alex Ligon. “I think that with a year’s experience with a new coordinator and a different scheme that should allow us to make progress with our defense faster,” said Gary Barnett in the spring. “We lose just one starter from last year’s team, and we played a lot of youngsters, guys who were thrown into the fire right off the bat and never got much of a break in lining up across from quality teams.”
There seemed to be little argument that the strength of the Buffs’ defense lay in the linebacking corps. Four talented players would rotate in three positions. On the outside, senior Brian Iwuh led the Buffs in 2004 with 98 tackles, becoming only the second outside linebacker in CU history to lead the team in that category. On the inside positions (CU often played with two), junior Thaddaeus Washington was joined by sophomore Jordon Dizon. Both were mentioned as possible award candidates (in 2004, Dizon had become the first true freshman in CU history to be named as Defensive Newcomer of the Year and Defensive Freshman of the Year). All this, without even mentioning senior Akarika Dawn, who made five starts in 2004 and led the team in third down stops with 13.
This left the much-maligned CU secondary. Ranked worse than 100th in the nation for three of the past five years, the defensive backfield was a sore spot for the CU faithful. Whether good news or not, there were no seniors lost in 2004, and only one, safety Tom Hubbard, was a senior in 2005. Hubbard would be joined at the safety position by J.J. Billingsley, who had been suspended in 2004. The corner positions were up for grabs. Juniors Lorenzo Sims and Gerett Burl looked to be the starters, with two Washingtons – Vance, returning from shoulder surgeries; and Terry, a junior college transfer – also looking to receive playing time.
What little national pre-season attention the Buffs did receive centered on the kicking game. Both kicker Mason Crosby and punter John Torp were named to many pre-season All-America and All-Conference teams. Crosby connected on 19-23 field goals in 2004, including a nation’s best six coming from over 50 yards. Senior John Torp returned for 2005 leading the country with a 44.62 yard average. Torp’s punting in 2004 helped Colorado to its fifth net punting title (the other seasons CU led the nation in punting: 1950; 1952; 1985; and 1989). Returning kicks would be Stephone Robinson, a junior.
Overall, the Buffs looked to be in fairly good shape on the field. The personnel was there; it was just a matter of better execution. Asked about his biggest concerns, Gary Barnett responded: “Developing the passing game on both offense and defense is a priority. After that, probably figuring out who our running back is going to be, since establishing the ground game is so pivotal in laying the foundation for what we want to do on offense.”
The 2005 schedule was the last 11-game schedule the Buffs would likely ever see, as legislation passed by the NCAA allowed teams to schedule 12 regular season games per year, starting in 2006. This left the Buffs with three non-conference opponents for the 2005 campaign – Colorado State and New Mexico State, both at home, followed by a road contest at a top ten school, Miami. Afterwards, the Buffs would face another twist to the scheduling. For the first time in the ten-year history of the Big 12, the Buffs would face all three Southern Division teams (at Oklahoma State; Texas A&M; at Texas), in succession, before finishing the season with five games against Northern Division rivals.
If the Buffs could be successful early (i.e., defeat CSU and NMSU), then hold their own during a tough four game stretch (win at least one, and hopefully two) against Miami and three teams which had defeated the Buffs in 2004, then the Buffs would be in a position to control their own conference destiny in facing their Northern Division rivals to conclude the season.
When the preseason polls came out, the Buffs were right where they left off the 2004 season – on the outside looking in. In the Big 12, Texas and Oklahoma were picked as having the best shot at a national championship. No. 1 in the polls was USC, with the Longhorns coming in at No. 2, while Oklahoma was ranked 7th. Also receiving recognition from the Big 12 were Texas A&M, in at No. 17, and Texas Tech, ranked 21st. No team from the North made the Top 25, with Colorado coming the closest, at No. 32.
Also outside the Top 25 was Colorado State. The Rams had slipped to 4-7 in 2004, the worst showing by a Sonny Lubick team since the first of his 11 years in Fort Collins. Led by senior quarterback Justin Holland, who had torched the Buffs for over 400 yards in 2004, the Rams looked to avenge their last-second 27-24 loss in Boulder. The game would be nationally televised on TBS, but, for the first time since 1988, when the Buffs defeated the Rams, 27-23 in Fort Collins, neither team would enter the contest ranked nationally.