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Preseason, 2006 – A New Coach, but Unchanged Expectations

// Aug 27 - 2006

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Preseason, 2006 – A New Coach, but Unchanged Expectations

The Colorado Buffaloes entered the 2006 season with four Big 12 North division titles in the past five seasons. Sustained excellence is usually reason enough to expect national respect for a football program. After all, in Division 1-A football, only two other teams could lay claim to earning that many rings since 2001. One was USC, which had won the Pac-10 four years in a row, and had played for the national championship the previous three. The other was Boise State, which had won the Western Athletic Conference four years running.

In 2006, USC was the odds on favorite to repeat as champions in the Pac-10. Boise State, meanwhile, was the consensus pick to rule the WAC for a fifth straight year.

Colorado? No one was picking the Buffs to win anything.

The reigning Big 12 North champions were relegated by the preseason prognosticators to middle of the pack status in what was universally decried as being the weak division of the Big 12. The fall from grace had little to do with the graduation of a strong senior class (the Buffs had 12 starters returning; seven on defense, five on offense), and a lot to do with several other numbers.

30-3 … and 70-3.

The humbling losses to Nebraska and Texas, coming between equally disappointing losses to Iowa State before the Nebraska debacle, and then to Clemson in the Champs Sports Bowl, had left the 7-6 Buffs entering the 2006 campaign on a four game losing streak.

Gary Barnett was out as head coach; former Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins was in. Barnett had seemingly run successfully through the gauntlet of scandal for over two years, only to be brought down by the one yardstick which all coaches are measured by – results on the field.

Hawkins, by contrast, had seen nothing but success on the field of play. 53-11 at Boise State in his five year reign, Hawkins had won or shared four WAC titles. In modern Division 1-A football, only a handful of coaches (including national championship winners Bob Stoops at Oklahoma and Pete Carroll at USC), had won more games in their first five seasons as head coach.

“Coach Hawkins represents a level of competitive spirit, integrity, work ethic and passion that will serve this institution, football program, and entire athletic department well for many years to come,” said Athletic Director Mike Bohn on December 16, 2005, at the press conference announcing Hawkins’ hire.

The pick of Hawkins by Colorado was generally seen as a good one. “Hawkins was the ideal choice for Colorado,” decided Athlon Sports in their preseason magazine, adding, “which needs an image makeover more than anything else.” Of the ten new coaching hires in Division 1-A, The Sporting News preseason college magazine gave an “A+” to only one school – Colorado (Boise State received an “A” for its choice to replace Dan Hawkins, Chris Petersen, who had been Hawkins’ offensive coordinator. The other new head coach in the Big 12 was Ron Prince at Kansas State, whose hire merited a “B” grade from The Sporting News).

So, the stigma of scandal which had plagued the team for several seasons had been purged, a great young coach (Hawkins was 45) with an impressive resume had been selected to lead the team, and the team with four titles in five years had a number of returning starters.

Yet uncertainty remained.

Issues on Offense to start and end with who would become the new starting quarterback

For starters, there were the offensive starters. Gone was the record-setting quarterback, Joel Klatt. To replace Klatt, Hawkins had three options. First, there was James Cox, a senior, who had started all of two games in his career (including the Champs Sports Bowl), but had not finished either game. Next in line was junior Brian White, who had no starts, but had led the Buffs to their only touchdown in the Champs Sports Bowl in relief of Cox. Finally, there was the wild card, junior Bernard Jackson. Jackson had yet to take a snap in a CU game, but was the best quarterback on his feet, bringing the scrambling element to the Buffs’ offense.

The CU coaches and players during the spring and summer of 2006 held to the party line that any one of the three would ably lead the team. The prognosticators, though, held to the equally quoted maxim that if a coach says he has three quarterbacks, what he is really saying is that he has none. Two weeks before the 2006 opener, Hawkins went with his senior, James Cox.

The lack of a proven quarterback received the most attention as the Buff players adjusted to their new offense, and their new offensive coordinator, Mark Helfrich (Helfrich came to CU from Arizona State, and was, at 32, the fifth youngest offensive coordinator in the country).

Still, there were other issues.

The offensive line would be anchored by center Mark Fenton, a Rimington Award finalist from 2005. Beside Fenton was senior guard Brian Daniels, an honorable mention Big 12 player in his junior season. After those two, though, the line was full of question marks. The other guard position would be handled by sophomore Daniel Sanders, while the tackle positions were the responsibility of juniors Edwin Harrison and Tyler Polumbus.

Still, the offensive line was seen as a strength compared to the receiving corps. Many talented players returned, but as a group they were seen as underachievers. Junior Dusty Sprague returned, with his team leading 43 receptions in 2005. The other starter looked to be sophomore Patrick Williams, though senior Blake Mackey hoped to return to the field from a knee injury which kept him out all of 2005. Gone at tight end were 2005 NFL draft picks Joe Klopfenstein (3rd round to St. Louis) and Quinn Sypniewski (5th round to Baltimore). Hoping to fill their shoes were senior Paul Creighton and junior Tyson DeVree.

The running game had lost all-everything fullback Lawrence Vickers to the NFL, but leading rusher Hugh Charles returned for his junior season. Though Charles rushed for a team leading 842 yards in 2005, his place in the starting lineup was not guaranteed. Charles was pushed for playing time during fall camp by senior transfer Mel Holliday and junior Byron Ellis.

Overall, the offense returned five starters from the 2005 squad, with a number of other players who had seen considerable playing time. Still, this was not necessarily seen as cause for optimism. In 2005, the Buff offense failed to rank higher than 59th (out of 117 teams in 1-A) in any major offensive category, coming in with a ranking of 87th in total offense.

CU defense expected to carry the team early

It was clear to most observers, then, that the Colorado defense would have to lead the team, at least until the offense was able to grasp the Dan Hawkins’ “just score” wide open offense. Fortunately for the new coach, the stable had not been left bare by his predecessor. A total of seven starters returned from a unit which had, despite the debacles to end the 2005 season, had still finished 11th in the nation in rushing defense, and 41st in total defense.

The defensive line raised the most concern. Gone were interior linemen James Garee and Vaka Manupuma, replaced by two sophomores, George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas. At the defensive end position, though, both starters returned, manned by two seniors, Abraham Wright and Walter Boye-Doe.

The linebacker position was seen as a strength. Leading tackler from 2005, senior Thaddaeus Washington, returned, as did junior Jordon Dizon. Both were singled out for honors in preseason magazines. Joining the noteworthy pair in the starting lineup was sophomore Brad Jones.

The secondary remained fluid throughout the offseason. Losing only one part-time starter (senior safety Tom Hubbard), many of the experts tabbed the Colorado secondary as one of the nation’s finest (Lindy’s Big 12 Football ranked the Buff secondary 7th best in the country). Attrition through dismissals from the team (starting cornerback Gerett Burl and starting safety Tyrone Henderson were dismissed for violating undisclosed team rules), and injuries (including senior cornerback Vance Washington), though, left the unit weaker. By the time fall camp broke, the starting unit consisted of returning starters Lorenzo Sims, Jr., at cornerback and J.J. Billingsley at safety, combined with junior Terrence Wheatley at corner, and sophomore Ryan Walters at safety.

While the Colorado team as a whole did not rate much attention in the 2006 preseason (a small blessing, in some respects, after arguably meriting too much attention in the previous few seasons), one player was universally recognized. Called “my best recruit” for 2006 by head coach Dan Hawkins, senior kicker Mason Crosby was listed as a first team All-American in virtually every preseason publication. A consensus All-American and Lou Groza award runner up in 2005, Mason Crosby would have been a sure fire NFL draft pick. Instead, he opted to return to Boulder for his senior year. Already in possession of most of the CU kicking records, Crosby returned prepared to collect those few records he didn’t already own, including all-time leading scorer in Colorado history. In addition, head coach Dan Hawkins spent much of the spring and summer of 2005 telling anyone who would listen that he intended, at some point in the season, to give Crosby a shot at a 70-yard field goal.

The other kicking spot remained open throughout the fall. Crosby was seen as a potential starter there as well, but the Buff coaching staff had hopes that freshman Matt DiLallo or junior Isaac Garden would take over the job left vacated by John Torp.

Preseason predictions

The preseason magazines didn’t know what to make of the 2006 Buffs.

There were the unknowns associated with the new head coach and staff, combined with the dichotomy of having a team with four titles in five years saddled with a four game losing streak to enter the season. Most magazines took the safe route, picking the Buffs to finish in the middle of the jumbled Big 12 North. Colorado was picked to finish anywhere from 2nd to 5th in the North division, with a national ranking generally in the 40’s and 50’s.

Nebraska was seen as the clear favorite in the North. This was largely the same Nebraska team which had lost in early November to Kansas, 40-15. After that weekend, which culminated a three game losing streak (and four losses in five games), head coach Bill Callahan was put on the watch list of coaches on the “hot seat”. The pessimists were discounted, though, as the Cornhuskers finished on a three game winning streak, including the dismantling of the Buffs and a 32-28 win over a 7-5 Michigan squad in the Alamo Bowl.

At the bottom of the Big 12 North was Kansas State. After two losing seasons, long time head coach Bill Snyder had retired, replaced by Ron Prince. The consensus was that the Wildcats had too many unresolved issues to compete for the title.

The remainder of the North Division was just as much a curiosity as the Buffs.

Iowa State was two kicks away from being a two-time defending North title holder, but in 2006, the Cyclones traded games against South division foes Baylor, Oklahoma State, and Texas A&M for Texas, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech. This was seen as too much for the young Cyclones to overcome. Missouri, meanwhile, lost all-everything quarterback Brad Smith, and Kansas only had three returning starters on defense.

The South title would again, if the preseason hype was any indication, be decided by the Red River Rivalry game between Texas and Oklahoma. Texas was the defending national champion, but quarterback Vince Young opted for the NFL after his junior year, leaving no experienced quarterback to lead the still very talented Longhorns. This seemed to leave the door open for Oklahoma, but the Sooners’ quarterback, Rhett Bomar, was dismissed from the team during the summer for taking pay at a Norman automobile dealership without doing any work. Oklahoma had Heisman hopeful Adrian Peterson to carry the ball, though, and were still seen by many as the favorite to win the conference.

Hoping to crash this elite party was Texas Tech. The Red Raiders continued to put up impressive overall numbers (e.g., Texas Tech was the only school to post a winning record in all of the Big 12’s first ten seasons), but the pass happy team from Lubbock could not break through the stranglehold put on the upper tier of the division by Texas and Oklahoma. Red Raider fans hoped that 2006 would be their year.

This left the remainder of the South Division as an after thought on the national stage. Texas A&M was a big time program with big time problems. Head coach Dennis Franchione was only 16-18 in his first three seasons at College Station, but a laughable non-conference slate (The Citadel, Louisiana-Lafayette, Army, and Louisiana Tech) all but guaranteed a bowl appearance for the Aggies. Oklahoma State and Baylor, while seen as being capable of pulling off upsets, were not viewed as major players in the title race.

When the first poll of the season came out, Texas was replaced at the top nationally by Ohio State. Though the Buckeyes were seen as the best option for the National Championship game in Glendale, Arizona, on January 8, 2007, they were hardly a consensus choice. In all, six teams received first place votes, including No. 2 Notre Dame, No. 3 Texas, No. 4 Auburn, No. 5 West Virginia, and No. 6 USC.

Also ranked from the Big 12 was Oklahoma, in at No. 10 (the Sooners were picked higher in the preseason coaches’ poll, 5th overall, but that poll came out before Rhett Bomar was dismissed from the team). Nebraska rated as the nation’s 20th-best team, while Texas Tech was picked at No. 25.

Amongst the “others receiving votes” from the conference were Texas A&M and Iowa State. In all, five of Colorado’s 2006 opponents were ranked, including two non-conference opponents – Georgia, ranked 15th, and Arizona State, ranked 24th.

The Buffs were nowhere to be found in the preseason poll, not even rating a vote amongst the “others”. Colorado, for the first time in twenty seasons, began the season at the same starting block as the Baylors, the Vanderbilts, and the Indianas of the college football world.

The Buffs would have to earn their way back into the national spotlight.

For the optimist, the schedule leant itself to just such a march. The Buffs would open their season, for the first time in five years, against a team other than Colorado State. Division 1-AA Montana State would come to Boulder for Dan Hawkins’ first game as head coach of the Buffs. While a ranked team in 1-AA, the Bobcats were not seen as a challenge to win the game.

After the MSU game, the Buffs would take a step up in competition, meeting Colorado State in Denver. The Rams’ game was always a slugfest, but CSU was coming off three lackluster seasons (7-6, 4-7, and 6-6), and were seen as only a middle-of-the-pack team in the Mountain West Conference.

Assuming the Buffs could manage two wins and some momentum to start the campaign, Colorado would take the next step up the competition ladder to challenge a ranked team. Arizona State was coming to Boulder, and the Sun Devils would likely be ranked when the game would be played in mid-September. Arizona State was seen as an offensive powerhouse, but the defense in 2005 had allowed 468.8 yards and 29.9 points per game. If a Colorado team wanted to gain some national notoriety, the perfect mix would be to play a team just in the top 25, play them at home, and have that team be weak defensively. The chance for Colorado to be 3-0, and possibly ranked, loomed.

The final step up the non-conference competition ladder would end in Athens, Georgia. The Buffs would travel to the Southeastern Conference hotbed to face a Bulldog team fresh off of a 10-3 season and a Sugar Bowl berth. Opposing Dan Hawkins would be head coach Mark Richt, himself in the 50 wins in five years club (52-13 in his first five seasons at Georgia). A chance for an upset was always there, but this was seen as a potential rout, much in the mold of the Miami and Florida State road games of the past few seasons.

With the Arizona State and Georgia games on the calendar, most Buff fans would have taken, if offered, a 2-2 non-conference record. The best scenario to hope for seemed to be a 3-1 record. A 1-3 or 0-4 start would have fans clamoring for the return of Gary Barnett.

In the Big 12, the Buffs traded games against Oklahoma State, Texas and Texas A&M for games against Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Baylor. The first two conference games, at Missouri and at home against Baylor, were almost must-wins, as those games would be followed up by games against Texas Tech and Oklahoma.

Few outside of the CU locker room saw the Buffs as anything better than a 7-5 team in 2006. Still, it was all a matter of momentum. In early November, 2005, Colorado had been 7-2, ranked 22nd in the nation, and on a roll towards a rematch against Texas in the Big 12 title game. At that same time, Nebraska was 5-4, had lost three in a row and four out of five, and was just coming off of a loss to Kansas for the first time since 1968 (by a score of 40-15, at that). Talk of replacing the head coach was fodder for the Lincoln airwaves, not Boulder’s.

Two months later, the Buffs were on a four game losing streak, having been humbled twice on national television, and had a new coach. Nebraska, meanwhile, was on a three game winning streak, and were the consensus pick to run away with the Big 12 North in 2006.

Momentum.

The Cornhusker had it to open the 2006 campaign. The Buffs desperately needed it.

It seemed like a good time for a 1-AA team to come to town.

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