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Preseason – Buffs have a formula for a bowl bid

// Jul 30 - 2007

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Preseason – 2007

A preview of the 2007 Colorado Buffaloes – the strengths and weaknesses of the roster; the schedule; and the competition in the Big 12.

The Colorado Buffaloes enter the second season of the Dan Hawkins era confronting a problem the program hasn’t faced in over twenty years – low expectations. Coming off a 2-10 campaign in 2006, the Buffs are not expected to make much of an impact on the national stage in 2007. This lack of faith runs contrary to the preseason prognostications coming on the heels of the Buffs’ other three losing seasons in the past twenty years.

The Buffs had losing campaigns in 1997 (5-6), 2000 (3-8), and 2003 (5-7 ). Even with those losing records, however, the predictions for the following seasons called for the Buffs to rebound. In 1998, the preseason magazines called for a winning campaign. The consensus was that the Buffs would finish third or fourth in Big 12 North, and return to the national rankings. The Sporting News, for example, had the Buffs in at No. 23 nationally; Lindy’s had the Buffs at No. 24 (CU finished 8-4 overall, 4th in the Big 12 North and outside the national rankings). In 2001, after a disastrous 3-8 season in 2000, the pundits kept the faith. That preseason, both Lindy’s (27th) and The Sporting News (26th) pegged the Buffs for a third place finish in the North. Of course, 2001 was the season that the Buffs crashed the BCS party, winning the Big 12 title (the Buffs finished the season ranked 9th). Finally, in 2004, after a 5-7 season in 2003, the Buffs began to falter in the eyes of those who make predictions for a living. The 2004 Buffs were no better than 37th in the eyes of The Sporting News; 61st at Lindy’s. The 2004 Buffs again exceeded expectations, winning the Big 12 North, but going unranked with an 8-5 record.

In 2007, the Buffs are mired down with the Indiana’s and the New Mexico’s of the college football world.

At Lindy’s, the Buffs are predicted to finish 5th in the Big 12 North, ahead of only Iowa State, and are tabbed as the 74th best team in the nation. And that prediction is not out of line with many others. Athlon has one of the higher rankings – 61st.

What does this mean to the Buffs as they line up against Colorado State on September 1st?

Virtually nothing.

All the low expectations mean is that Colorado has fallen off the national radar. No longer worried about poll votes, the Buff players and fans must content themselves with looking for winnable games. And, on the heels of a 2-10 season, they are not easy to find.

The best bets? Colorado State, Miami (Ohio), at Baylor, Kansas, and at Iowa State. None of those teams are dominant programs, and all but Kansas (with a 6-6 record) had losing seasons in 2006. The problem? CU played four of five of these teams last year, and lost to three of those four. Still, win at least four of these five games in 2007, and the chances of a winning season dramatically improve.

The best bets for losses? Florida State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech, and Nebraska. All but Texas Tech are at home, but figure most, if not all, to be ranked when the Buffs play them. One win out of this group of games will give the Buffs a signature win to build on for the future.

The swing games? At Arizona State; at Kansas State; and at home against Missouri. Arizona State may well be ranked when the Buffs play them, and KSU and Missouri are the preseason picks to give Nebraska the most trouble in the Big 12 North. Still, I’m not convinced these teams will live up to their preseason hype. The Buffs may need to win one or two of these games to become bowl eligible.

The end result? In my estimation, a good season would be six wins and a bowl bid. Six wins (anything beyond that is probably wishful thinking) would show marked progress for the program, and give Buff fans great optimism for 2008 and beyond. Six wins and no bowl bid, or a 5-7 or 4-8 record, would be disappointing, but would still give the CU faithful something to cling to for the future. Anything less than four wins, and the “was Hawkins the right choice?” grumbling begins.

What about the rest of the Big 12 North?

Nebraska is the consensus choice to repeat as North champions, but this is due more to the lack of competition in the division than dominance on the part of the Cornhuskers. Nebraska will start the season ranked in the top 25, but will have to make their case for a return to national prominence when likely preseason No. 1 USC comes to Lincoln September 15th. Last year, Nebraska played four teams in the top ten, and lost all four games. I don’t see that trend changing this season. Yes, the Cornhuskers will likely earn a return trip to the Big 12 title game in 2007, but only because the remaining teams in the Big 12 North are so weak.

Missouri and Kansas State represent the second tier of the Big 12 North.

The fashionable pick for No. 2 in the division is Missouri. Still, the Tigers come into 2007 after losing four of their last five games of 2006, hardly a ringing endorsement. With an easy non-conference schedule, look for Missouri to come into the Big 12 schedule with a 4-0 record an lots of hype. Then look for an 0-3 conference record after the Tigers open Big 12 play against Nebraska, Oklahoma, and Texas Tech.

This leaves Kansas State, 7-6 under first year head coach Ron Prince. The Wildcats will likely open the season with a loss at Auburn, then likely open the conference campaign with a loss at Texas. KSU’s home game against Missouri on November 17th will likely decide which team finishes No. 2 in the North.

The other teams in the North, Kansas and Iowa State, have just as many question marks as the Colorado.

While Iowa State won twice as many games (four) last year as the Buffs, and Kansas won three times as many (six), arguably those programs are in just as much disarray as is Colorado. Kansas may go bowling based simply on the fact that the Jayhawks do not play a BCS conference school in the non-conference schedule, and avoid Texas and Oklahoma from the South division in conference play. Iowa State, under first year head coach Gene Chizik, lost eight of nine games before rebounding to win the last game of the season over Missouri. The Cyclones open their conference campaign at Nebraska, then play at Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma, at Missouri. Welcome to the Big 12, Gene!

In the Southern division of the Big 12, form will likely hold true their as well. Texas and Oklahoma will likely enter the season at or near the top ten in the nation, with their clash in Dallas on October 6th likely to decide the division (and conference) champion. Texas A&M (9-4 last season), Texas Tech (8-5) and Oklahoma State (7-6) will likely fight it out for third place. By October 13th, these three teams will have all played one another, so we should have a fair picture of the pecking order in the South by mid-October. This leaves only Baylor. The Bears were 4-8 last season, but may well be 3-2 when the Buffs travel to Waco on October 6th. Between their season opener against TCU, and their conference opener against Texas A&M, Baylor has very winnable games against Rice, Texas State, and Buffalo.

The only good thing about low expectations, Buff fans?

It’s hard not to exceed them. Go Buffs!

Here are some highlights from Spring Practice, 2007:

2007 Outlook – A look at the Depth Chart

One can either look at the Buffs’ depth chart and see the proverbial glass as being either “half full” or “half empty”. A breakdown of unit gives credence to both arguments.

Quarterback

Last season’s starter, Bernard Jackson, returns, but he will not start in the opener against CSU. In spring practice, Jackson was remolded as a “Slash” player – part quarterback, part running back, part receiver. Jackson’s job will be passed on to either redshirt freshman Cody Hawkins or junior college transfer Nick Nelson. Nelson has the advantage of playing time (11-1 as a starter last season at Saddleback Community College), while Hawkins has the advantage of having been immersed in the head coach’s system for years. Whoever gets the nod in Denver, they will be taking their first snap against a Division 1-A opponent.

Analysis: Half empty. I am not concerned about favoritism for the coach’s son. Dan Hawkins has his professional career (not to mention hundreds of thousands of dollars) riding on the Buffs being successful at this position. The quarterback most likely to win will be the one playing. Still, neither Hawkins nor Nelson have experience, and that will result in growing pains for the Buffs.

Running backs

The Buffs did well running the ball in 2006, with their 172.9 yards per game average good enough to rank 22nd in the nation. Senior Hugh Charles, already up to 21st on the all-time Buff rushing list, returns. Charles’ efforts will be supplemented by the efforts of senior Byron Ellis and sophomore Kevin Boyd. Junior college transfer P.T. Gates was one of the headliners of the 2007 recruiting class, but his efforts to enroll in Boulder have not yet been resolved. At fullback, junior Maurice Cantrell will likely get the nod.

Analysis: Half full. Hugh Charles is a game tested player, and will have to perform well early in order to take pressure off of the Buffs’ anemic passing game.

Wide Receivers

The Buffs high rankings in the running game in ‘06 were more than offset by the lack of production in the passing game. CU passed for only 118.5 yards per game, ranking 116th (out of 119 teams) in the nation. The poor performance in the aerial attack rendered the Buffs last in the Big 12 in total offense (and 102nd nationally) and last in the Big 12 in scoring (107th). For Colorado to improve in the win column, this phase of the game must improve. Seniors Alvin Barrett, Stephone Robinson, and Dusty Sprague will be assisted by juniors Patrick Williams and Cody Crawford, along with sophomores Cha’pelle Brown and Jarrell Yates. Three incoming freshmen may also see time. At the tight end position, sophomore Riar Geer returns. Geer led all Buffs’ receivers in 2006 with 24 catches for 261 yards, becoming the first freshman in CU history to lead the team in those categories.

Analysis: Half empty. Colorado keeps trying to recruit more speed and talent at the wideout positions, but has little to show for the effort. It will help to have a more reliable passer at the helm in ‘07, but don’t expect great production out of this group.

Offensive line

One of the ongoing storylines during spring practice was the lack of offensive linemen. Only seven were available, including an injured Erick Faatagi and two redshirt freshmen, Wes Palazzi and Keenan Stevens. Lost to graduation were guard Brian Daniels and center Mark Fenton. Eight recruits will make fall practice easier, including highly touted Ryan Miller. Miller’s last high school game was the Colorado state championship game, played at Mile High. Don’t be surprised if Miller’s next start is in the same stadium.

Analysis: Half empty. When you have to limit the number of plays in your spring game due to the lack of bodies, you’ve got a problem. Ryan Miller will help, but growing depth on the offensive line is a long process, and the Buffs are just getting started in this category.

Offense – Overall

Analysis: Half empty. At Boise State, Dan Hawkins’ teams averaged over 40 points per game. Last year’s Buff team averaged 16.3. Being ranked last in the conference – and in triple digits nationwide – in passing offense, total offense, and scoring offense, tells you all you need to know. The 2005 Buff team was over a touchdown a game more productive (and that was a team which was outscored in its last three games by a margin of 119-16). Will there be significant improvement in this area in 2007? The same question marks which dominated the spring will dominate the early fall: 1) Can either Cody Hawkins or Nick Nelson step up as the next great CU quarterback?; and 2) will the offensive line hold up well enough to create holes for the rushing game and create time for the passing game?

Defensive line

The two starting defensive ends from last season, Abraham Wright and Walter Boye-Doe, are gone, likely to be replaced by senior Alonzo Barrett and junior Maurice Lucas. At the tackle position, the two starters, juniors George Hypolite and Brandon Nicholas, Jr., return. The Buffs ranked a solid 30th in rushing defense last year, but must replace Wright’s 11 ½ sacks. Junior college transfer Drew Hudgins, Jr., was expected to see playing time quickly, but Hudgins ruptured an Achilles tendon during summer conditioning, and may not be available this season.

Analysis: Half full. Despite the departure of Wright and Boye-Doe, this side of the line appears to be much more stable than their offensive counterpart. Still, depth remains an issue, as there is little game experience lined up behind the starters.

Linebackers

Thaddaeus Washington, a tough competitor, must be replaced. Still, the cupboard at the linebacker position, unlike other areas of the CU depth chart, is far from bare. Senior Jordon Dizon returns. Dizon recorded 137 tackles in 2006, the most by a Buff in nine seasons. Dizon already ranks in the top twenty in tackles in CU history, and will make a run at the top ten this season. Brad Jones also returns as a starter. Sophomore Michael Sipili was the leading candidate to take Washington’s position before being suspended indefinitely from the team due to an off season altercation. Juniors Marcus Burton and R.J. Brown, along with sophomore Bryan Stengel and redshirt freshman, B.J. Beatty, provide the depth.

Analysis: Half full. As a whole, the linebacking unit is the most complete of the entire roster (or at least it was until Sipili’s suspension). Dizon has made many preseason all-conference teams, and Jones will provide more than adequate run and pass support. If the team is to make headway in the Big 12 race, it will largely be due to the efforts of this group.

Secondary

This group exemplifies the question marks which surround the 2007 Buffs. Senior cornerback Terrence Wheatley was an All-Big 12 selection in 2006, with the other spot open due to the graduations of Lorenzo Sims and Terry Washington. Juniors Gardner McKay and Ben Burney, a converted safety, will vie for the other corner position. The safety positions will likely fall to juniors Ryan Walters and Lionel Harris. Overall, the unit is listed as one of Colorado’s best, but the statistics do not bear this out. The Buffs ranked 94th in the nation last season in passing offense, giving up 228.5 yards passing per game.

Analysis: Half empty. Despite the accolades, this is a hole in the team. The Buffs were a middling team overall in defense in ‘06 (66th in total defense; 56th in scoring defense). If CU is to make strides in the conference and in the win column, the secondary must improve its overall performance.

Special teams

Gone is two-time All-American Mason Crosby. Senior placekicker Kevin Eberhart has waited patiently for four years for his opportunity, and has the credentials to be successful. Sophomore punter Matt DiLailo was one of the pleasant surprises for CU in 2006, ranking 16th in the nation in punting as a freshman. Return man Stephone Robinson is back, ranking in the top ten in CU history in both punt returns and kickoff returns. Overall, though, the return game must improve, as the Buffs ranked poorly (104th in punt returns; 95th in kickoff returns) in both categories last year.

Analysis: Half full. Eberhart, though a first year starter, has the confidence of the coaches, while DiLailo will just continue to improve. The Buffs have speed and talent at the return position, so hopefully a year in the Hawkins’ system will allow the players and coaches more time to perfect the return game overall.

Defense – Overall

Analysis: Half full. This a unit loaded with “ifs”: “if” the Buffs can find two new starters on the defensive line; “if” the linebacking corps can live up to expectations; and “If” the secondary can cut down on the big plays, then the defense can keep the Buffs in games long enough for the offense to find its way. Those are a lot of “ifs”, but for CU fans looking for something to cling to on the heels of a 2-10 season, this is the best we have.

2 Responses to “Preseason – Buffs have a formula for a bowl bid”

  1. Adam

    Stuart
    Very impressive site! Comprehensive info on the whole herd.
    Adam

  2. Heidi Keith

    Stuart,

    The site looks great!! A wealth of Buff info. Nice job! -Heidi

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