Opposition Research – A look at the Buffs’ opponents for 2012
The First Three Games … Colorado’s non-conference opponents …
For the first time in over a decade, Colorado plays a non-conference schedule which does not include a BCS conference opponent. With a late October stretch which includes consecutive games on the road against national title contenders USC and Oregon, if the Buffs are to make a run for a bowl appearance in 2012, a fast start is a must.
Colorado has not swept its non-conference opposition since 2004, when the Buffs took out Colorado State, Washington State, and North Texas on its way to a Big 12 North title.
How will Colorado fare this September against Colorado State, Sacramento State, and Fresno State?
Let’s take a look …
Colorado State – September 1st – Denver
Looking back… Colorado State comes into the 2012 season opener against Colorado riding an eight game losing streak. The Rams turned a promising 3-1 start to the 2011 season (with the lone loss coming in a 28-14 setback against Colorado) into a 3-9 disaster. One ray of hope - in five of the nine losses, the Rams were within one score in the final quarter.
A third consecutive 3-9 season was the last straw for CSU adminstrators, and head coach Steve Fairchild was shown the door. Fairchild was replaced by Alabama offensive coordinator Jim McElwain, who has restored a sense of optimism and confidence in Ft. Collins.
Personnel … Fairchild did not leave the Ram cupboard completely bare … but it was close. The offense is a major question-mark. The starting quarterback for much of 2011, Pete Thomas, dealt a blow to the team when he transferred in January, leaving the quarterback position unresolved for 2012. Sophomore Garrett Grayson saw a little action last year (542 yards passing, two touchdowns, six interceptions) after Thomas got hurt but he didn’t have a great spring. The good news for Grayson is that he has a workhorse running back in Chris Nwoke. Nwoke had two eye-popping games last year when he ran for for 232 yards against San Diego State, then topped that with 269 yards against Air Force. Nwoke finished the season with 1,130 yards and nine touchdowns, and will have three returning starters along the offensive line. Grayson will have a few targets to throw to, including tight end Crockett Gilmore, who led the team with 45 receptions, and senior wideout Marquise Law.
As many issues as the Rams have on offense, the defense is in even worse shape. Colorado State gave up 31.3 points per game last season, and that was with stars Nordly Capi and Mike Orakpo in the lineup. Capi, who led the Mountain West Conference in sacks, and Orakpo, who was ninth in the conference in tackles, were both dismissed from the team this spring for off-field incidents. Linebackers Shaq Barrett and James Skelton are quality players, as is senior cornerback Momo Thomas. After that … it’s fill and hope for the new CSU coaching staff.
Statistically … Ugly numbers abound, as you might expect from a team which will be looking for its first victory in almost 12 months come September 1st. Chris Nwoke was a bright spot, with his 94 yards per game average good enough for a ranking of 32nd in the nation. The Rams, though, were not able to take advantage, though, finishing 87th in total offense and 101st in scoring offense. On defense, the Rams were 91st in scoring defense, largely due to the fact that there were only four teams in the nation (out of 120) which surrendered more rushing yards than did Colorado State.
Preseason Prediction … If Colorado were opening up against any other team with a resume close to that of Colorado State’s – eight game losing streak; three consecutive nine loss seasons; new head coach; defection of the starting quarterback; unexpected loss of two stars on defense – Buff fans would be tempted to chalk the game up as a victory and move on to the next game. But Colorado State is not just “any other team”. Colorado State has other rivals (though, as only 14,107 and 17,207 showed up for home games against Air Force and Wyoming, respectively, to close out the 2011 season, that may be debatable), but make no mistake about it, the Colorado game in Denver is the Rams’ Super Bowl. The Rams’ emphasis of the CU game on the schedule, combined with the Rams’ ability to focus on the Buffs for much of fall practice, always makes this game closer than it should be. If Colorado sticks to the game plan – a dominating run game; no big plays surrendered; take care of the ball – the Buffs should wear down the Rams. Colorado 24, Colorado State 13.
Sacramento State – September 8th – Boulder
Looking back … Sacramento State finished the 2011 season with a 4-7 record, but the game which may make Colorado fans squirm in their seats just a little, as they settle in to check out the new scoreboards in Folsom Field on September 8th, is the result of the Hornets’ 2011 season opener. On September 3rd last fall, Sacramento State made the trip up to Corvallis to take on Oregon State, and came home with a 29-28 overtime victory over the Beavers. The Hornets also took out perennial Big Sky favorite Montana (for the first time ever), before settling down to a 2-5 record in October and November, with the only victories coming over Big Sky doormats Idaho State (2-9) and Northern Colorado (0-11). The Hornets have been good, but not great, under head coach Marshall Sperbeck, who is 24-32 through five seasons in Sacramento.
Personnel … Sacramento State welcomes back 40 players, including 12 starters, back from last season’s team. Most of the talent on offense, though, including quarterback Jeff Fleming and running back Bryan Hilliard, have graduated. The returners on offense include all-Big Sky receiver Morris Norrise and a veteran offensive line. This fall will mark the debut for new offensive coordinator Paul Peterson, who came to Sacramento State from Southern Utah. Peterson will choose between two candidates for the starting quarterback position, sophomore Garrett Safron and Nevada transfer Mason Magleby. Safron appeared in five games last season where he threw for 394 yards and three touchdowns and also rushed for 286 yards and three scores.
On defense, the best players are linebackers Jeff Badger and Tood Davis, who will be joined by defensive backs Ryan McMahon and Osagie Odiase and defensive tackle Matt Lawrence. Davis (with 96 tackles), McMahon (86) and Badger (85) were the top three tacklers on the team from a year ago. The team will be bolstered by several transfers (as is common with FBS teams), with Nebraska safety Dijon Washington, UConn cornerback Christopher Lopes, and UCLA linebacker Jared Koster joining the Hornets this fall.
Statistically … Sacramento State posted mediocre numbers last season, which is consistent with its 4-7 final record. The Hornets were 73rd in total offense in the FBS; 75th in scoring offense. On defense, Sacramento State was 77th in total defense; 70th in scoring defense. If you are trying to read the tea leaves, and predict what new offensive coordinator Paul Peterson might bring to Boulder, Southern Utah last season was 23rd in passing offense … but 115th in rushing offense.
Preseason Prediction … The Sacramento State game is the only “lock” on the Colorado 2012 schedule. Yes, it is true that the Hornets upset Oregon State on the road last season. And yes, it is true that Colorado has struggled in its only two games against 1-AA Big Sky teams (losing to Montana State in 2006; having to rally to defeat Eastern Washington in 2008). Still, there is no way Colorado can lose this game (if the Buffs do, it will be part of an historic 0-12 season). Sacramento State opens on the road against a New Mexico State team which went 4-9 last season, so we’ll have a pretty good idea of how good the Hornets are before they come to Boulder. Colorado may be sluggish early, with the Buffs coming off of its emotional battle against Colorado State, and with Sacramento State having a few extra days to prepare (the Hornets open the season on Thursday, August 30th), but Colorado should ultimately take care of business Sacramento State in the 2012 home opener. Colorado 31, Sacramento State 14.
Fresno State – September 15th – at Fresno
Looking back … Fresno State went 4-9 in 2011, with a 3-4 record in Western Athletic Conference play. The Bulldogs were out-manned, but hung tough on the road against Cal (36-21) and Nebraska (42-29). Fresno State also gave Mississippi all it could handle before succumbing, 38-28, in late September. While those losses might have been forgiven, what might have been the beginning of the end of the tenure of long time head coach Pat Hill was an embarrassing Friday night home loss on ESPN against Boise State. The Broncos made the Bulldogs look bad, coasting to a 57-7 victory from which Fresno State did not recover. The Bulldogs, with Hill’s job potentially on the line, lost close games to San Jose State (27-24) and San Diego State (35-28) to close out the season.
Personnel … On July 1st, Fresno State, along with Nevada and Hawai’i (football only) became members of the Mountain West Conference. The Bulldogs join the MWC with a clean slate and a new head coach, Tim DeRuyter. With new offensive coordinator Dave Schramm directing the show, Fresno State is adopting a no-huddle, spread offense. Junior quarterback Derek Carr (yes, brother of David) did just fine under Pat Hill, throwing for 3,544 yards last season, with 26 touchdowns to only nine interceptions. He should do even better under DeRuyter. Carr has many of his top receivers back, though John Saunders, who had 13 touchdown catches in 2011, announced after spring practices that he planned to transfer. The running game will be ably manned by returning senior starter Robbie Rouse, who was ninth in the nation in rushing in 2011, averaging 119 yards per game.
The defensive picture does not look as rosy, however, as DeRuyter attempts to install the 3-4 defense DeRuyter ran as the defensive coordinator at Texas A&M. The defensive line resembles that of Colorado’s – a work in progress. Coming out of spring practices, the Fresno State defensive line had been re-shuffled to the point where none of the three projected starters has ever started a college game. All-WAC linebacker Travis Brown returns, but he sat out spring practices with a shoulder injury.
Statistically … Going up against a team with a new head coach and a new philosophy, it’s hard to impose 2011 statistics upon the 2012 Fresno State team. Still, the numbers from last season give a fair indication of what to expect from the Bulldogs in 2012. Fresno State was good on offense last year - ranking 27th in passing offense and 37th in total offense – but was not as proficient on defense – ranking 100th in total defense and 106th in scoring defense. As Fresno State makes its transition from the Wacky WAC to the point-a-minute Mountain West, it will likely put up similar numbers. The Bulldogs have stars returning from a very good offense, and have few returning starters from a porous defense. Look for more of the same in 2012.
Preseason Prediction … We will know a great deal about the 2012 Fresno State Bulldogs the week before Colorado heads out to central California for a night game on September 15th. After opening the 2012 season against Weber State from the Big Sky Conference, Fresno State takes on Oregon in Eugene. Pat Hill’s Fresno State teams were known for taking on all-comers in non-conference play, and for playing very well against top competition. How well Tim DeRuyter’s Bulldogs survive the trip to Oregon will tell us a great deal about how the returning players are responding to the new coach. Colorado could – and should – enter this game with a 2-0 record. The long road losing streak monkey is also off the Buffs’ backs, with Colorado riding a one-game road winning “streak” for the first time since 2007. Still, this is a night game, on the road, against a mid-major team which can pass the ball with great efficiency (can you say “Toledo”?). Scoring shootouts are not what Jon Embree’s Buffs are all about. I would very much like to be wrong about this, but, at least for now … Fresno State 27, Colorado 17.
The first three conference games … The Buffs’ best chance at bowl eligibility comes here
After opening with a 2-1 non-conference record (see reports on Colorado State, Sacramento State, and Fresno State, below), Colorado takes to the “easiest” portion of its Pac-12 schedule. The Buffs will open Pac-12 play against three conference foes (two of them at home) which posted losing records in 2011. Washington State finished 4-8 last season, while UCLA (6-8) and Arizona State (6-7) both earned bowl appearances, but with both finishing the season with losing streaks and fired coaches.
All of the first three conference opponents will have new coaches patrolling the opposing sideline (making Colorado five for six in new coaches to open the 2012 campaign, with the only returning coach in the first half of the season being Marshall Sperback of Sacramento State).
By the time Colorado is done with Washington State, UCLA and Arizona State, the Buff Nation will know whether the 2012 Buffs have improved to the point of being bowl contenders … or are destined for a school-record setting seventh straight losing season …
Washington State – September 22nd - at Pullman
Looking back … Washington State went 4-8 (2-7 in Pac-12 play) in 2011, with one of those wins a come-from-behind 31-27 victory in Boulder in which the Buffs led 27-17 with six minutes to play. With the victory over Colorado, the Cougars raised their record to 3-1, and appeared primed to make their first run at a bowl game since the 2003 season. Instead, Washington State went into reverse, losing five straight games, four by more than two touchdowns. A November win over Arizona State gave Cougar fans renewed hope for a bowl bid, but instead Washington State finished out the season with losses to Utah and Washington to seal the fate of head coach Paul Wulff.
Personnel … With Washington State, you have to start with personnel not on the field, but on the sidelines. The Cougars made a splash this past December in hiring former Texas Tech head coach Mike Leach to lead Washington State back to respectability. Mike Leach never won the Big 12 South while in Lubbock, but he took the Red Raiders bowling every year, which is music to the ears of fans who have watched their Cougars win only nine games in the past four seasons.
Under Leach, Texas Tech was consistently in the top five in the nation in passing offense, and the Cougars do have some players who can help make that a reality in Pullman as well. Quarterback Jeff Tuel was set to be the starter last season, but he broke his collarbone in the first game, returning briefly in October before a leg injury ended his season. Now healthy, Tuel completed 19-of-21 passes for 285 yards and two touchdowns in the Washington State spring game. Tuel will spend most fall afternoons looking for All-Pac-12 (and perhaps All-American) candidate Marquess Wilson. The junior receiver caught 82 passes last season, going for 1,388 yards and 12 touchdowns. The question at offense is the offensive line. The Cougars returns three starters, but two missed spring practices with injury – not helpful when you are trying to learn Mike Leach’s spread offense.
While the offense for Washington State is likely to put up points, how the defense holds up will likely determine if the Cougars are going bowling in 2012. Only two starters return in the front seven, with Washington State hurt by the losses of linebackers Sekope Kaufusi and C.J. Mizell to off-field transgressions. The secondary returns all four starters, which can be read in one of two ways – Washington State was 93rd in the nation in pass defense in 2011.
Statistically … Washington State fans are excited about the passing game Mike Leach is bringing to the Palouse Valley. Fact is, though, that passing was already the Cougars’ trademark. Even with the use of several quarterbacks, Washington State was ranked 9th in the nation in passing offense, going for 322.3 yards per game. Overall, the Cougars were a more than respectable 33rd nationally in total offense.
The failing then, came on defense. Washington State ranked in the bottom half of the conference and the nation in most defensive categories, coming in at 95th in scoring defense, giving up 31.8 points per game.
Preseason prediction … Washington State has an interesting non-conference schedule. The Cougars open on the road against a very good BYU team in Provo. How the Washington State defense fares against a BYU team which went 10-3 last year, averaging over 30 points a game, will go a long way towards showing the nation if the Cougars are a bowl-worthy squad. Warmups against Eastern Washington and UNLV (which Washington State beat 59-7 last season) lead into the Colorado game. Can Colorado exploit the Washington State defense … on the road? I’m heading to Pullman for the game, and hope that the Buffs make a statement with this game. I’m also hoping that Colorado can find a way to out-score an opponent sometime this season. At least for now, I can’t see it … Washington State 31, Colorado 17.
UCLA – September 29th – Boulder
Looking back … Want to make some money off of your friends? Ask them in a few years to name the first-ever Pac-12 South champion. In the final season of the Rick Neuheisel era in Westwood, the Bruins were the South’s representative in the inaugural Pac-12 championship game, backing into the title game after Utah lost to Colorado the Friday after Thanksgiving. UCLA could have proven its worth as a championship participant in its regular season finale, but instead was embarrassed by probation-restrained USC, 50-0. The Bruins, without Neuheisel on the sidelines, fought gallantly against Oregon, but were no match in the title game, losing 49-31. The Fight Hunger Bowl was an after-thought for both UCLA and its opponent, Illinois. UCLA came into the game with a 6-7 record, while Illinois was 6-6 – and on a six-game losing streak. The Illini prevailed, 20-14, in a game about as exciting as the game’s title.
Personnel … For the first time in almost half a century, UCLA hired an outsider to guide the team. Jim Mora, Jr., late of the Seattle Seahawks, brought in new offensive and defensive philosophies, as well as a new attitude adjustment for the program. Mora did exceptionally well with his first recruiting class, and is well on his way to a stellar 2013 class, but the players he will be bringing to Boulder are largely remnants of the Neuheisel era.
New offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone brings the no-huddle spread offense to UCLA, with the primary question: Who will run it? Like Colorado, UCLA has many options, but no clear first choice. Senior Kevin Prince has 26 starts to his resume, but he is not a fan nor coaches’ favorite. Another senior might be the option, Richard Brehaut, or the Bruins might turn to a freshman – either red-shirt freshman Brett Hundley or true freshman Devin Fuller.
As with the quarterbacks, the remainder of the offense tells the same story – some talent, but no proven stars. Senior running back Johnathan Franklin is a good player, with two seasons around 1,000 yards each. The wide receiver corps loses two names familiar to Buff fans – Josh Smith and Taylor Embree – though it does return another familiar last name, Fauria, as in Mackey Award watch list nominee Joseph Fauria. The offensive line returns several starters, but from a unit which underachieved under Rick Neuheisel.
The defense of UCLA will have a new look as well, as the Bruins shift from a 4-3 to a 3-4. Perhaps it sounds like a broken record, but the story here is the same – talent, but little in the way of production. UCLA gave up almost 200 yards rushing per game last season, and over 31 points per game. The defensive line created 14 sacks … in 14 games. The secondary is the strength, with four returning starters. The problem in the defensive backfield though, is one of “aces and spaces”. After the starters, there is little depth, so the Bruins enter the 2012 season hoping that they don’t lose defensive backs at the rate Colorado did in the fall of 2011.
Statistically … Apples and oranges. With a completely new offense and a completely new defense, it’s hard to assess the new Bruins based upon the old Bruins’ statistics. In 2011, UCLA was 3rd in the Pac-12 in rushing; 11th in passing. Those numbers may be reversed in 2012 under Jim Mora’s offense. The real test will be on defense, where the Bruins must improve on almost every front. In 2011, UCLA ranked 89th in the nation – or worse – in rushing defense, total defense, and scoring defense. Ranking 90th in turnover margin didn’t help much, either.
Preseason Prediction … Now it gets hard. How will the Bruins respond to the new offensive and defensive structures? The enthusiasm for the new coaching staff will be running high in early September, but will it still be the same come late September? UCLA’s only road game before traveling to Boulder is the season opener against Rice, a team which went 4-8 last season. The Bruins then return to Los Angeles for home games against Nebraska (look for the Rose Bowl to be almost half red), Houston (which beat UCLA last year, 38-34, in an exciting season opener), and Oregon State (which the Bruins beat in Corvallis, 27-19). If Colorado is 4-0 or 3-1 for this game, and UCLA is 1-3, I’d take the Buffs. But … if UCLA is 4-0 or 3-1, and Colorado is 1-3, I’d take the Bruins. Here’s guessing they are both 2-2 and the game is a toss up … UCLA 24, Colorado 21.
Arizona State – October 11th (Thursday) – Boulder
Looking back … Arizona State looked like world-beaters when the Buffs came to Tempe last October 29th. Nick Hirschman started his first game at quarterback, and was completely overwhelmed. The Sun Devils raced out to a 21-0 first quarter lead, and never looked back, coasting to a 48-14 victory. The win gave Arizona State a 6-2 record and a No. 19 national ranking … and the Sun Devils haven’t won a game since.
Starting with a surprising 29-28 loss to UCLA (which kick-started the Bruins’ season), Arizona State went onto to lose its final five games of the season, including a 31-27 home loss to Arizona (which sealed Dennis Erickson’s fate), and a 56-24 thumping by No. 7 Boise State in the MAACO Bowl. Former Pitt coach Todd Graham has been brought in to restore order.
Personnel … The biggest blow to the Sun Devils’ chances of a quick resurrection from a 6-7 season and a five game losing streak came when three-year starter at quarterback, Brock Osweiler, announced for the NFL draft. Neither sophomore Mike Bercovici or red-shirt freshman Michael Eubank have played in a college game, leaving prognosticators to see the 2012 Sun Devils as a running team. Senior running back Cameron Marshall had 1,050 yards rushing last season, and there are three or four talented backs to complement him. The wide receiver corps and the offensive line are not as well stocked. Three of the four top wide receivers, and three starters along the offensive line, need to be replaced. How well these positions are filled will go a long way towards determining the Sun Devils’ fate this fall.
The defense will receive a lift when (not if) defensive end Junior Onyeali “indefinite suspension”, imposed after he got into an argument with coaches last December, is removed. With Onyeali back, the defensive line will be a strength, which is a good thing, because the Sun Devils must replace all three starters at linebacker. In the secondary, Arizona State returns quality starting cornerbacks, but must replace both of its starting safeties.
Statistics … Offensively last season, Arizona State was very good, ranking 10th nationally in passing. Unfortunately for the Sun Devils, both Brock Osweiller and is 1,400-yard receiver, Gerell Robinson, are now both Denver Broncos. For Arizona State to be competitive this fall, the running game, which was 85th in the nation last year, will need to take a big step forward. On defense, Arizona State gave up 273 yards passing per game last fall (108th nationally), and loses five of the seven starters in the back seven. Whether it is a blessing or a curse for the defense to be starting over with new personnel this fall remains to be seen.
Preseason Prediction … Last season, Arizona State upset No. 21 Missouri at home, 37-30 in overtime, before falling on the road against an Illinois team which would go on to lose its final six regular season games. The venues will be reversed this fall, with a likely reversal of outcomes (after a season-opening victory over Northern Arizona). Arizona State’s first two Pac-12 games are at home against Utah, and on the road against Cal. Arizona State won on the road against the Utes, then fell at home against the Bears. Again, a reversal of fortune this fall might be expected.
So does that mean that Arizona State, which humbled Colorado in Tempe, won’t be a match for the Buffs in a Thursday night ESPN affair in Boulder? Possibly. My gut tells me that Colorado will split against UCLA and Arizona State. If the Buffs can beat the Bruins, somehow they will fall the Sun Devils. Conversely, if Colorado can’t handle UCLA, the Buffs will rise to the occasion on national television against the Sun Devils. Both teams beat up on the Buffs last season, but both teams have new coaches, and plenty of question marks after losing eight and seven games, respectively, last season.
I picked UCLA to win a close one against Colorado, so that must mean that the Buffs take care of business against the Sun Devils, and finish the first half of the season with a 3-3 record. Colorado 28, Arizona State 21.
Perhaps this section should be posted under “Not for the faint of heart”. After opening with six games against teams coming off of losing seasons in 2011, the Buffs’ third quarter of the 2012 season is a “murderer’s row”, with road games against USC and Oregon followed by a home game against Stanford.
How will the Buffs fare?
How do you think …..
USC – October 20th - at Los Angeles
Looking back … It wasn’t all glamour a year ago in Los Angeles. The Trojans were coming off of an eight-win season, and were facing a second straight January sitting home without bowl eligibility. A ten-win season later, and USC is once again talking national championship. A surprising loss to Arizona State in September and an epic, three-overtime loss to Stanford were all that kept USC from a top five finish nationally. After losing to Stanford, the Trojans finished the season with a four-game winning streak, starting with a 42-17 victory in Boulder, in which the Trojans toyed with the Buffs, then capped with a 50-0 drubbing of cross-town rival UCLA.
Personnel … USC’s prospects for a national championship were greatly enhanced when quarterback Matt Barkley announced that he was returning for his senior season. Barkley is a legitimate Heisman trophy candidate after posting some gaudy numbers – 3,528 yards passing, 39 touchdowns, only seven interceptions – in 2011. And everything is in place for similar numbers this year. Barkley has not one, but two Biletnikoff Award candidates to throw to, Robert Woods (1,292 yards, 15 touchdowns) and Marqise Lee (1,143 yards, 11 touchdowns). At tailback is underrated (if that’s possible at USC) Curtis McNeal, who rushed for 1,005 yards last season. To make matters worse for Trojan opponents, the offensive line has four returning starters.
The defense is not quite as spectacular as the offense, but there is plenty of talent. The defensive line loses three starters, but the linebackers – who all started as freshmen – are all back. Senior safety T.J. McDonald is a Thorpe Award candidate, and there is plenty of talented depth in the defensive backfield.
Statistics … USC was ranked 16th nationally in scoring offense in 2011, posting over 35 points per game. With the Trojans’ Pac-12 schedule – non-conference games include Syracuse and Hawai’i, with only four games outside of the state of California – look for similar numbers this year. The Trojans averaged 456 yards of total offense in their 10-2 run, but did give up 375 yards per game. The only negative statistic from last season was the pass defense, where USC was ranked 102nd nationally in pass yards allowed … although even that number can be fairly easily dismissed. The Trojans were ranked 18th in the nation in rushing defense, forcing teams to throw the ball. That, and the fact that USC was usually ahead by a good margin for most of their games …
Preseason Prediction … Much will be known about the Trojans by the time Colorado hits the Coliseum on October 20th. USC takes to the road to take on Andrew Luck-less Stanford on September 15th, and also faces contenders (or pretenders) Utah and Washington on the road before returning home to face the Buffs. In fact, the Colorado game is the only October home game for USC, as the Trojans must head on the road again to face Arizona the week after the CU game. The Buffs will have had an extra two days to prepare, coming off of a Thursday night game against Arizona State, but that will not make any appreciable difference. This could be an ugly game. Buff fans are left to hope it is as only as bad as last year … USC 42, Colorado 17.
Oregon – October 27th - at Eugene
Looking back … In the first century-plus of football at Oregon, the Ducks posted ten wins in a season exactly … zero times. Oregon first broke through with a ten win season in 2000, and now, in the Nike era, if the Ducks post ten wins in a given year, it is considered a disappointment. Back-to-back ten win seasons in 2008 and 2009 were followed by back-to-back 12 win seasons in 2010 and 2011 … and there is little reason to expect that the Ducks won’t post double digits in 2012. Oregon’s only Pac-12 loss last season was a 38-35 setback at home against USC, with the Ducks recovering to win the inaugural Pac-12 title game at home against a hapless UCLA team. Oregon then capped the 2011 season with a Rose Bowl victory (the first win in January in Pasadena since 1915) against Wisconsin, 45-38.
Personnel … Last January, Oregon head coach Chip Kelly had gone as far as assembling a staff for his move to the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and was discussing the terms of his buyout at Oregon before getting cold feet and staying in Eugene. While the Ducks did retain Kelly, they did lose all-time leading rusher LaMichael James and quarterback Darron Thomas. Who will replace Thomas at quarterback remains a mystery, with Bryan Bennett and Marcus Mariota competing for the coveted position. Whoever takes over at quarterback will be handing off to stars Kenyon Barner and De’Anthony Thomas. The wide receivers are adequate, but are not a problem as Oregon routinely ranks in the top five in the nation in rushing. The offensive line must replace three starters, but Oregon has been recruiting star replacements to fill the voids.
As good as the Oregon offense is – and will be – it is the defense which will shine more brightly in 2012. The defense was good last year (the Ducks ranked 5th in the conference in each of the major categories: pass defense; rush defense; total defense; and scoring defense), and should be better this year. Oregon had to play freshmen at defensive back late last year, and paid for it against USC, but those talented freshmen are now seasoned sophomores.
Statistics … It’s hard to find negative numbers when looking at Oregon. True, the Ducks were ranked 10th in the Pac-12 (and 68th nationally) in pass offense, but who needs to pass when you can run the ball so effectively? Oregon was ranked in the top five nationally in rushing offense, total offense, and scoring offense, and while the loss of both James and Thomas will cut into those numbers to a degree, the dropoff will be hardly noticeable on the stats sheet. This is especially true when you consider that, instead of LSU in non-conference play, Oregon is taking on Arkansas State. The Ducks follow up the game against the Red Wolves with home games against Fresno State and Tennessee Tech (the Golden Eagles, for those of you scoring at home).
Preseason Prediction … Other than a half-hour flight over to Seattle (to face Washington State in the Seattle Seahawks’ home stadium), the Ducks do not have to take wing until mid-October. Five of Oregon’s first six games are at home (compare Colorado, which played five of its first seven games last season away from Folsom Field … it’s good to be the king). Oregon’s first true road game of the season comes the week before the Buffs travel to Eugene, when the Ducks travel to take on Arizona State. That game will be on a Thursday night, giving Oregon two extra days to prepare for the Buffs … which the Ducks will probably use to prepare for the Pac-12 Game-of-the-Year the following week, when Oregon travels to Los Angeles to play USC. The Buffs only hope against Oregon is if the Ducks play uninspired, vanilla offense, hoping not to get anyone hurt before the USC game. Even with that, it won’t be pretty … Oregon 49, Colorado 10.
Stanford – November 3rd – Boulder
Looking back … Last season, the question the college football world asked of Stanford was: Can the Cardinal be nationally competitive without Jim Harbaugh as its head coach? This season, the question is: Can Stanford be nationally competitive without Andrew Luck at quarterback? Last season, new head coach David Shaw more than answered the bell last season stepping in for Jim Harbaugh, leading the Cardinal to an 11-2 overall record. This season, will Brett Nottingham or Josh Nunes ably fill in for Andrew Luck? Stanford finished last season with only two blemishes, falling only to Oregon in Pac-12 play, and in overtime to Oklahoma State in the Fiesta Bowl. Good things … but not great things, are expected of Stanford this fall.
Personnel … The national focus on Stanford this off-season has been the departure of overall No. 1 NFL pick Andrew Luck. Brett Nottingham and Josh Nunes have taken turns acting as Luck’s backup the past two seasons, and one will earn the job. “I feel extremely comfortable with both of these guys right now,” said David Shaw this spring. While Luck’s replacement will receive most of the headlines, the Cardinal has other holes to fill. Three top receivers, including All-American tight end Coby Fleener, need to be replaced. Running back Stepfan Taylor, along with his 1,330 yards and ten touchdowns, return, but the Cardinal must replace not one, but two All-Americans along the offensive line.
The defense will be led by what may very well be the best linebacker unit in the nation. When the Butkus Award nominees were released, the Pac-12 had seven candidates on the list (including CU’s Doug Rippy). Stanford had not one, not two, but three Butkus Award nominees. Of the candidates, Shane Skov, missed all but three games last fall with a knee injury, and was arrested for DUI in February (but look for him on the field against Colorado come October). If there is an issue with the Stanford defense, it is with the secondary. Last season, Stanford was ranked 95th in the nation in pass defense, and only one starter returns.
Statistics … Stanford has been ranked in the AP Top Ten for a school record 22 consecutive weeks (CU’s school record is 17 consecutive weeks, in 1994). That streak will likely come to an end when the AP preseason poll comes out in mid-August. It would be a mistake, though, to overlook the Cardinal. Stanford has won 31 games over the past three seasons, and it hasn’t all been by Luck. Will Stanford be ranked 7th in the nation in scoring offense and 8th in total offense, as the Cardinal was last season? Probably not. Will the Cardinal again finish 3rd in the nation in rushing defense? Unlikely. But Stanford remains talented, and deep in most positions.
Preseason Prediction … Whoever turns out to be the new quarterback for the Cardinal will get a chance to ease into the job, as Stanford opens the season against San Jose State and Duke, with both games at home. The reality check comes in weeks three and four, with a home game against top-ranked USC and a tough road game to Seattle to face Washington. The Cardinal will likely be underdogs in both games. After that tough game, things lighten up. Other than a mid-October trip to Notre Dame, Stanford faces a string of very winnable games – home to Arizona, Washington State, and Oregon State; on the road against Cal and Colorado. The Colorado game in Boulder is on November 3rd, sandwiched between home games against the Cougars and the Beavers. The Stanford game represents the best chance in the third quarter of the 2012 season for Colorado to pull of an upset. If its cold in Boulder in November, the Buffs could catch the Cardinal. But the Buffs will be coming off of two confidence-crushing routs in the hands of USC and Oregon. Will there be enough in the tank for an upset? It will be close, but … Stanford 30, Colorado 24.
An incredibly tough gauntlet of USC, Oregon, and Stanford may well leave Colorado with a 3-6 record come early November. In 2010, under the leadership of interim head coach Brian Cabral, the Buffs finished with two wins in the last three games. In 2011, under the leadership of new head coach Jon Embree, the Buffs rallied with two wins in the last three games. Can the Buffs rally in 2012 as well?
Colorado coaches, players, and fans will likely be more than happy to move into the fourth quarter of the season after facing USC, Oregon, and Stanford in the third quarter. The final three games of the 2012 regular season offers opportunities, including re-matches with two of the three teams Colorado defeated last season.
If the CU depth chart hasn’t been decimated beyond repair by the time these November games roll around, Buff fans may still be hoping for a winning season and a bowl bid. How will games against Arizona, Washington and Utah play out?
Let’s take a look …
Arizona – November 10th – at Tucson
Looking back … In 2011, Arizona stumbled out of the gate, carrying over a five-game losing streak to end the 2010 season (from a team which had begun the 2010 season 7-1). Other than a win over Northern Arizona from the Big Sky Conference, the losing streak to FBS teams reached ten games by mid-season 2011, leading to the firing of head coach Mike Stoops. The Wildcats responded to the ouster with a 48-12 stunner over Pac-12 South front-runner (at the time) UCLA. Three straight losses, however, including a 48-29 loss to Colorado in Boulder, ended any chance at a run to a bowl game. Some consolation was found in a 31-27 upset win over Arizona State in Tempe, but the 4-8, 2-7 season was not what Arizona fans had expected from a team which had gone bowling the previous three seasons.
To right the ship, former West Virginia/Michigan coach Rich Rodriguez was brought in to make Arizona relevant. “People say that I’m putting the band back together,” said Rodriguez, “and I guess that’s a good way to put it. We’re going to try and do at Arizona what we did at West Virginia.”
Personnel … Gone is quarterback Nick Foles, who was the first Wildcat to pass for over 10,000 yards in his career (CU’s career leader, Joel Klatt, posted 7,375 yards in his four years in Boulder). His replacement is a fifth-year senior, Matt Scott, who has five career starts, but hasn’t played since 2010. As Arizona switches from a pass-happy offense (3rd in the nation last season) to a run-oriented offense, good running backs will be the key. Several candidates exist, but they are, by design, untested (Arizona ranked 114th in the nation in rushing in 2011). The backs will be behind a slew of returning starters along the offensive line … but that is because all five were new last season.
On defense, Arizona will go with a 3-3-5 set … but Rodriguez may petition the league to play a 4-4-5. The Wildcats were awful on defense in 2011, and there is no immediate reason to believe that they will be much better in 2011. The defensive line is inexperienced and thin, and the linebackers are even worse. Arizona had hoped that Akron transfer Brian Wagner would help fill a void at linebacker, but Wagner decided after spring ball that he was not interested in playing football any longer. The Arizona secondary lost its best player, Adam Hall, to a knee injury in spring practices, leaving the unit to be “led” by a sophomore, nickel back Tra’Mayne Bondurant, who had 45 tackles as a true freshman.
Statistics … Colorado and Arizona both finished with 2-7 league records in 2011, and the statistics indicate that this was not a fluke. Other than the prolific passing game (now abandoned), Arizona did not have much by way of impressive numbers. On defense, it’s a horror story (much like that in Boulder). The Wildcats were 107th in scoring defense last year; 119th in passing defense; and 110th in total defense.
One stat to keep tucked away for later use – Rich Rodriguez is a combined 9-32-1 in his first season at a school (2-8 at Salem College; 1-7-1 at Glenville State; 3-8 at West Virginia; and 3-9 at Michigan). Rich Rodriguez may turn out to be a home run hire for Arizona, but history suggests 2012 won’t be a shining moment.
Preseason Prediction … Arizona plays eight home games in 2012 – eight!. The Wildcats should be favored in perhaps six of those, so a bowl bid is not out of the question. By the time Colorado comes to Tucson, though, in mid-November, Arizona will have already faced Oklahoma State, Oregon, Stanford and USC … all likely losses. Possible losses to Oregon State and UCLA will perhaps make the Colorado game – with games at Utah and at home to Arizona State remaining for the Wildcats - a make-or-break game. Colorado might be in a similar position – win or stay home for the holidays. Call it a hunch. Call it Rich Rodriguez hoping his one game-tested quarterback can stay healthy all season. Call it a memory of CU’s 48-29 victory last fall. Call it the Buffs’ 13-1 all-time record against Arizona … Colorado 27, Arizona 20.
Washington – November 17th - Boulder
Looking back … The last time we saw the Washington Huskies, the purple were leaving the playing field black-and-blue, having fallen to the Baylor Bears in the Alamo Bowl by a basketball score of 67-56. Other than a 38-21 victory over Washington State in the Apple Cup in the regular season finale, Washington finished the 2011 season with three November losses, including a surprising 38-21 (yes, the same score as the WSU game) loss to Oregon State. In fact, after a 52-24 mauling of Colorado in Seattle, the 5-1 Huskies were nationally ranked. Then … the bottom fell out. Washington five of its final seven games, with all five losses coming by double digits, and including maulings by Stanford (65-21) and USC (40–17). Still, the Huskies are the darlings of several preseason publications, some placing Washington in their top 25 in the national rankings. We’ll see …
Personnel … If Washington is to become a mainstay in the national polls, it will be on the back of quarterback Keith Price. Last season, Price set a school record with 33 touchdown passes (the school record at Colorado belongs to Koy Detmer, who had 22 touchdown passes in 1996). Price is back, but the Husky running back who rushed for 4,049 yards in his career, Chris Polk, unexpectedly bolted for the NFL. The Huskies also lost two wide receivers who finished amongst the top ten in school history, but there are more dependable receivers coming back than there are running backs. The offensive line is a strength, even with the loss of Colin Porter, who had to give up football this spring due to degenerative arthritis in both shoulders. If Washington can improve on its No. 63 national ranking in rushing this fall, the Huskies could prove the preseason sages correct.
If Washington is going to fail to become a mainstay in the national polls, it will be the fault of the defense. New defensive coordinator Justin Wilcox will try and fix a defense which ranked 11th in the Pac-12 in passing defense, total defense and scoring defense (and only 9th in rushing defense). Athlon, which put the Huskies into its top 25, had this to say about the Washington linebackers’ play last season: “They were slow. They didn’t react well. They got beat a lot”, concluding, “There still isn’t a guy who can run sideline to sideline and make opposing offenses feel squeamish”. The secondary will be better, but it can’t be worse … in the second half of 2011, Washington gave up 31 points or more in six of seven games (after giving up 24 points to hapless Colorado).
Statistics … Keith Price is a talent, but he will have to make new friends at the skill positions. The top returning rusher ran for 260 yards last season; the top receiver had 611 yards. Colorado, by comparison, has a returning rusher who posted 297 yards; with the top receiver coming back with 555 yards. Similar numbers, but nothing is expected of the Buffs, while much is expected of the Huskies. On defense, being ranked 106th or worse in passing, total, and scoring defense is not what you would expect of a nationally ranked team.
Preseason Prediction … In 2008, Washington won exactly zero games. After a five-win season in 2009, the Huskies have posted seven wins in each of the past two seasons. This fall’s schedule does not set up well for immediate and obvious improvement. A trip to LSU is a likely loss, sandwiched between two likely home victories over San Diego State and Portland State. Then, it gets ugly, as Washington must run the same gauntlet of Stanford, Oregon, and USC which Colorado will run. Last season, the Huskies gave up a total of 129 points to those three teams … 43 per game. As a result, a 2-4 start for Washington is not out of the question. Then, in November, Washington finishes with three games out of four on the road, including the November 17th trip to Boulder. A snowy afternoon in Folsom would help, but Washington has played in snow bowls against Washington State before, so it will take more than that for a Buff upset. It will be much closer than last year, but … Washington 34, Colorado 24.
Utah – November 23rd – Boulder
Looking back … Utah entered the 2011 season with a big hopes and high expectations. The Utes had posted double digit victory totals in their last three seasons as members of the Mountain West Conference, and were now anxious to prove themselves in a BCS conference. The results were a mixed bag. A close early season loss to USC (23-14, with the Trojans scoring on a blocked field goal attempt on the last play of the game) was followed by Pac-12 losses to Washington, Arizona State, and Cal. An 0-4 start in its new conference was not what Utah had expected or planned on. Four straight conference victories, though, put the Utes in position to claim the first-ever Pac-12 South title. Instead, Colorado ruined the celebration with a 17-14 upset in Salt Lake City in the regular season finale. An 8-5, 4-5 record was good, but not all that the Utes had hoped for when the 2011 opened last September.
Personnel … Former Colorado commit Jordan Wynn should be healthy to open the season at quarterback, which is good news for an offensive unit which struggled for much of the 2011 season. Wynn, when he is behind center, is 13-6 as a starter. The problem has been that the junior quarterback has appeared in only 14 of a possible 26 games over two seasons. If Wynn can stay healthy, it will take some of the heat off of star running back John White, who had 1,519 yards and 15 touchdowns last season. The receivers may prove adequate, but they can’t get much worse, as the Utes finished last in the conference in passing offense (and 99th in the nation) last season. The offensive line will hope that a pair of junior college transfers, Marc Pouvave and Carlos Lozano, will work out this August, and contribute in time to bolster new offensive coordinator Brian Johnson’s new offensive scheme.
As poorly as things went for the Utah offense in 2011, they went equally well for the defense. The Utes were in the top half of the conference in most defensive categories, and were first in the Pac-12 (and 19th in the nation) in scoring defense, giving up just 20 points per game. Chances of success in 2012 were bolstered when defensive lineman Star Lotulelei, named the Pac-12′s top defensive linemen, decided to forego the NFL draft and return for his senior season. Utah lost its top two linebackers, but has adequate depth in that unit, and the secondary returns three starters from the 4th-best unit in the Pac-12 last season.
Statistics … One of the ways that Utah was able to produce the Pac-12′s best scoring defense was by turnovers. The Utes were 1st in the conference, and 14th nationally, in turnover margin in 2011, finishing plus-10 for the season (Colorado was minus-4, 84th in the nation). Otherwise, the statistics bear out a team which needs to keep the score low in order to win. If quarterback Jordan Wynn can pull Utah out of the Pac-12 basement in passing offense and total offense, the Utes will be tough to beat.
Preseason Prediction … By the time Utah comes to Boulder for the regular season finale the Friday after Thanksgiving, both teams will be known quantities. The Utes never leave the state of Utah for non-conference play, hosting Northern Colorado and BYU while “traveling” 82 miles up Interstate 15 to Logan for a date with Utah State. The BYU game will be interesting. The Cougars finished the 2011 with a 10-3 record and nine wins in its last ten games. Still, the Utes embarrassed BYU, 54-10, in Provo last September. Revenge for that whitewash – plus bad feelings stemming from Utah’s announcement this off-season that they will not play BYU every season in the future – should give the Cougars plenty of incentive. Otherwise, Utah has an easy a schedule as the Pac-12 will allow: Utah again misses Oregon and Stanford, and gets USC at home. An upset at home of the Trojans on October 4th could propel Utah to a Pac-12 South title. A loss will likely put the Utes in a race for a second place finish. Utah will likely have already secured a bowl bid by November 23rd, while Colorado will likely be out of the running for a winning campaign. This is much the same scenario as last fall, when the Buffs pulled off its first road win in four seasons. The “rivalry” becomes that much closer to a reality, as Colorado again spoils Utah’s late season plans … Colorado 20, Utah 10.
While Colorado has a chance to post a winning season in 2012, and go to a bowl game for the first time since 2007, it says here – at least in July – that the Buffs will fall short. Colorado has a much easier schedule in 2012 than in 2011. There is not a 13-game test of wills, including seven road games. The non-conference schedule does not include games to Hawai’i and Columbus. Still, Colorado is much too young to expect more than measured improvement this fall.
Factors which will play a role in deciding whether Colorado can post a winning season:
- Who emerges as the starting quarterback in fall camp. The old saying goes: “If you have two quarterbacks, you really have none” is appropriate here. Connor Wood, Nick Hirschman or Jordan Webb needs to step up and take command of the offense, and do it in short order.
- The Buffs must take advantage of its early season schedule. The three non-conference opponents – CSU; Sacramento State; and Fresno State – represent the easiest three games of the schedule. The first three conference games – at Washington State; UCLA; Arizona State – represent the easiest stretch of the Pac-12 calendar. If Colorado hasn’t matched last season’s win total by mid-season this year, three wins may be an optimistic total for 2012.
- Can Tony Jones step as an everyday back? Jones showed flashes last season subbing for Rodney Stewart, but Jones must carry the offense the way Stewart did, as there is very little depth or experience behind him.
- If Paul Richardson does not return at wide receiver, can Colorado find anyone to pose a threat to opposing defenses? At the Pac-12 media days, Buff safety Ray Polk stated that the main difference between the Big 12 and the Pac-12 was that the Buffs’ former opponents normally featured one great wide receiver, while Pac-12 opponents normally featured two or three. Colorado is hoping one will emerge during fall camp.
- Colorado must find a way to splice together a defensive line. The linebackers are solid (if thin), and the secondary is now being stocked with good young talent. The Buffs signed a record nine defensive linemen in February, and a few of those will have to have an immediate impact for Colorado to be competitive.
- Special teams must continue to improve. In 2010, in the last season of the Dan Hawkins’ era, Buff fans cringed whenever special teams took the field. In 2011, under Jon Embree, special teams improved, but there is a long ways to go to get back to respectability. Will Oliver and Darragh O’Neill are both just sophomores, and both were decent last fall. Kick coverages also improved, but kick returns (105th in punt returns; 115th in kickoff returns) remain a major liability.
- Not every new coach can work out. Colorado faces six new head coaches in 2012. While there is always optimism from the fan base when a new coach is hired, history tells us that not every new coach is going to become an instant success. So, while praise is being heaped upon the new coaching staffs in Ft. Collins, Fresno, Pullman, Westwood, Tempe and Tucson, the Buff Nation has to count on some growing pains in those locales. That Colorado faces five new head coaches in its first six games is an opportunity which needs to be exploited.
It says here that Colorado will finish with a 5-7 record in 2012. The Buffs could just as easily finish 4-8 or 6-6, depending on how the season unfolds in Boulder (and elsewhere), with my present inclination being to say 4-8 is more likely than 6-6. One can make the argument that Colorado has the opportunity to be in – and win – each of its first six games. You can also make the argument that Colorado will be fortunate to match last season’s three victories.
Much will depend on finding new stars on offense. Colorado must insert a new quarterback, new running back, and new wide receivers … into an offense which was terrible even with a host of senior starters (109th in the nation in scoring in 2011). The defense and special teams will be more competitive, but frustrations on offense will likely lead the Colorado program to a school record-setting seventh consecutive losing season.