Preseason – 1997

Unlike 1996, when two-time defending national champion Nebraska was the undisputed choice for the No. 1 team in the nation, there was little consensus as to who would finish as the No. 1 team at teh conclusion of the 1997 season.

Florida was given by some an excellent chance at repeating, but there were also those who found merit in the chances of others.  Penn State, Washington, Tennessee, Florida State, Nebraska, North Carolina, and yes, even Colorado, received votes for No. 1 in the Associated Press preseason poll.

Colorado began the 1997 season ranked where they left off in 1996 – in at No. 8.  Penn State was given the early nod, with Florida a close second.  In the coaches’ poll (now the USA Today/ESPN poll), Florida and Penn State were reversed, with Florida given top billing (with CU coming in at No. 7).

Out in Boulder, the buzz was about The Sporting News.  One of the more respected national publications, The Sporting News tabbed Colorado as the preseason #1 team in the nation.  While the preseason magazine had Peyton Manning of Tennessee on the cover, when the regular weekly preseason edition came out, it was John Hessler who graced the front page, along with the headline:  “Colorado No. 1”.

In Bozeman, Montana, the cover was quickly cut out and framed.

I just couldn’t bring myself to put the cover on the wall, however.  Call it superstition.  Call it fear of jinxing the future.  It just seemed prudent not to boast of that which had not yet been accomplished.

Peering into the 1997 crystal ball, the possibilities were there.  Nebraska had lost eight starters from their defense to graduation (ok – end of their eligibility would be closer to the truth), and the Cornhuskers would have to travel to Boulder for the season finale.  For the Buffs, tough road games loomed at Michigan and Texas, but both contests seemed to be games that, if the Buffs lost only one game, were acceptable losses in quest of the national championship.  Michigan was non-conference and early in the season, while Texas, the preseason favorite to win the southern division of the Big 12, could be beaten in a re-match in the Big 12 Championship game.

The elements were in place.  Super-sub John Hessler was now the starter at quarterback.  The receiving corps was deep, and coach Rick Neuheisel spent the off-season tinkering with improvements in the running attack.  The Buffs were also solid on both sides of the line, and the secondary seemed ready to step up.

Still, there were the nagging questions.  Would the running game be able to improve without the presence of guard and first round draft pick Chris Naeole (the No. 10 selection overall in the 1997 NFL draft)?  Could Phil Savoy make fans forget first round NFL picks Charles Johnson, Michael Westbrook, and Rae Carruth?  Who would be the replacement for departed Butkus Award winner Matt Russell? and Would Ryan Black handle the role of field general at safety that had been so ably manned by Steve Rosga?

The Buffs had finished 10-2 in both of Rick Neuheisel’s first two seasons.  A third consecutive ten-win season was certainly in the offing.  There was also the opportunity for so much more….

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