Countdown to the Fall – No. 9 – Colorado State

Note … This is the fourth in a series of previews for the 2014 season, ranking CU’s opponents from the easiest to most difficult.

Previous posts … No. 12 Massachusetts; No. 11 Hawai’i; and No. 10 California.


With three minutes to play in the 2013 New Mexico Bowl, Colorado State was down, 45-30, to Washington State, and was headed for its fifth-straight non-winning season. Instead, the Cougars inexplicably fumbled the ball away – twice – to the Rams, allowing Colorado State to come away with a 48-45 victory and an 8-6 final record.

Buoyed by the winning season and a 2014 schedule which includes games against UC-Davis (of the Big Sky Conference), Tulsa (No. 102 team in the nation, according to Athlon), Nevada (No. 82), Wyoming (No. 94), San Jose State (No. 103), Hawai’i, (No. 118), New Mexico (No. 106), and Air Force (No. 105), there is plenty of reason for optimism in Ft. Collins. Already playing in a watered-down Mountain West Conference, the Rams somehow avoid the top two teams from the West Division – San Diego State and Fresno State – in one of the easiest schedules to be found anywhere.

But even the joy of winning eight games and going bowling for the first time since 2008 was tempered by the 41-27 loss to Colorado in the season opener. With little chance of winning a conference title this fall, the best Ram fans can hope for in 2014 is another minor bowl bid earned by cruising through a weak conference … and the bragging rights which would come by beating big brother Colorado on August 29th.

2013 Season

After falling to Colorado to open the 2013 campaign, Colorado State travelled to Tulsa and came away with another disappointing setback, losing 30-27 to the Golden Hurricanes. A win over Cal Poly got the Rams in the winning column, but a “better-than-expected” 31-6 loss to No. 1 Alabama still left Colorado State with a 1-3 record overall. The Rams were then healed by a 59-42 win over hapless UTEP (2-10 in 2013) to finish the non-conference slate with a 2-3 record and an uphill climb to a bowl bid.

Fortunately, the Mountain West Conference allowed plenty of opportunities to improve. After falling to Mike MacIntyre’s old team, San Jose State, the Rams won four of their next five games, taking down “powerful: Wyoming (5-7 in 2013), Hawai’i (1-11), Nevada (4-8), and New Mexico (3-9). A loss to Mountain Division winner Utah State left the Rams with a 6-6 record, needing a win to secure a bowl bid. Fortunately, Air Force was the final game on the regular season slate. With a bowl bid in the offing, and an in-state rival on hand for the beating, the Rams – before a grand total of 15,546 rowdy Ram fans (insert joke about 40,000-seat stadium here) – easily defeated the listless Falcons to earn their bowl bid against Washington State.

In all, Colorado State somehow found its way to an eight win season … without defeating a single team which ended the year with a winning record.


Against nominal competition in 2013, the Colorado State offense was able to crank up some impressive numbers. Running back Kapri Bibbs set school records with his 1,741 rushing yards and 31 touchdowns last season, but Bibbs opted to go to the NFL (as an undrafted free agent, as it turned out) rather than return for his junior and senior seasons. Without Bibbs, along with the departure of Chris Nwoke (graduation) and Donnell Alexander (transfer), the Rams do not return a single running back with over 100 collegiate career rushing yards.

Which puts even more pressure upon CSU’s quarterback, senior Garrett Grayson. Last fall, Grayson set school records in passing yards (3,696) and touchdowns (23), while leading the Rams to 470.8 yards of total offense per game. Grayson’s favorite target from last year, sophomore Rashard Higgins (68 catches for 837 yards and six touchdowns) returns, along with four other receivers who had at least 20 catches in 2013. The Rams lost quality tight end Crockett Gilmore, replaced by senior Kivon Cartwright, who had 27 catches for 462 yards and six touchdowns as a backup.

The real issue on offense for Jim McElwain as he opens his third season in Ft. Collins is the offensive line. Four of the five starters last fall were seniors, including center Weston Richburg, who was taken in the second round of the NFL draft by the New York Giants. How well – and how quickly – the new offensive line comes together will be a large factor in the Rams’ success this season.

So, for the Buffs and other upcoming Colorado State opponents, the task on defense is straight-forward – contain the passing attack and get to the quarterback. With the Rams not having a running back of note, and having to rebuild its offensive line, this should be a goal more easily accomplished than last year.


Colorado and Colorado State have similar issues on defense. Both teams have issues on the defensive line, and both have plenty of returning starters in the defensive backfield … but starters who have not enjoyed much success as a unit.

The Rams play a 3-4 defense, and all three of last season’s starters along the front are gone.  The Rams came out of the spring with 11 defensive tackles, but no clear stars. “Are we going to have a dominant superstar there?”, McElwain asked rhetorically after the conclusion of spring practices. “No, I don’t think so. But we are going to get guys breathers so they can play hard every down”.

The linebackers will be good, even with the loss of Mountain West Defensive Player-of-the-Year Shaquil Barrett. Both of last season’s leading tacklers, Max Morgan (134 tackles) and Aaron Davis (120), return. Cory James and his eight sacks from last season also returns.

The Colorado State secondary returns in tact, which, like for Colorado, may or may not be a good thing. Last season, Colorado State ranked 123rd in the nation in touchdown passes allowed, with 33 (CU gave up 24), while surrendering 275.7 passing yards per game (CU gave up 259.5).


Not much to be said here, as the August 29th matchup in Denver will be the season-opener for both teams. Once again, as is almost always the case, Colorado State has all of fall practice to gear up for their “Super Bowl”, allowing the Rams to put in trick plays and new schemes which the Colorado coaching staff will not have seen (the Buffs get a break from this madness in 2015, when CU opens at Hawai’i).

After facing each other, both Colorado and Colorado State take to the road, with the Buffs heading to Boston to take on UMass, while the Rams must prepare for their conference opener against one of the Mountain West Division favorites, Boise State. So, if there is any advantage here in the game two scheduling, it falls to Colorado.


In Mike MacIntyre’s debut as head coach at Colorado last September, the Buffs opened up 10-0 and 20-10 leads on the Rams before Colorado State came back to take a 24-23 lead early in the fourth quarter. Rather than falter, however, the Buffs responded to the pressure, with a 52-yard field goal by Will Oliver, a fumble return for a touchdown by Greg Henderson, and a 75-yard touchdown reception by Paul Richardson. The 41-27 victory was cathartic for the Buffs and their fans, with the two-touchdown win one of the highlights of the season.

Entering the stadium on August 29th, however, will be two teams – one coming off of an eight loss season and one coming off of an eight win season. Those numbers would seemingly favor the Rams, but the odds-makers first posted the 2014 Rocky Mountain Showdown as a “pick-’em” game, with CU being as much as a four-point favorite in the latest betting lines.

And there is plenty of reason to believe that assessment. The issues for the Buffs in the opener are straight-forward: Can Colorado exploit the Rams’ patchwork defensive line, and generate consistent success with their offense? Can the Colorado defense punch through the newly reformed CSU offensive line, creating enough havoc to prevent Garrett Grayson from being successful through the air?

The CU/CSU game is always emotional, never more so than when the Ram fans feel they are / should be the favorites. It will be a tough game, but if Colorado has any hopes of matching or beating the four-win total of 2013, this game has to be a “W”.




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