Nowhere to Turn

It’s not like we haven’t seen this before.

In a 56-28 rout by USC, Colorado was out-manned, out-coached, and out-talented by a superior opponent.

We thought the Hawkins years were bad … the loss to Montana State, the 58-0 loss to Missouri, the 54-38 embarrassment at Toledo, the absurd collapse against Kansas.

But that was just the appetizer.

Hawkins was bad; Embree was worse.

The Jon Embree experiment was a colossal failure. It started with the “brick game” loss at Hawai’i, and only went downhill from there. Some of the scores during the Embree era read like misprints: 48-7, 52-24, 45-2, 48-14, 42-17, 45-6, 69-14, 42-14, 51-17, 50-6, 70-14, 48-0, 56-31, 38-3. It was so horrible, it didn’t seem real.

Enter Mike MacIntyre.

No one – absolutely no one – expected a quick fix from Mike MacIntyre and his coaching staff when they were hired in December, 2012. Buff fans understood that there would be growing pains associated with turning the program around. Even though the Buff Nation had already endured a string of losing seasons unprecedented in school history, we were prepared to endure a few more. We understood that playing freshmen against future NFL stars would get ugly at times.

All we asked for was progress.

And in 2013, some progress was made. The average score of a Colorado game went down from an absurd 46.0-to-17.8 in 2012 to a more palatable 38.3-to-25.4 in 2013. The Buffs gave up a touchdown less per game, and scored an average of a touchdown more per game. Giving up 13 points more per game than you are scoring is never anyone’s first choice, but, under the circumstances, it was acceptable.

The Buffs still finished with a 4-8 record, with a 1-8 record in Pac-12 play. Poor, but, compared to where the Buffs had been, it wasn’t a bad place.

The 2014 season was seen as yet another rebuilding year. A bowl trip was a pipe dream, another four win season (without two FCS teams on the schedule to help pad the victory count) would have been another step in the right direction.

After taking a step back in the opener against Colorado State, and after falling behind Massachusetts, 31-20 in the third quarter, the tide seemed to turn. The Buffs came back to defeat the Minutemen – not a great victory, but a victory.

Reality seemed to return to the Buff Nation in the first quarter against No. 16 Arizona State in the home opener. The Buffs fell behind, 17-0, early in the second quarter. Colorado had reverted to being Colorado … same song, different season.

But the Buffs fought back against the Sun Devils, making it a 17-14 game in the second quarter, and finishing within two scores, at 38-24. Again, it was not a great result, but there were signs of progress.

The win against Hawai’i, a game in which the Buff defense did not allow a touchdown, was also a step forward. True, the Buff offense was shutout in the second half, but any win for the program, no matter how ugly, was a welcomed achievement.

The losses to Cal (59-56 in double overtime) and to Oregon State (36-31) were heart-breaking. The Buffs could have – and arguably should have – won both games. Two Pac-12 victories and a 4-2 first half record, and Colorado makes the short list for one of the most improved teams in the nation. Instead, there were two more losses, and a 2-4, 0-3 record at the midway point of the 2014 season.

Still, despite the record, there was reason for optimism. Colorado was at least competitive in all three Pac-12 games, and the offense was clicking, producing new records every weekend. There was “no quit” in the Buffs, which, after the Embree years, was a welcome sign in and of itself.

Then came the USC game, and the Buffs reverted back to the Buffs of old.

Giving up a touchdown in the opening drive of the game (now we know why Coach MacIntyre elects to receive the opening kickoff, rather than deferring) set the tone for the game. Sefo Liufau then managed to complete two passes to USC defenders … before he completed two passes to his teammates. On the one occasion when the defense did force a punt, the special teams gave the ball right back to the Trojans by roughing the kicker. Cody Kessler, a “game-manager” who no one would confuse with a Matt Lienart or Matt Barkley, became a record-setting master of the USC record books. Kessler had four touchdown passes in the first quarter, six by halftime, and seven two minutes into the third quarter. Had he stayed in the game, he could have done much more damage than just becoming the second quarterback in the past three games to throw seven interceptions against the Colorado defense.

So, have the Buffs regressed to Embree levels? Are Colorado fans going to need to prepare themselves for another series of ridiculous routs?

I don’t think so.

Colorado has shown grit under Mike MacIntyre and his coaches. There does remain some semblance of pride and fight in this 2014 team. Progress, though being dispensed with an eye dropper, continues to be made by this team.

But … here’s the problem …

There is nowhere for this team to turn. There is no safe haven of protection for the Buffs to fall back upon.

There are no easy outs in the Pac-12 … except for Colorado.

The Pac-12 South entered this weekend’s games with five teams ranked in the top 26 teams in the nation. UCLA, the nation’s preseason No. 7 team, was the only Pac-12 South team other than Colorado not to be ranked, with the Bruins coming in at No. 26.

And that’s Colorado’s Number One problem.

It’s not facilities. It’s not recruiting. It’s not coaching. It’s not effort.

It’s the reality that Colorado is so far behind its Pac-12 South brethren, that even a fifth place finish in the division is inconceivable.

Colorado could be amongst the top 30 teams in the nation – a claim the Buffs are several years from dreaming about making – and still finish last in the Pac-12 South.

How can Colorado, a team which is probably in the 70-80 range in the national pecking order right now, have any hope of competing when every team it faces in its division is in the top 25?

Back in the Big Eight/12, there were always a few cellar dwellers other teams could rely upon. Even in the darkest days of the early 1980’s, when the Buffs were posting 1-10 seasons, Colorado still did not finish last in the conference – there was always someone (usually Iowa State, Kansas, or Kansas State) Buff fans could rely upon to be worse than the Buffs.

The gap between Colorado and 5th place in the division is not a gap … it’s a very deep and very wide chasm.

And, after the egg the Buffs laid in the Coliseum, it’s hard to see it closing anytime soon.

Who will finish fifth in the Pac-12 South?

– No. 22 USC? The Trojans, despite an ugly loss to Boston College, are 5-2, and are leading the division with a 4-1 conference record.

– No. 17 Arizona State? The defending Pac-12 South champions are 5-1, and already own wins over USC and Stanford.

– No. 16 Arizona? The Wildcats are also 5-1, and have already accomplished the near-impossible – defeat Oregon in back-to-back seasons.

– No. 20 Utah? The Utes were 5-7 last season, and 2-7 in Pac-12 play. They seemed the best option for the Buffs to overcome, but the 5-1 Utes already have banked road wins against UCLA and Oregon State.

– No. 26 UCLA? The only other team in the division with as many as two division losses, UCLA did knock off Arizona State on the road.

As all of the above teams (except for Arizona, which was idle) won this weekend, the Buff Nation this week will deal with the reality that all of the other teams in its division are ranked.

It’s a cold splash of reality when you realize that the team which is 5th in the Pac-12, the team the Buffs are closest to in the standings, was ranked No. 7 in the nation in the preseason polls.

So, the remainder of the season will be played out against mostly ranked teams. The USC game may not be repeated, at least in terms of devastation, but more losses are certainly on the way.

Ready to look forward to 2015 as the turning point?

Take a second look

The 2015 schedule keeps getting more difficult by the week.

The previously perceived soft non-conference schedule: at Hawai’i, UMass, CSU (in Denver) and Nicholls State, is not shaping up to a quick run to a 4-0 record.

– Hawai’i, a team which Colorado has yet to defeat on the islands (and you do remember the “brick game“, don’t you?) has already posted twice as many wins as it did in all of 2013. Good news/bad news … If Hawai’i head coach Norm Chow doesn’t show continued improvement the remainder of this season, he will likely be fired. This would mean Colorado would open the 2015 season against a new coaching staff, and the unknowns which come with being the first team up against a team playing with renewed enthusiasm.

– Massachusetts has also already doubled its win total of 2013, and is getting better by the week. The Minutemen almost beat Vanderbilt on the road in week two, and have been posting huge passing numbers. Quarterback Blake Frohnapel (who will be eligible to play against the Buffs in 2015) is 5th in the nation in passing, including an absurd 589 yards passing in a game against Bowling Green.

– Colorado State is already bowl-eligible, at 6-1, has already defeated Colorado, Boston College, and last year’s Mountain Division winner, Utah State. And then there is this: the 16-13 win against Utah State, coming on a last-second field goal, was played before the Rams’ first sellout crowd since 2004.

– Nicholls State. Ah, thank God for Nicholls State. The Colonels are holding up their end of the bargain, going 0-8 so far this season, including Saturday’s 63-21 loss to … Lamar.

So … non-conference schedule, 2015: One gimmie; three tougher than expected games.

As far as the Pac-12 slate in 2015, the schedule does Colorado no favors. The Buffs have five road games and only four home games in conference play, and trade Cal and Washington for Stanford and Washington State. Even if the Buffs were to come up with a 4-0 or 3-1 non-conference record, where do you find three or four wins (which will be necessary for bowl-eligibility with a 13-game schedule) amongst the following opponents:

– Home: Oregon; Arizona; Stanford; USC

– Away: Arizona State; Oregon State; UCLA; Washington State; Utah.

For Colorado to climb up, the Buffs need some other team – or teams – to take a step back. As it stands right now, the Pac-12 may have 10 bowl-eligible teams this year, with only Washington State and Colorado failing to get to six wins (and the Cougs have a win over Utah to their credit, as well as close losses to Oregon and Cal).

There are no weakening teams. Everyone seems to be getting stronger, and, while Colorado is improving, the Buffs continues to lag far behind.

Better, but still last.

The Buffs have nowhere to turn.

And, if Saturday’s effort against USC is any indication, it will still be some time before that reality changes.



6 Replies to “Nowhere to Turn”

  1. Stuart, your point is well taken. However, on the plus side, once we finally become the “5th best team”, we have essentially reached parity with the other teams. The gap between 1st and 5th is negligible in today’s PAC12 South.

  2. Ditto to what Denver and AZ expressed: On the cusp of good things to come. Sure, they lost some tough ones, but the issues are with some really crappy officiating that takes away plays that could be difference makers. This week it was the “roughing the kicker” call on a player who was being blocked into the punter. The Buffs had just forced a 3-and-out and had a mindset on “O” that they were pushing U$C around a bit, but that penalty killed their momentum and resurrected U$C’s. Gotta remember college ball is an emotional game and old Mo is important. The competitiveness is there the skill is there, unfortunately we have wait for the maturity and natural improvements in strength and wisdom that come only from age (although I still wonder about what Sefo is seeing when he throws those rather foolish INTs).

  3. Yes, this year CU will be the bottom of the PAC-12 south. That doesn’t mean next year the teams will be the same. Some teams are senior laden. They won’t have those players back. We’re still playing the varsity with our Fresh/soph JV team. I believe that CU will be a bowl team next year, no doubt.

  4. Colorado obviously needs better players. Hopefully, after Mac has four full recruiting classes, he will have a competitive PAC-12 team. Right now, against teams like USC, it is boys playing against grown men.

    Looking beyond the PAC-12, I marvel at how Kansas State, hardly a magnet for “star” players, can come up with a decent team year after year. Half their players appear to be walk-ons or Jr. College transfers.

    I also wonder why CU doesn’t recruit in Florida. Marshall, another school that often has decent teams, has about 45 players from Florida on this year’s team. If guys will leave Florida to go to West Virginia, they certainly would come to Boulder.

  5. Too gloomy a write up. CSU is not that goods a team, they are playing weaker teams and so they win and seem confident. CU will take them out next year, same with Mass. Look how few good players we lose, and how many more we get back with experience and weight under their belts. The O line losses will be covered, same for TE, 1 tailback, and one D-line starter. Also, Spruce will be gone most likely, but there are capable players learning the system and waiting to step up in every case. The replacements will be a year stronger and better understand the system next year.

  6. Stuart, having lived at high and low levels with the Buffs for these many years I feel that this program has already bottomed out. It seems today that although the picture you paint does look bleak these things can turn around quicker. As we have all seen the parade of marginal coaches parade through here for the last 7 years (and even the last 2 GB teams were paper tigers) I feel that this HC and staff know what needs to be done and are more then able to go forward with the needed changes. It also looks like the Administration is finally seeing the light…I just hope they aren’t fair-weather administrators. The new facilities will also help in the recruitment even if the wins are not there yet.

    I feel that we have already seen the worst as I see more talent on this team then other past rebuilding teams. Although young it will get better and be able to play with more confidence rather that “uh oh factor” of “uh oh we just made a mistake, here we go again into the tank.” Now try to over compensate and just make more mistakes.

    Eddie Crowder needed a few bleak years, to bring the Buffs back to respectability, (although he never did well agains NU) then after the Fairbanks debacle Mac needed almost 5 years. This last dry spell though has probably been the worst, at least for me. If the pressure from the social media which wasn’t in effect during the Crowder, and McCartney rebuilding years doesn’t eat up this current staff I think CU will not become what you rhetorically described.

    This has probably been the worst of the bottom feeding stretches that CU has endured since the early 60’s but there is certainly a way out and a couple of wins early next year over teams they should beat (Hey there CSU) and then some early conference successes will hopefully add confirmation of what they are working so hard at right now. Will they go out to the LA and beat USC in two years, probably not but will they win a shoot out over Cal, yes they can, can the OSUs and others like that in two years? Without a doubt if they continue to develop players like the young ones they now have and recruit a few as Mac II described the USC “real dudes,” it will be more fun to be in Boulder on a fall afternoon then fishing the Madison or the Yellowstone.

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