Colorado vs. Colorado State – A Preview

Compiling the preview for the Rocky Mountain Showdown was supposed to be easier this year.

The Colorado game against Colorado State is always a crapshoot for prognosticators, especially when it is the season opener.

The first game of the season is always filled with unknowns, but when you make the first game of the season a rivalry game … all bets are off.

This year, though, for the first time since 2011 (and only the fourth time in the past twenty years), the Colorado Buffaloes and the Colorado State Rams will face one another after the first game of the season. Both teams come into the game with two games under their belts, both teams sporting 1-1 records.

So, with two full games to review and critique, picking the result should be that much easier.

Except that it’s not.

Which Buff team will show up? The team which stunk it up against Hawai’i? Or the team which dominated UMass?

Which Ram team will show up? The team which coasted over Savannah State? Or the team which struggled on offense against Minnesota?

The only certainty about the 2015 Rocky Mountain Showdown (5:00 p.m., MT, Saturday, CBS Sports Network) … that the team which loses will have 12 months to rue the result.

 

T – Talent

CSU quarterback Nick Stevens was the Mountain West Conference Offensive Player-of-the-Week in his first career start. Against Savannah State, Steven threw for 289 yards and five touchdowns as the Rams coasted to a 65-13 win.

A week later, however, Stevens was on the bench in the second half as backup quarterback Coleman Key led a Ram comeback against Minnesota. Key led the CSU offense to a lead in the third quarter, then a game-tying field goal in the final seconds.

So, which quarterback should the Buffs expect this weekend?

Both players were under center in both games to open the season, so it wouldn’t be a surprise if both quarterbacks saw playing time in the Rocky Mountain Showdown.

Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre, for one, isn’t concerned. “They didn’t look like they really completely changed the offense when they switched the quarterbacks,” MacIntyre said.

The real question for the Buff Nation: Will Rashard Higgins play? The Biletnikoff Award and All-American wide receiver candidate hurt his ankle in the opener, and did not play against Minnesota.

His status for Colorado?

Undisclosed.

Even without Higgins, the CSU offense has weapons, including players who have had success against Colorado. Senior wide receiver Joe Hansley, who has had a touchdown catch in both games this fall, has had nine total catches for 130 yards and a touchdown against CU, and had a 74-yard punt return for a touchdown in the 2013 game. Running back Treyous Jarrells had 122 rushing yards and a touchdown in 2014 (though Dayln Dawkins is the current leader for the Rams, with 129 yards on 24 carries, a healthy 5.4 yards per carry average).

On defense, senior linebacker Kevin Pierre-Louis leads the team after two games with 17 tackles. Another player who loves to suit up against the Buffs, Pierre-Louis had a career-high 15 tackles against Colorado in 2013.

One stat to track early Saturday evening … In the first two games of the season, the Colorado State defense has not allowed a point, has not allowed a first down, and has allowed a total of only 18 net yards.

How the Colorado offense fares against the Colorado State defense early in the RMS could well set the tone for the remainder of the game.

 

I – Intangibles

As is the case with many rivalry games, statistics and facts are of little assistance in predicting what will transpire on the field.

Let’s start with the point spread. Logic would dictate that a team coming off of a ten-win season would be favored over a team coming off of a ten-loss season.

When the line opened for the Rocky Mountain Showdown this past weekend, Colorado State was listed as a one-point favorite. The line quickly shifted, however, and within 24 hours, Colorado was listed as three-point favorite (the line is currently four).

Also bucking the trend in logic … You would think that a head coach who has had experience in participating in the Rocky Mountain Showdown would have the edge over a coach in his first RMS.

Not so.

The last three coaches to walk the sideline of the RMS for the first time … Jon Embree in 2011; Jim McElwain in 2012; and Mike MacIntyre in 2013 … all emerged victorious.

So … “advantage” Colorado State, which will have first year head coach Mike Bobo on the sidelines on Saturday.

Then there is the “must win” aspect to the game.

Normally, you would give that to the “little brother”, who perpetually has a chip on his shoulder about his big brother.

In this case, though, the edge actually might go to the Buffs.

Colorado State’s chances at a bowl game do not hinge on beating Colorado. The Rams play in the Mountain West Conference, which went a collective 0-10 last weekend in non-conference play (look it up! 0-10, including a loss by the conference’s only ranked team, Boise State). Meanwhile, the Pac-12 went 10-2, with the only losses coming from the Oregon schools at the hands of the Michigan schools.

Translation: Colorado State’s path to six wins and a bowl bid is pathetically easy, while Colorado’s path to seven wins and a holiday invitation seems all but insurmountable. The Buffs’ chances at a bowl could effectively come to a close with a loss to the Rams, which should give the Buff players all the motivation they need.

Advantage: Colorado.

 

P – Preparation / Schedule

I have harped on this for years, so the Buffs have been come through for me.

The idea of giving a little brother a full month to prepare for its game against you, in my opinion, has always been shear lunacy.

Yet that is exactly what Colorado has done in the vast majority of games since the series was resumed in 1983.

Overall, the Buffs have a healthy 19-8 record against the Rams in games since the 1980’s (that’s a .704 winning percentage, not far off from the .733 winning percentage the Buffs hold in all games in the series … 62-22-2).

In the post-1983 era, in games which were the first game of the season, CU’s advantage is only 11-7 (.611). Contrast that record to games which were not the first game of the season. In those games, CU is 8-1 (.888) against Colorado State.

Yes, 8-1, with the only anomaly being the 14-10 loss to the Rams in 2006, the second game of the Dan Hawkins’ era (and a week after the Buffs lost in the opener, 19-10, … to Montana State).

This fall, both teams have had only one week to prepare for one another, not a month. The above numbers certainly suggest not playing the Rams in the opener works to the advantage of the Buffs.

In fact, if either team has a scheduling advantage this year, it would be Colorado. While Colorado State was leaving it all on the line in a physical game against Minnesota in a 23-20 overtime loss last weekend, the Buffs were rolling to a 48-14 win over Massachusetts.

And you can add to that plus the fact that CU’s next opponent is much easier than CSU’s. Next weekend, the Rams will go on the road for the first time this fall to face Texas-San Antonio, a team which stayed close (42-32) to Arizona in its opener. Meanwhile, the Buffs will return home to face a Nicholls team which hasn’t won a game since October, 2013 (and which lost its 2015 season opener by the score of 47-0 … to Louisiana-Monroe).

Advantage, Colorado.

 

S – Statistics

O … M … G.

For the first time in what seems like an eternity (or at least a decade), the Colorado stats sheet is not a horror show. Yes, the Buffs did get to pad some stats against UMass, but the Buffs haven’t been able in recent years to accomplish even that feat.

So, for at least another week, let’s enjoy …

The 2015 season vs. the 2014 season:

– Rushing offense … 302.5 yards per game – 9th nationally … last year – 154.6 yards per game – 75th nationally

– Scoring offense … 34.0 points per game – 52nd nationally … last year – 28.5 points per game – 64th nationally

– Total defense … 349.5 yards per game – 59th nationally … last year – 461.0 yards per game – 111th nationally

– Scoring defense … 21.0 points per game – 57th nationally … last year – 39.0 points per game – 116th nationally

But, back to reality.

It would be nothing short of a miracle for Colorado to maintain those numbers for the remainder of 2015, so let’s talk about some CU/CSU numbers which could prove relevant this weekend (again, the Rams have also only played two games, one of them being a 65-13 rout of Savannah State, so the CSU numbers are not 100% representative, either):

– Colorado State is No. 1 in the nation in net punting; Colorado is 117th;

– The Rams have been solid on defense, ranked 55th in rushing defense; 40th in passing defense; and 39th in total defense.

In favor of the Buffs:

– Colorado is +1 in turnover margin, ranked 40th nationally. Meanwhile, Colorado State is minus-5 in turnovers, ranked 123rd nationally;

– The Buffs are 9th in the nation in time of possession, while the Rams seem to be fine with allowing the other team to keep the ball, ranked 101st in time of possession.

One last number …

This Saturday may mark the first time in the history of the Rocky Mountain Showdown in which Colorado State sells more tickets to the game than does Colorado.

According to school officials, as of Tuesday, Colorado State has sold 26,400 tickets to the game, while Colorado has sold 29,343.

That is a much closer gap than in previous years … In 2014, Colorado sold 32,779 tickets compared with CSU’s 23,392. As recently as 2012, the Buffs almost doubled the Rams in ticket sales, selling 35,406 tickets to 18,169 by Colorado State.

One reason for CSU getting closer in sales, is, of course, because the Rams are winning, while Colorado keeps extending its school record of losing seasons.

The other is that CU season ticket holders were given the option of “opting out” of the CSU game, taking instead tickets for other home games. Buff fans, given the opportunity, are voting with their feet, choosing to take friends and family to Boulder rather than sit through another unsatisfying “game experience” at Invesco Field.

So, Buff fans who are attending the game this Saturday will have to yell all the louder, as the fan bases will be as close to equal as perhaps they have ever been in the stands.

And they will need to, because this game has the makings of a very close game. It’s a game in which the Buffs will have to prove to the Rams, their fans, and the rest of the college football world that the Hawai’i game was the anomaly, and that the UMass game was the sign of how the Buffs will compete in 2015 … and not the reverse.

Let’s hope so …

Prediction: Colorado 24, Colorado State 21.

—–

 

7 Replies to “CU vs. CSU – A Preview”

  1. CSU is not UMass.

    I’m fearful that CSU’s Fr. QB Stevens can pick apart our DB….. to say our DBackfield is porous is an understatement. Our defensive backs need to get coached-up, QUICK. It’s on Tumpkin and Clark now.

    And our OL needs huge improvement. They did block well on the run, but then, again, CSU is not UMass.

    What say you Stuart ?

    1. Well, Stevens has started two games in his career, while Blake Frohnapel threw for over 3,300 yards last year (4th in the nation in yards per game), so I’m not sure that Stevens & CO. are a huge upgrade from what the Buffs faced last Saturday.
      That being said, I spent much of the first half last weekend cringing at how open some of the Minutemen receivers were. We’ll see if Stevens & Co. can take advantage, or if the Buffs can get their act together.

  2. Personally, I think it comes down to whether the OC will stay committed to the run even when they go three and out running the ball a series or two. The speed at which the OC panicked in the Hawaii game and went to a throwing offense in the second half was mind boggling. Even the best running offenses in the world go 3 and out during a game. Hawaii was not forcing the three and out by loading the box they were just in the right places at the right time for 2 plays in a row causing a long third down in which we passed. It happens, they are on scholarship too. And the crap about being down by 2 scores meaning you have to throw the ball seems to ignore the fact of when we actually abandoned the run. We were only down by one score when we completely abandoned the run and went down by two scores with 11 minutes left if I recall correctly. 11 minutes left in the game is not the time to abandon the one thing that was working so well in the second quarter. Stay committed to the run unless they dump at least 8 in the box. Then the passing lanes should be open so wide Sefo can safely throw. Stay committed and I am confident this will be a solid victory for our Buffs.

  3. I’m not sure I track with the line: “One stat to track early Saturday evening … In the first two games of the season, the Colorado State defense has not allowed a point, has not allowed a first down, and has allowed a total of only 18 net yards.”

    Huh?

    1. What I’m saying (apparently not well) is … The Colorado State defense has been dominant in the first quarter of each of its first two games. If you want to measure relative success, check the stat line for the Colorado offense after the first quarter Saturday night …

  4. Which team shows up for the Buffs? Which team shows up for the Rams? This one is hard to pick so I am going to through logic out the window other than to say that our defense appears to be better than last year and when the Rams have to play two QBs under a brand new coach, that indicates potential struggles. Also, as you say, there should be no lack of motivation for the Buffs given last year’s loss and the significance of the game for this year’s bowl hopes.

    So, I substitute Koolaid for coffee this morning and predict: CU 35, Rams 24

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