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Keeping an Eye on the Big Picture

The 2019 season represents the ninth year of existence for the conference now known as the Pac-12.

In the first eight campaigns as a member of the Pac-12, Colorado has posted South division finishes of … t-5th, 6th, 6th, 6th, 6th, 1st, 6th, and 6th.

These numbers represent a sad commentary for a CU program which never once finished alone at the bottom of a division or a conference for 97 consecutive seasons. Between 1915 and 2012, Colorado spent decades as a member of the Mountain States Conference, the Big Seven, the Big Eight, and the Big 12 without once winding up in the basement of their division or conference … not ever … not once!

Since moving west, however, the program has suffered an almost unbroken run of despair and last place finishes.

No wonder most of  the nation has a hard time taking Colorado football seriously. Memories are short term for most fans, and the short term history of the Colorado football program has been nothing short of dismal.

The 2016 season, in which the Buffs finished the regular season 10-2, with an 8-1 record in Pac-12 play, is now seen by the nation’s pundits as an anomaly. The 2018 season, in which Colorado raced out to a 5-0 record and a No. 19 national ranking, was a blip on the radar, with the Buffs regressing to the mean with a seven-game losing streak to end the season home for the holidays – and in last place in the Pac-12 South – again.

While the verdict is very much still out on whether Mel Tucker & Co. are the answer to the prayers of the Buff Nation, there is plenty of evidence, still less than half way through Year One under Mel Tucker, that the CU ship has been righted, and is finally turning in the right direction.

Consider …

— Colorado is 2-0 against ranked teams under Mel Tucker. True enough, arguments can be made as to whether Nebraska or Arizona State deserved to be ranked at the time CU played them, but that argument could be made against other ranked opponents in other seasons as well. A good start against ranked opponents is welcome, but when stacked against recent history, it’s remarkable.

CU’s previous three coaches posted five wins in 47 tries over the previous 13 seasons – 5-42! – before Mel Tucker came along and won both of his first two opportunities. Tucker & Co. will now get a chance for win No. 3 against a ranked team when the Buffs face Oregon next weekend in Eugene, and another win cannot be completely discounted.

— Colorado defeated a ranked team on the road for the first time since 2002 in defeating No. 24 Arizona State, 34-31. It had been 17 seasons – and a Power-Five conference worst string of 29 games – since the Buffs last pulled off that feat. What made the victory even more significant was that it came in Tempe. Colorado had been 0-5 all-time against the Sun Devils on the road … Dan Hawkins couldn’t beat ASU on the road (2007), nor could Jon Embree (2011) or Mike MacIntyre (2013, 2015, 2017). Mel Tucker, though, got it right on his first try.

— Attendance is up significantly. True enough, the Red Horde bought a great number of tickets for the Nebraska game, but even more could have been sold. The Buffs have had 52,829 on hand for the Nebraska game, 49,282 for the Air Force game, and 52,569 for the Arizona game. That’s twice in three games at Folsom Field this year with over 50,000 in attendance (and almost three-for-three). In the previous six years, the Buffs reached 50,000 only twice … in 36 home games. The last time CU had two sellouts in one season? Try 2005.

The Buffs may only be 1-2 at home so far under Mel Tucker, but the Buff Nation, at least for now, are true believers.

Does any of the above mean anything when the Buffs squandered an opportunity to defeat Arizona and post a 4-1 record?

Well, yes and no.

What makes the loss at home to the Wildcats so frustrating is that the Buffs had every opportunity to win the game … and they know it.

“We have a very disappointed locker room,” Mel Tucker said. “Offense had penalties and on defense we were stopping the run, but weren’t able to get off the field on third down early in the game when we gave up some big plays. We were able to get off the field on third down and stop the run game in the second half, but still we gave up some big plays. We were able to move the ball and run the ball. We had some guys open and missed some plays. When you play a good football team you can’t afford to leave plays on the field. That is what happened today”.

Eight penalties for 85 yards, several of which stalled offensive drives. Dropped passes (including one by Daniel Arias in the end zone for a touchdown). Multiple mistakes in coverage by the defense, with a secondary which is down to third string players at several positions.

To his credit, Mel Tucker wasn’t about to allow CU’s mounting injury list to be a justification for the loss. “Injuries are part of the game,” he said. “Next man up is not a cliche, it’s what is required. We were able to put 11 out there on every snap and we had enough guys to finish the game. There is no excuse.”

Where do the Buffs go from here?

If you look at the glass as being half empty, you foresee an empty October, with the Buffs going from 3-1 to 3-5 … and hearing whispers of a second straight year of epic collapse.

Up next for the Buffs is a trip to Eugene to face an Oregon team which has already all but wrapped up the Pac-12 North, as the other contenders have all imploded.

Oregon is the only undefeated team in the North Division. The only other team in the North that doesn’t already have at least two losses in Pac-12 play? … Oregon State. (Try that one as your next bar bet: The only team other than Oregon which controls its own destiny in the North is Oregon State).

Unless the Buffs can sneak up on an over-confident Oregon team, the Buffs, it would seem, are looking at a 3-3 record after next weekend. The next two games for the Buffs are on the road against Washington State and then at home against USC. Both of those teams have shown flaws … but both are also potentially explosive on offense, which doesn’t bode well for CU’s M*A*S*H unit of a secondary.

But if you look at the Big Picture, you also see the next three games as opportunities.

Oregon, for its high ranking and undefeated conference record, only beat Cal 17-7, a Cal team which was offensively challenged – before it lost its quarterback to injury last weekend. The Ducks were down 7-0 at half to the Bears, and gave Cal every opportunity to stay in the game. The last time CU played Oregon, Steven Montez was making his first career start in Eugene. It proved to be a memorable game, with Montez leading the Buffs to a win.

Washington State, even with its gaudy offensive numbers, is a train wreck. The defensive coordinator was fired this week, and, unless the Cougars can right the ship with a road win over Arizona State, will enter its game against Colorado on a three-game losing streak.

USC, meanwhile, is a likely loss to No. 9 Notre Dame from being 3-3. It may not matter if the Trojans beat Arizona at home before coming to Boulder on October 25th … Clay Helton may already be a dead man walking in the eyes of the USC administration (he already is in the eyes of its fans). The USC game is a Friday night home game, and will be played on October 25th … the anniversary of CU’s 20-10 triumph over Nebraska in 1986. You want some good karma? Start with that.

The point here is not that the Buffs are going to win all three of their games against Oregon (currently ranked 13th), Washington State (ranked as high as 19th this season), and USC (ranked as high as 22nd) … or any of them, for that matter.

The point here is that it is no longer a leap of faith to believe that, under Mel Tucker, winning any or all of those games is no longer outside the realm of possibility. The Buffs beat themselves against the Wildcats. Granted, that is a cliche, and is a sentiment echoed by almost every losing program after every close loss.

But with Mel Tucker’s Buffs, we know it to be true. This team may not have a better record than the team which started 5-0 last season … but it’s a better team.

The CU coaches, players and fans all know that the Buffs not only could have beaten Arizona … they should have. Neither team had a lead of over six points; the lead changed hands nine times. CU out-gained Arizona (496 total yards to 487), had more first downs (26-22), and forced the game’s only turnover. You could point to any of a dozen plays in the game which, had it gone differently, would have netted the Buffs a victory.

Steven Montez prophetically said before the game: “If it’s a back and forth game, then we just have to score more touchdowns than they do”.

Arizona scored five times Saturday – all touchdowns. Colorado scored six times Saturday – three touchdowns and three field goals.

‘Nuff said.

Other than the outlier 2016 season, Colorado has gone 9-54 in conference play as a member of the Pac-12. Even when adding in the 8-1 2016 campaign, CU entered the 2019 season with an overall record of 17-55 against conference opponents. Almost every fall weekend, for well over a decade now, Colorado has played as an underdog.

It was an upset for the Buffs to lose to a good conference opponent Saturday, a statement which could not often be made in recent memory.

Expectations have been raised for the Buffs in the short time Mel Tucker has been on campus.

For a program that has struggled mightily since joining the Pac-12 conference, that alone is a step in the right direction.

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16 Replies to “The Big Picture”

  1. To me, it’s like this: Basically this team has been mediocre to awful since about 2001, with the exception of 2016. And the team’s success from 94-2001 was essentially in decline on the legacy of what Mac built. 2002-2005 we benefited from a pretty bad Big 12 North. I enter exhibit 70-3 from 2005 to support that argument. I love Barnett. Dude knows his football. But he wasn’t a great coach in win/loss records, at CU nor for his career. Rick helped start the decline, that really started in the way Mac bolted. Do I blame him for his decision? No. I blame him a bit for how he handled it though. But? All that is so much water under the bridge – 25 years worth, really. So, where do we go from here?

    The AZ game – and the AF game and the others that we’ve won this year too – are basically all on a razor’s edge from winning or losing. The team that makes the fewest mistakes wins, 90% of the time in college football. This team is still very much in the win/lose close phase of development. The question is, can Mel get beyond that? I think so, but we’ll sure find out. He’s gotta get the players to do it.

    On the bright side of the ledger, it took a vastly depleted roster and a ton of mistakes to snatch a defeat from the jaws of victory against AZ. I do see that as progress. And, this staff inherited a smattering of NFL dudes, and may have brought in some more behind them. That’s progress from every coaching change since Neuheisel to Barnett.

    If winning was all coaching would Chip be in the position he’s in at UCLA? Would Petey’s squad have laid an egg against Stanford’s second and third string? Remember, those are two “coaching savants” right? And on the other end, there’s always someone beating up Shaw. Or, remember when UT was looking to can Whittingham?

    In general, I like Tucker, and for what I know, his staff seems solid. Actually they seem to be putting some of my preseason concerns to rest, at least a little. Will any changes be made this off-season? Probably, by some moving on and others being asked to move on. Do I have any idea of who? None. Players still gotta make plays, and coaches gotta put them in positions to do so, whether running spread, two or three tight ends, or some hybrid on offense, and 3-4, 4-3 or 3-3-5 on D.

    Tucker’s persona is one we’ve not seen in Boulder for a while. It’s refreshing. Will it translate to the field? If he recruits and continues elevating the level of players across the board? Yes. If not? I doubt it. If it’s the latter, should CU fire him and look again inside of three or five years? Not a fan of that plan, either – unless he fails miserably, which we all don’t “think” will happen. And, even then, the circumstances around that “failure” would need to be considered.

    CU football is so far outside of relevant to most recruits, that perception has to change. Otherwise, we’re stuck looking for someone with a shiny resume of getting mid-majors to outperform their meager competition, and stun the Power 5 from time to time, and… we’ve seen that movie before. It doesn’t often play well when they get to the P5 (some folks wonder that about Petey, now don’t they? – I don’t, but lots of Huskies do).

    Anyway, if I was a betting man, I’d take CU and the points on this one. 22 seems way too high. The Pac 12 has no elite team/s, but it is full of teams w/ good players, who, when they perform to their abilities, can pretty much play w/ anyone other than maybe the top 5-7 teams in the country.

    That’s a lot of what’s fun about college football, at least to me. There’s always a chance for a team to step up and beat someone they’re not supposed to.

    And, Tucker’s already done that twice this year. As we all know, that in and of itself is a form of progress. Will it translate into more than 3 wins this year? I think so. Will it get us to 7 or 8? Maybe. I sure friggin’ hope it does. Basically, before the season if you said 5 games in, we’d be 3-2, that pretty much matches expectations. Maybe not by who we beat and lost to, but… that’s why they play the games.

    Here’s to pulling off a stunning upset in Eugene.

    Go Buffs.

  2. 5-7 again is not a step forward. Can’t win the games we should win to have a bowl chance. This is getting old…BUT HEY MEL IS WEARING SHORTS AND THE REPUBLIC OF BOULDER LOVES IT. Priorities right?

  3. I feel the future is bright in the big picture. As for this year, I will have more optimism if I see the penalty debacles from the last two home games significantly reduced. It’s a head thing that they need to pull together. The first quarter was a series of head not in the game brain farts.

  4. People are blaming coaches for bad defensive performance but honestly…. What exactly would you have them do? There’s no fucking dudes left on the team to play in the secondary! I mean, Sam noyer played an entire drive as safety and he just switched to safety a month or two ago!

    Realistically the reason that the defense has struggled is that the coaching staff failed to prevent multiple players in the secondary (plus Isreal antwine on the defensive line) from transferring away after MacIntyre was fired. Yes, MacIntyre was effectively the DB coach and was getting a reputation as a DB guru, but missing those guys has basically meant that teams can just target the corners at will and there’s nothing CU can do about it, no matter how brilliant of a defensive coach we might have.

  5. Stu thanks for all you do with this website.
    I thought the team regressed to the bad habits they showed vs. NU and AFA. Yes the offense mised out on 7-14 points. But the Buff defense and misreads between the LBs and DBs and safeties on pass coverage is a repeating pattern that has to stop. Physically I think they are there, but mentally something isn’t converging. Was hoping they turned a corner after ASU, but clearly not there yet. I have full confidence in this coaching staff. You could see the frustration on Tucker’s face throughout the game.

  6. I’ve said it since the CSU game. The DBs are lost, there is no scheme. I’ve been bad on Landman, and I know he is a tackling machine. But I see why his struggles, he has had to drop back more in passing than he should and that is not where he should be in early downs. Goes back to coaching, need defensive change

    1. Need Landman to drop some weight and play with the same quickness/speed as before…he appears slower and stiffer this year. He looks like a guy that got too bulky in the weight room (like those 90’s era MLB sluggers) and can’t move anymore i.e. Jose Canseco (40×40 before the roids)

  7. I haven’t by any means lost faith in this coaching staff, but I was frustrated to see us let this game get away from us due to lack of focus. The penalties… THE PENALTIES!… were so frequent I couldn’t help but think the players were still on their bye week. Dropped pass in the end zone that I could have caught, terrible protection (missed block by someone) on that 4th down play with just over 2 mins left in the game.

    In many ways, I think that the bye week… which seemed like a blessing… turned out to be a terrible thing for a team trying to get into a winning pattern. Let’s hope we bounce back against the Ducks. Not sure we can get a win, but want to see a highly competitive game.

    Go Buffs!

  8. Looks like it’s either half empty, or half full, depending upon one’s opinion. Fact is, every game has been close, losses easily could have been wins. That said, it’s truly a matter of execution, make that extra play, or not, making more, or less errors. There is talent on the team, but, not enough, especially depth wise. Coupled with what is an abundance of mounting injuries, it’s remarkable they’re holding up at all. Tucker not afraid to play a lot of guys…if this continues, he may have to start recruiting from the student section.

  9. Offensive play calling is horrible!!
    1st and goal on the one yard line.
    Really!! We have a 220 pound QB … 101 take if under center QB sneak. Why hand off the ball 5 yards back and risk loss yards??????
    OC watch some college football and don’t be so predictably!!!
    Also, To the whole team… stop celebration of one score and stay focused. Every time a CU scores I can hardly watch the next play as CU let’s team after team score on the very next play!!!
    It’s happened every single game except for CSU.
    So frustrating!!!!!!!

  10. Prior to the game Nick Aliotti said Colorado cannot win with that defense.
    CU will continue to struggle to outscore other teams. It will remain “maybe we can win if everyone does their job”.
    When Coach Tucker has 3 more recruiting classes to build a first rank defense, maybe we will be able to say “we always expect CU to win”.
    Defense wins games.

  11. The defense isnt working, period. MT would probably step in for Summers, but he knows in seson changes rarely work. Teams with less find a way to do more.

    This team has a habit of playing up-to or down-to their competition. Looking forward to fresh faces in the QB room next year as well.

  12. While football is often reduced to cliche, and we have heard them all before, I actually happen to believe this team and this coaching staff. What I see is a team that is learning how to win. I see a team that will grow not regress. We all knew that there were deficiencies. Watching them address these over time is what I will want to see. Sure, there were plenty of disappointments in this game, but it was not a collapse the way we saw in years past. We may get outplayed, but I think we will continue to see this team compete. Right now that is good enough for me. Mel Tucker is building. He has some tools, but not enough. It will take some time.

    I am as impatient as anyone. Fifteen years is a long time. My kids are almost grown in the time it has taken between relevance in 2005 and now. There are no shortcuts. We either trust Mel Tucker or we lose our minds. I think he will succeed, but it will take some more frustrating losses along the way.

  13. Feeling OK since I braced myself by picking UA to win the game….I think I understand ‘why’ better now. Something about this team does a whole lot better when they are dogs…when folks don’t believe they have a chance. Us vs. the World…that’s why we will be a better road team (already are … w/just the ASU win, right?)
    Tuck has gotten the team to buy into the underdog mindset…but still not mature enough to have quite the same focus when we are favored.

  14. Sorry Stu, but by the time Steve said it ….it was hardly prophetically. It has actually become a pattern. the Buffs have given up 31, 31, 30, 34 and 35 points respectively in each game so far this season and I’m sure the opponents yardage scores commensurate as well. I dont see any light in the tunnel for breaking that pattern. In order to win a game Steve and the O are going to have to score more than 35.

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