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On to 2021 …

If you squint really hard, I mean really, really hard, you can find some positive numbers coming out of CU’s 55-23 humbling loss to No. 20 Texas in the 2020 Alamo Bowl.

After spotting the Longhorns an early 14-0 lead, the Buffs actually controlled the game for the final 20 minutes of the first half. The Colorado defense, tasked with slowing down four-year starting quarterback Sam Ehlinger, did just that. The final six drives of the first half for Texas went like this:

  • Three plays, minus -1 yards … Punt;
  • Four plays, four yards … Missed field goal (after CU gave Texas the ball at the Buff 32-yard line after an interception);
  • Three plays, minus -2 yards … Punt;
  • Three plays, 7 yards … Punt;
  • Six plays, 58 yards … Field goal; and
  • One play, 6 yards … End of half.

The Buff defense, playing without four starters, (Brian Howell of the Daily Camera tweeted out that he counted 49 scholarship players suited for the game, including seven players who had never played in a game in 2020) did give the offense a chance to make a game of it, but the offense struggled mightily under starter Sam Noyer. Backup Brendon Lewis came in to direct CU’s lone scoring drive of the first half, keeping the game close, at 17-10, at halftime.

Sam Ehlinger did not play in the second half, handing over the reins to backup Casey Thompson. Based on how the Buff defense had played in the second quarter, there was hope for an upset.

Not so much.

All Thompson did in relief was to give Longhorn fans reason to believe they will be ranked in the Top 15 (if not the Top 10) in next season’s preseason polls, all courtesy of the CU defense. Thompson’s five possessions of the second half:

  • Two plays, 79 yards … Touchdown;
  • Five plays, 80 yards … Touchdown;
  • Seven plays, 43 yards … Field goal;
  • Five plays, 75 yards … Touchdown;
  • Two plays, 75 yards … Touchdown.

After the final touchdown, even Texas head coach Tom Herman had seen enough, allowing his third string quarterback to finish out the game.

What is it with Colorado and Texas quarterbacks in the post-season? Even in the 2001 Big 12 Championship game – CU’s last victory in the series – the Buff defense made a hero out of the Texas backup quarterback. Chris Simms was the Texas starter in the title game in 2001, but went 9-for-17 for 130 yards, with three interceptions and a fumble.

Major Applewhite to the rescue. Applewhite threw for 240 yards and two touchdowns, leading a furious Longhorn comeback. The Buffs led 29-10 in the second quarter when Simms was benched, but had to recover an onside kick in the final minute to escape with a 39-37 victory.

And then there was the 2005 Big 12 championship game. Texas certainly didn’t need a backup quarterback for that game, but the Buffs did their part to give Vince Young a boost in the Heisman trophy balloting, getting rolled, 70-3.

Okay, so the Buffs should never again play Texas in the post-season … lesson learned.

The 55-23 defeat was sobering, to say the least. “It is hard for me to imagine any excitement right now”, head coach Karl Dorrell said after the game. “I’m just being honest. I’m not feeling excited about anything”.

Understood, but, upon reflection (and the passage of time), Buff fans will have plenty of fond memories from the 2020 season … A 4-2 final record … Only CU’s second winning season in 15 years … Only CU’s third bowl game in the past 13 years … A second-place finish in the Pac-12 South, when the Buffs were predicted to finish fifth.

But … now what? What will be the expectations for the 2021 season?

“We still have a ways to go, there is no question about that”, Dorrell said. “We have got to get a couple good recruiting classes in, which we have started to do.  It is going to take probably two or three years to get at the level that we need to be.  We feel like we are the type of program that should be on the national level.  This was a good measuring stick on how far we need to go, that is what it is.”

Despite Dorrell’s statement, the expectations for 2021 will be considerably different from what they were for the 2020 season … just a few short months ago.

It bears recalling …

There was little expected of the 2020 Buffs, even before the schedules were thrown out and re-written (twice). Before the pandemic, CU had a 12-game schedule, with a new coaching staff under a relatively unknown hire, Karl Dorrell (who, by the way, was ranked 23rd out of the 24 new hires). The Buffs were coming off of three consecutive 5-7 bowl-less seasons. To make matters worse, there were few obvious wins on the 2020 calendar.

How would the “normal” 2020 season have played out?

Yes, non-conference opponents Colorado State and Fresno State were coming off of 4-8 seasons, and they also had new coaches. Two likely wins were there to be had to open the season, but … no guarantees.

Up next were games against Texas A&M and Oregon, both ranked in the Top 15 nationally in the preseason … translating into two likely losses.

The rest of the Pac-12 schedule was a mixed bag. Games against Utah (11-3 in 2019)  and USC (CU 0-14 all-time v. the Trojans), not to mention Arizona State and Washington (both 8-5 in 2019), were predicted to be losses. UCLA, Arizona and Stanford were all 4-8 in 2019, while Washington State was 6-7. Toss ups all … there were possible wins up and down the calendar, but few sure bets.

When we were being honest with ourselves, it looked like it would be hard for the Buffs to even get back to 5-7 … CSU and Fresno State? Okay. Arizona on the road and UCLA at home (assuming another Chip Kelly meltdown)? Perhaps. Stanford on the road? Arizona State at home? Possible.

The truth?

If we take the way-back machine back to last February, back when Karl Dorrell was hired, a four-win season seemed plausible … perhaps even acceptable.

But that would have resulted in a 4-8 record … not a 4-2 record.

Fast forward to the end of the 2020 season as it actually played out, and turn the page to the 2021 season.

The 2021 schedule, at least on paper, lays out with many more opportunities for victories for the Buffs.

The Buffs have seven home games on the schedule, including all three non-conference games. The Buffs will open against Northern Colorado (the Bears will play their six-game 2020 season starting February 27th), which should be an easy win. Up next: Minnesota (3-4 this fall) and Texas A&M (a game which is widely reported to be heading to Mile High Stadium).

The Pac-12 schedule (game dates to be announced next spring):

  • Home games: Arizona (0-5); Oregon State (2-4); USC (5-1); and Washington (4-1);
  • Away games: Arizona State (2-2); California (1-3); Oregon (4-2); UCLA (3-4); and Utah (3-2).

Granted, the 2020 records (as CU detractors will be happy to point out) are not indicative of future results. Still, as it stands, the Buffs have five games schedules against teams with losing records in 2020, plus a game against Northern Colorado and a road tilt against 2-2 Arizona State (a team which has yet to be CU under Herm Edwards). Even assuming losses against teams with winning records in 2020: Texas A&M, USC, Oregon, Washington and Utah (and Buff fans aren’t necessarily ready to do so … with the possible exception of Texas A&M), that would still leave Colorado with a 7-5 record, back-to-back winning seasons, back-to-back bowl appearances, and some real live momentum going forward.

Now, if you really want to get excited about the 2021 season, there is this: The Pac-12 South is a mess.

A quick look (we’ll spend the next nine months dissecting this very question, but for now) …

  • USC (5-1 in 2020) will be the favorite (again), but it’s not all harmony and light in Helton-land. Yes, the Trojans went 5-1, but could have (should have?) been no better than 3-3, or perhaps even 2-4, with last-minute comeback wins over Arizona State, Arizona, and UCLA. All you need to know … On the 24/7 Sports USC site, the day after the Pac-12 title game loss to Oregon, the Essay was entitled: “All for naught – Trojans 2020 football campaign is a failure“;
  • Utah (3-2) will also get some preseason love from the pundits, but the Utes just tragically lost their star running back, Ty Jordan, on Christmas Day, and had their starting quarterback, Jake Bentley, enter the transfer portal. Granted, the Utes have a number of quality quarterbacks (former Texas and Baylor quarterbacks are transferring in), but questions remain;
  • Arizona State (2-2) will again be touted as a potential Top 25 team, despite losses to both Los Angeles schools this fall. A non-conference matchup against BYU next September may give fans a better idea of where the Sun Devils stand. Oh, and yes, Herm Edwards is 0-2 against Colorado;
  • UCLA (3-4) hasn’t had a winning season since 2015. Chip Kelly hasn’t been the savior expected in Westwood, with three losing seasons in as many tries. Football Scoop, in a story which was quickly denied by UCLA, said that the school was already looking for a higher profile (Urban Meyer) replacement; and
  • Arizona (0-5) is a dumpster fire. The Wildcats have hired a new head coach, Jedd Fisch, which was not a splash hire by any stretch, and was not considered to be a favorite by the Arizona faithful. It could be a long road back for the Wildcats.

All in all, a pretty wide open division.

For a unified team, a team playing with purpose, a team which, say, still has a chip on its shoulder for having been humiliated in its last two games of the 2020 season … the division is there for the taking.

Can Colorado be that team?

“Even the games that we won this year, it’s really what did we do last and what’s the final impression,” Dorrell said. “Those are the things that I have my mind on right now. The way I look at it is we got a tremendous amount of work to go. We got development; we have a number of issues that we got to get cleaned up. Both coaches and players. I’m gonna have a lot of work to do this offseason.

“We just need to put our heads down and get to work this offseason”, Dorrell continued. “Keep improving week after week and day after day and continue to build this team.  Build their confidence, build their skill sets.  There is a lot of things that we need to do but it starts with just working hard and having a good mindset going into this offseason.”

Sounds like a plan …

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29 Replies to “On to 2021 …”

  1. The missing piece for decades now has been a true difference maker at qb…but finally, looks to me like we have a money qb that will lead us to victories resulting in much improved recruiting classes. Very optimistic about the upcoming season with Lewis leading the offense.

  2. Okay I was not particularly impressed this year with the team as a whole. I was expecting 4 wins in a 12 game schedule but we did it in a 6 game schedule that’s a plus. We beat teams in ways we would have lost to before. The games where we had big leads that evaporated concerned me. The Arizona come from behind win when we shouldn’t have had to concerned me. The two ass whoppins at the end of the year hurt me emotionally. But by golly we had more wins than loses and that is the what matters. I love the hearts of our Buffalo team.

  3. I guess Iowa State didn’t get the memo that because they have a roster loaded with 3* recruits they weren’t supposed to go 2-0 vs Oklahoma and Texas. Perhaps they just have better coaching.

    1. Actually, 2-1. My bad. ISU lost a tough 27-21 Big XII championship game to OU that just demolished Florida…..I’ll give CU a pass with a 51 man roster…but the 3* excuse only goes so far. Here is the crux of the problem: why does CU get worse over the year and other teams improve? Yes, a lot of it is injuries which leads to a lack of depth (which was exposed big-time last Tuesday) and a need for better recruiting and player development). But what else? Strength and conditioning (here’s looking at you Drew Wilson) ? Scheme (now other teams have game film on CU and are spotting tendencies-Chev, Summers)? Culture (once it goes bad can the players pull themselves out of it on their own?).

      I think the above was what KD was talking about when he said “I” (three times) and “we” (once) about the work he needed to do in the off season. Got to look at everything and figure it out.

      The 3* stuff has merit, but does not tell the whole story.

      Go Buffs.

      1. I just gotta wonder if the cyclones are having a buff-2016 type of season. Love the underdog story but it’s just one year. The matchup with the ducks will be fun to watch.

        1. Well they have had 4 straight winning seasons with 3 of those winning 8 games (and 3-2 vs Texas and OU the last two) so I wouldn’t call them a flash in the pan. We’ll see if that continues given their recruiting rankings are usually anywhere between 40-60. My point was they are competitive with 3*’s like leach was at Wazzu. Can’t use the “we don’t have the talent” as an excuse for everything.

          1. Agree completely, but that is also why Campbell has been on the NFL radar for a while…and ISU is ‘lucky’ that he is fine just biding his time until he makes the jump vs. having ambitions to be a Tier1 Program Coach and jumping to Auburn, etc.

      1. Give me 4* start recruits over 3* any day. Much rather go to war with a roster stocked with those dudes. But college football is the old double-bind issue: to win big you need the studs but to get the studs you need to win. If your not that program you get the best 3* you can and develop them and maybe also a sprinkle of 4*s. ISU had two first team All-Americans-a RB who was barely a four and ranked lower than Clayton (0.89) and a 3* defensive end who was given a 0.84. Our second-teamer Landman was a 3* at 0.86. These are the dudes CU can get and develop. So get ’em and develop ’em and coach ’em.
        I was on this staff for the current CU class signing some undersized dudes but the ISU first teamer was 240 out of high school. I will gladly put my foot in it if KD and co can develop them.

        I, too am interested in the game. Should be pulling for the Yucks and the PAC-12 but not sure I can bring myself to do it.

        1. game roster oregon vs iowa state

          5 stars Oregon 4…………..Iowa state 0
          4 stars Oregon 35…………Iowa state 4

          Nice

          Go Buffs

          1. I wonder if there is an experience factor in that equation? UO definitely has the better recruits, even knowing rankings aren’t everything. But they were also one of the youngest teams this year, in terms of starters. My bet is Campbell’s starters had more game experience. Campbell may still be a better coach than Cristobal, but five turnovers are hard to overcome.

            Go Buffs

          2. Starters
            .offense………………….oregon………………..iowa state
            Seniors……………………4…………………………….2
            juniors……………………5……………………………….5
            soph……………………….2………………………………2
            frosh……………………….0………………………………2

            defense
            seniors…………………4……………………………….5
            juniors…………………1……………………………….4
            sophomores…………6………………………………2
            frosh……………………1……………………………..1

            inner note: they both list 12 on defense

            It would appear the lesser experienced ISU offense whipped the lesser experienced Oregon defense. While the more expeirenced Isu defense whipped
            the more experienced Oregon offense.
            (hence the 5 turnovers.)

            I’m gonna look at the Buffs texas deal later

            Go Buffs

          3. Thanks for doing the legwork on the age/experience factor. That’s interesting. So how is uo dubbed the youngest team in d1? Returning starters I guess? Class year is a piece, but not all.

            And, we may agree Campbell does more with less, in general, than cristobal. We can keep tracking that as I doubt either are at their final destination.

            Go Bufs

  4. A really interesting season. And I would say a good one considering all the uproar.

    For 2021…………….

    Did you watch any of the games this week? Did you see the play designs and listen to how the announcers described them?

    Okay maybe more talent on some of those teams like Oklahoma and Florida but Mein Gott the play designs are at such a higher level than the Mighty Buffs currently have. It is stated that the biggest growth is from the 1st so the 2nd year. I am hoping we see that in the design of the offense.

    The freshman qb has the tools.

    Up the Offense.

    Buffs

      1. Nah the ghost is where he belongs. Coaching defense at a group of five school.

        Buffs.

        Note: Chev may be holding him self back. Needs to follow his mantra. Get better everyday. As I have stated I have backed him for the OC since the begining and will until he leaves………for whatever reason

      2. Chev needs a qb. Not sure if Lewis is it either. He looked good and that was exciting, but Noyer looked good his first game and so did Montez. I will say one positive for Lewis he looked good coming off the bench whereas Montez and Noyer never did. And he is a truly dangerous runner.

        Chev’s o also needs a tight end. Losing Brady really hurt. Getting him back plus the freshman will help. Maybe the grad transfer stocks around for another year as well.

  5. A does of reality at the end of the season was tough but the truth is what is needed. CU has to improve quite a bit to hang with the big boys but the Buffs were there to experience it with W&L’s, no longer just talk so that is huge.
    KD can now look and evaluate the performance of the players and the coaches. I have a feeling he is equally interested in the performance of the coaching staff on game days.
    The fact that we got a ‘season’ and a bowl was important for the program especially with a new coach.
    Just think where we would be if there had been no season as it looked a mere 4 months ago.
    Was great to see the Black and Gold unis on national TV.
    Go Buffs

  6. Tonight was a little better than last night. It was a laugh a minute watching a flagship team for the “big bad” SEC get their big bad derrieres shredded. They looked worse than the lowly Buffs.
    10 minutes to go, the Sooners up by 5 touchdowns and the Gators bang their heads against the wall and the clock by trying in vain to run it up the gut over and over. Meanwhile the Sooners ran it wherever they wanted to including up the Gator’s shredded derriere.
    They had no QB play. Mr Trask didnt so his draft prospects any favors. One wonders how he got all those flashy stats. Could it be ….gasp…against a lot of lesser SEC competition?
    Of course that means the Broncos, who have become the QB graveyard, will probably choose him.

  7. Agree with Egreen re talent levels. I also think coaching is paramount. I.E., game plans. Route running. Throwing 3-4 yards from LOS is STUPID. Any decent defense takes the receiver down quickly as TX did. DB coach should drill receivers to know where irst down line is, get route past and OC never call a pass to receiver on a route short of first down line. Dah. We have good enough QB’s and receivers to have a much better passing attack. KD has said he likes balanced attack but then they run way too much. TX 2nd string QB showed how to move right down the field PASSING. We should be able to do same. Mike Leach has the best offenses and game plans. Pass 3/4, run 1/4 or thereabouts. Our DB coach needs to coach DB’s to cover tight. Our DB’s were often 10 yards or more from TX receivers! Perfect recipe for getting beat as TX also proved. KD right, we have alot of work to do. Just wish they’d imitate Leach-“Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery”. Yep! Go Buffs!

  8. Nice article and good perspective as always with a realistic and positive outlook for next season. Though the last two losses were tough, the Buffs overachieved for the season. The losses are also motivators to get better. Brendon Lewis looks like the future at QB and the schedule sets up nicely and is one I’m looking forward to. Go Buffs!

  9. Stuart, as always thank you for the site and the great commentary. I was worried about next years schedule being worse but I think you put it in perspective well and we can play into that schedule. I would add one thing. We beat the average and below average teams we faced this year. For the last 15 years that has not been the case. I think Dorrell is the reason and so I expect that trend to continue. Given the schedule you outlined I think we face more average and below average teams so we could follow this with another bowl season.

    Reading through the comments everyone seemed to really harp on our talent level. I think we got really worn down over the game and after reading the players that were out I am not surprised. Of course we were missing Landman but we were also missing Sami and Lang. All three critical and all three key in stopping the long runs which is what really broke our back in my mind. Landman is likely gone next year but I expect to get both Lang and Sami back. I thought Perry played ok, he missed some key tackles. I will chock this up to his first significant game time. Ham was also out. Not sure if Jones will return so we should definitely be in the market for Ilb transfers.

    On the offensive side the line was getting some push but not enough. Frankly with Noyer in they had everyone in the box to basically dare them to throw. I am a Noyer fan and I understand he was likely hurt but it is hard to see why Lewis doesn’t have more upside and should not start next year. He does hold the ball too long but I suspect he can be coached on that. Man, it is clear Chev’s offense needs tight ends….. Russell being back, plus the new recruit will help. I also think Chev’s offense needs a qb. The opposing defenses just stack the box if we can’t throw. Noyer had 2 easy touch downs last night but overthrew them both.

    Overall, I love this season. When I first heard about Dorrelli was concerned but the more I heard from him the more I liked. He was able to put this team together and win more than he lost starting from basically nothing. I am excited to see where we end up with a full year to prepare. Utah was disappointing and Texas hurt but I don’t think this team will respond the same way as the 2016 team. I think with Dorrell as a leader they will stay focused and keep improving. I am excited for spring football!

    1. Certainly a difference between this team and 2016 is that the 2016 team was the senior season for all of the long time starters. This year’s team loses only a few people and although they are good players, with the majority returning, there won’t be the same amount of experience departing.

  10. Overachieving season, allegedly, bummer ending, allegedly. Dorrell is already working on 2021. First priority? Get a QB (whether they have one or not remains to be seen, but Lewis had some moments, that were nice to see). No clue if Sam’s issues throwing are his issues throwing, or his hurt shoulder, or both. But if he was making “all the throws” in practice, but not in the game? It may be more the former than the latter. Hoping he takes a big step this offseason, too. QB competition will hopefully be fun, and yield a good guy running the show next year, whoever it is.

    I agree w/ E-green. They had bigger, faster, stronger guys pretty much across the board. On the bright side? CU’s talent level continues to rise. So, what, nine months to wait and see what’s next? Maybe we’ll get to see some form of spring practice, to help pass the time.

    Ok.

    Go Buffs. And Merry New Year!

  11. Thank you for providing perspective. Coach Dorrell was likely addressing overall talent and depth in his remarks, rather than demoralizing any players. Next year, if all breaks right, 9-3 (losses to A&M, Oregon, and Washington). USC could be a mess when their team comes to Boulder. If all goes wrong, 6 & 6. The division is, indeed, ripe to win on the field and with potential recruits. As Coach McCartney proved, winning with recruits later translates to winning on the field. This season was a start toward the top of the PAC-12 South. Coach Dorrell will take this team in the right direction. Just this past year, he was the #2 coach with the Dolphins, and they are one win from the playoffs which would finish an extended re-build. His work ethic and football knowledge is first-rate.

  12. Just a little concerned that he showed a bit of honesty w/his ‘2-3 years away’ comment….it’s his first ‘excuse’ so I’ll give him a pass, but that type of thinking is the FATAL FLAW of college coaching. Thinking their ‘guys’ are somehow better than the incumbents (though their rankings are all the same). Great coaches obviously find a way to win/succeed with what they have. Finally a gut punch to all the underclassman on the team. Disappointing.

    1. A gut punch for sure , but also a dose of reality. That game showed the disparity between a team stocked with 3 star recruits verses a team filled with mostly 4 star and a few 5 star recruits. Their players across the board were just better athletes. They put in their second string quarter who only had a few reps during the regular season and went lights out against our defense, 4 TDs and a FG in 5 possessions. Heck, their 3rd string QB had no problem moving the ball against our 1st string defense. I also think their defense was better prepared against our offfense. They seemed to know which gaps Jerek was headed for on each snap.
      Brendon Lewis was impressive in his debut. Would love to see how he shapes up this off season taking reps with the 1’s.
      I still very proud of our 2020 season! They played with heart and determination. We just need to up grade our talent level and consider one or 2 asst. coaching changes.

      GOOOO BUFFS!!

      1. So in essence he is stating that he thinks he can bring 4 – 5 star recruits to Boulder??? I’ll believe it when I see it, besides we’ve had awful luck with those higher ranked players…Lynn Katoa where are you?

        1. Lynn Katoa … Darrell Scott … Marcus Houston … Nick Kasa … and now Antonio Alfano.
          If it weren’t for bad luck with five-star recruits, CU would have no luck at all …

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