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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

P.S.R. Op-Ed

Dangerous Ground for Colorado State

All was sunny through one year. Since, however, Fairchild has been a disappointment.

Nevada’s five turnovers helped, but one could only be impressed with Colorado State’s 35-20 win over the Wolf Pack on Sept. 19, 2009, a win that pushed the Rams to a perfect 3-0 heading into their Mountain West opener. The win, while somewhat surprising, gave second-year coach Steve Fairchild a sterling 10-6 mark early into his second year — a fine improvement over Sonny Lubick’s 7-17 record from 2006-7. It was clear — it seemed at the time — that Fairchild, the former C.S.U. quarterback, knew what he was doing. Nearly one year later, the Rams have lost 11 straight, many by a lopsided margin; the offense has disappeared; and if recent results are our guide, have forgotten what it means to play defense at Colorado State. In short, Fairchild’s happy start has disappeared in a fog of questions about his ability to lead this program back into yearly M.W.C. contention.

Even in losing six games in his debut season, Fairchild impressed. The six losses came against premier competition: Colorado, California, T.C.U., Utah, B.Y.U. and Air Force — pretty good company. The offense was strong, if not spectacular. Nevertheless, the 327 points scored was a program-best since 2003; not surprisingly, that fall marked the last time C.S.U. won seven games in a season.

The defense wasn’t great, no. The Rams ended the year tied for 92nd nationally in scoring, allowing a little less than 30 points per game. In a sense, Colorado State’s final record was made all the more impressive because of its relative ineffectiveness: Fairchild pulled seven wins out of a team that was average on offense, significantly below average on defense.

Rookie coaches are supposed to improve over time, are supposed to become more adept at game-planning, motivation, what have you. And so we return to Sept. 19, 2009: at this point, it seemed the Rams had continued to progress under Fairchild’s watch. A win over Nevada was joined by a win over rival Colorado in the season opener; we were still unaware of how bad the Buffaloes would be.

We were also unaware that C.S.U. would not win another game, dropping nine straight to end the year among the most disappointing non-B.C.S. conference teams in the country. In Fairchild’s defense, however, a few losses were by the slimmest of margins.

The Rams largely outplayed Idaho in a 31-29 loss, with a failed two-point conversion and late interception allowing the Vandals to escape with the two-point win. A week later, C.S.U. coughed up a 17-10 fourth quarter lead against Utah, eventually losing, 24-17.

A loss to New Mexico came only by a late U.N.M. field goal, though that does little to lessen the embarrassment of losing to a one-win team piloted by the least impressive coach in the country. The season ended in familiar fashion: despite outplaying Wyoming — gaining 352 yards to Wyoming’s 233 — the Rams lost by a single point following yet another fourth quarter field goal.

Well-coached teams find a way to win these games, particularly against teams with far inferior talent, such as with New Mexico; well-coached teams find a way to avoid fourth quarter collapses, such as we saw in games against Utah and Wyoming.

That brings us to 2010: through two weeks, it seems the bottom has dropped out.

The year began with a disheartening performance against Colorado: 49 yards rushing, 3 turnovers, 1-12 on third down, three points. Only Colorado’s own inefficiency prevented the final score from being worse than merely 24-3, though the margin doesn’t reflect how one-sided the result truly was.

Last week, C.S.U. gave up 631 yards of offense in a 45-point loss to Nevada. This isn’t Colorado State football, a program with a tradition of playing solid, stout defense — though stopping the run has been an issue as far back as 2004, when the Rams finished in the bottom 10 nationally in yards allowed per game.

For those expecting a turnaround — hoping for a turnaround — the first two weeks have been a sincere disappointment. This Saturday presents one of Colorado State’s best opportunities at breaking this 11-game losing streak: the Rams travel to Miami (Ohio), a similarly proud program entering a significant lull under a new head coach.

From there, it’s home for Idaho and T.C.U., on the road for Air Force and back home for U.N.L.V. before heading to Utah. The road certainly doesn’t get any easier; there’s no F.C.S. opponent this fall, as there had been in each of Fairchild’s first two seasons. Most significantly, however, there’s no avoiding the question marks surrounding Fairchild’s hand in C.S.U.’s decline.

There’s blame to be laid upon Lubick’s doorstep; as high as the program reached under his watch, its recent slide began over his final four seasons. The onus is on Fairchild to both bring C.S.U. back into bowl eligibility while reversing his meaningful losing streak. The two goals are related, of course. Through two weeks, however, it seems that the decline has worsened — the Rams are in a very dangerous place, teetering on the edge of irrelevance.

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  1. ntm says:

    Wow, I’d like to think I’m better than to find solace in the knowlwedge that there is a rival for worst coach in the fbs than Todd Dodge, but that is the reality.

  2. Burnt Orange says:

    Part of the CSU decline is attributable to the improvement of Wyoming and San Diego State. It may be no coincidence that those teams throw the ball pretty well in a league where they are outmanned most weeks. By contrast, CSU is trying to get it done with a power running game. Keep an eye on San Diego State which is showing signs of life under Hoke and QB Lindley who is very underrated.

  3. jeremy says:

    SDSU has not done anything to hurt CSU, the Aztecs should be decent this year, but that is not why the Rams are bad. Same for Wyoming they just now are better.

  4. Burnt Orange says:

    SDSU and WYO “hurt” CSU by beating the Rams in Fort Collins last year- games CSU was expected to win going into 2009. Within a conference, if someone is getting better and winning more games, the wins have to come from somebody. When Texas Tech and Oklahoma State started winning more in recent years, Texas A&M paid for it. Missouri and Kansas start to win, Colorado and Kansas State slip and so forth. There are other factors of course but part of the CSU decline is what’s going on in Laramie and S. Diego.

  5. No Bandwagon says:

    I would agree with most of the analysis here. But because of the fact that you can lay the team’s performance at the feet of the coach, and due to the victory on Ag Day, I believe some hearty, back-slapping congratulations need to find their way to Fairchild. The team was down, yet found a way to win. If it’s his fault when they don’t, it should be his credit when they do!

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