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The Countdown

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

The Countdown

No. 87: Colorado

Feel the love. Gather around the warm flame of peace and order; if that alone doesn’t do it for you, rally around the fact that Jon Embree, for any of his faults, is not – I repeat, not – the one and only Dan Hawkins, who has been gone for eight months but whose unsteady touch still defines the state of Colorado football in 2011. Feel the love of your new Pac-12 brethren, who send nothing but good tidings and salutations: that love will soon be gone, lost among the slings and arrows of conference rivalry and antipathy. Feel the love of a new start on the field, off the field and in overall geography. Feel the warm sunshine of Los Angeles, Pasadena, Tucson and Tempe; feel the rocking foundation of Autzen Stadium, the orange-clad hue in Corvallis and the deafening roar of Seattle on a fall Saturday. Feel the love in Palo Alto and in Berkeley, homes of two fan bases whose off-an-on commitment to their respective football programs you’ll find familiar. Just feel the love. It all feels right.

Pac-12, South

Boulder, Colo.


Returning starters
14 (8 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 81

2010 record
(5-7, 2-6)

Last year’s

No. 80

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at Hawaii
  • Sept. 10
  • Sept. 17
    Colorado St. (in Denver)
  • Sept. 24
    at Ohio St.
  • Oct. 1
    Washington St.
  • Oct. 8
    at Stanford
  • Oct. 15
    at Washington
  • Oct. 22
  • Oct. 29
    at Arizona St.
  • Nov. 4
  • Nov. 12
  • Nov. 19
    at U.C.L.A.
  • Nov. 26
    at Utah

Last year’s prediction

Now, let’s be honest: Colorado is not good — by Big 12 standards. It helps to play in the North, of course, where Kansas and Iowa State are pegged to take a step back this fall and Kansas State not projected to do more than battle for bowl eligibility. Colorado could — could — land six wins thanks to its Big 12 schedule, which lands it home games against Baylor, Kansas State and Iowa State. In Colorado’s way? Poor quarterback play, a lack of big-play ability on offense, changes at linebacker and a dearth of proven commodities in the secondary. And, lest I forget, a coach ill-suited for college football on the big stage.

2010 recap

In a nutshell Perhaps one can be excused for starting to believe come the start of Big 12 play — that’s the last Colorado preview to contain that line, by the way. Through three games, the Buffaloes had an impressive resume: a rivalry win over Colorado State and home wins over Hawaii and Georgia. Among the September results was a 45-point loss to California; more on that below. Then the bottom dropped out, as most had expected, with Dan Hawkins’ dismissal standing as the lone positive of the five-game losing streak that followed the 3-1 start. But what a positive it was: Hawkins was a disaster, to put it lightly, and by general consensus should not have even returned in 2010 at all. It’s not a coincidence that Colorado began playing good football once Brian Cabral stepped in as the interim coach: two wins in three games, with a shot at bowl eligibility entering the season finale at Nebraska.

High point The back-to-back wins under Cabral. I even wrote at the time that if Cabral knocked off Nebraska he deserved heavy consideration for the head job at the end of the season. It didn’t come to pass, but the two straight wins boosted the program’s confidence heading into the winter.

Low point I’m not going to say the long losing streak, as that’s what prodded Hawkins’ dismissal. It’s really a two-way tie: Nebraska and California. At the time, I guess losing in Lincoln stung worse; the Buffaloes were a win away from bowl play and feeling very good under an interim coach. The 28-point loss was the most lopsided in the series since a 52-7 Nebraska win in 1992. Now, the loss to California is a bit troubling, what with the move to the Pac-12 and all.

Tidbit Embree is the third Colorado alum to coach the football program. Each of his two predecessors spent only one season on the sidelines: Harry Heller went 8-1 in 1894 and Bud Davis went 2-8 in 1962, one year after Sonny Grandelius was fired for using a slush fund to pay recruits. About Grandelius, since his transgressions are timely: it’s believed that he was the first coach in F.B.S. history to be fired for such illegalities. To some college coaches, he’s the godfather of recruiting impropriety.

Tidbit (Pac-12 edition) Colorado holds a 68-59-4 career mark against the current makeup of the Pac-10, with most of that damage coming against Utah. The Buffaloes and Utes were both part of the Colorado Football Association, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and Mountain State Athletic Conference from 1902-1947, with Colorado holding a 30-24-3 mark in the all-time series – that means the Buffaloes are 38-35-1 against the other 10 teams in the Pac-12. That includes a 3-8 mark against the conference since 2000. Over the last 11 years, the Buffaloes are 0-1 against California, 0-2 against Arizona State, 0-1 against Oregon, 0-2 against U.S.C., 2-0 against U.C.L.A., 0-1 against Washington and 1-1 against Washington State.

Tidbit (13 points edition) Colorado hasn’t won a game when scoring 13 or fewer points since Nov. 16, 1996, when the Buffaloes beat Kansas State, 12-0. Colorado is 0-31 in such games since, beginning with a 17-12 loss to rival Nebraska the week after topping the Wildcats and extending through a 43-10 loss to Oklahoma last fall. Fourteen of the 31 losses came under Hawkins, including each of his first five losses: 10 points against Montana State and Colorado State, a field goal against Arizona State and 13 points Georgia and Missouri.

Tidbit (nickel edition) Colorado has gone 34-51 since the U.S. Mint put the American bison back on the reverse side of the nickel on Sept. 16, 2004, after a 66-year absence. On the other hand, Colorado went 192-92-19 from 1913-38, when the famous Buffalo nickel was used by the U.S. Mint.

Former players in the N.F.L.

20 DE Taylor Brayton (Carolina), CB Jalil Brown (Kansas City), K Mason Crosby (Green Bay), TE Tyson DeVree (Cleveland), LB Jordan Dizon (Detroit), LS Justin Drescher (New Orleans), TE Riar Geer (Tennessee), C Andre Gurode (Dallas), LB Brian Iwuh (Chicago), LB Brad Jones (Green Bay), S Michael Lewis (St. Louis), WR Scott McKnight (New York Jets), OT Tyler Polumbus (Seattle), C Daniel Sanders (Baltimore), CB Jimmy Smith (Baltimore), OT Nate Solder (New England), CB Donald Strickland (San Diego), FB Lawrence Vickers (Cleveland), CB Terrence Wheatley (Jacksonville), WR Patrick Williams (Seattle).

Arbitrary top five list

Big 12′s ill-advised coaching hires (since 1996)
1. Colorado: Dan Hawkins (2006-10).
2. Nebraska: Bill Callahan (2004-7).
3. Iowa State: Gene Chizik (2007-8).
4. Baylor: Kevin Steele (1999-2002).
5. Texas A&M: Dennis Franchione (2003-7).


Jon Embree (Colorado ’87), entering his first season back in Boulder. Embree is a former starter at Colorado, a big, strong tight end who was a central figure on the first Bill McCartney-led teams to turn the corner in the mid-1980s. He began his coaching career at his alma mater, serving as a volunteer coach under McCartney in 1991, shortly after the conclusion of his N.F.L. career. He began coaching in earnest in 1993, when he joined Colorado as a full-time assistant. He spent the next decade in Boulder, first as the tight ends coach (1993-94), then coaching the defensive ends under Rick Neuheisel (1995-98) before returning to tight end duties under Gary Barnett (1999-2002); over his final two seasons under Barnett, Embree coached the C.U. receivers and kickers. He then left for U.C.L.A., where he earned three years of solid Pac-10 experience under Karl Dorrell. Then it was off to the N.F.L.: first with the Chiefs, followed by the Broncos and Redskins, spending much of last fall as Washington’s tight ends before accepting the open Colorado position in early December. The drawbacks: Embree has no coordinator experience, let alone head coaching experience, at any level; his inexperience is a concern, and he’ll undoubtedly have a learning curve. The positives: he’s not Dan Hawkins, meaning Embree is a college coach not only with B.C.S. conference experience but with experience at Colorado. As anyone who knows the program can tell you, Colorado is unlike any place else. Embree gets that, he gets Colorado, which is why he was hired in the first place.

Tidbit (coaching edition) Is it wrong to like a rookie coach’s lead assistant more than the head coach himself? If that’s wrong, I don’t want to be right: Eric Bieniemy is a future head coach himself on the college ranks, a contender for the spot that eventually went to Embree and, maybe, the best new assistant hire in the Pac-12. He’ll carry the offensive coordinator tag — a first for Bieniemy — but will have loads of help, as former Akron head coach J.D. Brookhart will coordinate the passing game and Cabral will lead the running game; one assumes that the added duties were dangled as an enticement for Cabral to remain on the staff. Former Texas assistant Bobby Kennedy will coach the receivers, former Arizona co-coordinator Greg Brown will lead the defense and former N.F.L. assistant Rip Scherer will coach the quarterbacks. Kanavis McGhee, another C.U. alum, will help coach the defensive line; he has one year of college coaching experience — at Gannon University in 2008. It has to be mentioned, Colorado fans.

Players to watch

This new offense will go away from the shotgun, three-receiver, pass-heavy alignment and towards a pro-style look, which sounds positively wonderful. Embree will call on Colorado’s roots as a physical running team, one that typically places the quarterback under center and uses a fullback, not a single-back backfield. I love it.

I never bought into the idea of a quarterback competition during the spring, and I’m sure you didn’t either. The job was always Tyler Hansen’s, barring injury, and that he played so well during the spring is merely icing on his cake and a nice omen for the position as Colorado enters the summer. If you recall, Hansen has received far more publicity for his ongoing competition with the since-departed Cody Hawkins than for his play thus far in Boulder; he’s done pretty well on the field, however, and in pretty adverse circumstances. It hasn’t been merely competing with Hawkins but also injuries and a botched redshirt campaign, and if Hansen does turn into a solid Pac-12 quarterback it reflects well on his own level of perseverance. About those injuries: Colorado can’t afford to lose Hansen, what with unproven assets behind him. So he’ll need to be protected. Also, given his college experience, it does bear asking: Is Hansen a good fit in a pro-style offense?

I remember when Ryan Miller first arrived on campus as a five-star recruit. Most penciled him in at the time as the foundation of the future offensive line, a franchise tackle who would excel, with his size and wingspan, on the blind side. It didn’t quite turn out that way, but Miller has still become a star, albeit at right guard. He’s an all-American candidate and the undisputed star of this offensive line — so, in a sense, he is the franchise guy most expected him to be. The line was pretty banged up in the spring but should be ready to go come the fall, with seniors Ethan Adkins and Mike Iltis joining Miller at left guard and center, respectively.

Of course, the big question is how Colorado plans to replace Nate Solder at left tackle. The easy answer is to move sophomore David Bakhtiari over from the right side, where he started 11 games as a freshman. Bakhtiari continues to add on size, something Bryce Givens has been unable to do since arriving on campus, which makes me think the junior is a bad fit at strong side tackle — even if he did start one game there in 2010. Senior Sione Tau has the requisite size but perhaps not the agility, so perhaps sophomore Jack Harris is the best option. All in all, the interior of the line looks good but the outside a question mark.

If you’re going to be a small, be real small. At running back, at least: 5’6 is better than 5’8, in my mind, as the size difference is negated by the fact that at 5’6, it’s unlikely that you’ll take all that many direct shots. If that theory stands, it’s a good explanation as to how a 5’6 back like Rodney Stewart can take 290 carries and continue to produce to the tune of 1,318 yards and 10 scores, earning him second-team all-Big 12 honors. He’s the heart and soul of this offense, both in terms of his own heart and production, and Colorado would be in a world of hurt if Stewart went down to injury. His primary reserve, Brian Lockridge, is only slightly larger, leading me to think that perhaps redshirt freshman Cordary Allen — 6’1, 225 pounds — could find a role in this offense.

There are clear issues with this defense. It’s a major concern when you lose two strong cornerbacks — one premier cornerback — off a defense that still managed to finish 110th nationally against the pass a year ago. That’s a major worry, and the answer Colorado finds in the secondary, if they find an answer at all, will decide the 2011 season.

Question marks abound. Will Parker Orms make a full recovery from his knee injury? Is Makiri Pugh a guy who can make a difference? Will the two seniors lend some stability to this unproven unit? Orms, a sophomore, was poised to see a ton of playing time as Colorado’s nickel back last fall before until suffering that injury in September. He’s a starter if healthy, but that’s an issue. Pugh is a former Georgia transfer with plenty of talent, but he’s only now really beginning his college career. Seniors Jonathan Hawkins and Arthur Jaffee have been around — Jaffee as a running back, to be fair — but neither has contributed much thus far; perhaps that’s for a reason. From Jimmy Smith and Jalil Brown to this? There are bigger, potentially more athletic youngsters on the depth chart, but the cornerback situation doesn’t look good.

The outlook is better at safety. Junior Ray Polk has the athleticism to be a difference maker at free safety but needs more snaps on defense to hone his skills: a converted running back, Polk is still a relative neophyte in the secondary. If 100 percent, senior Anthony Perkins will provide some much-needed experience at strong safety. He’ll also provide some toughness; Perkins played the entire second half of last season’s loss to Missouri on a torn A.C.L., which says something about his desire to be on the field. Sophomore Terrel Smith looks like the future at strong safety, so I wouldn’t be surprised if he starts for Perkins while the senior returns to full health.

The new coaching staff exhaled deeply once it was clear that last October’s knee injury wouldn’t cause Jon Major any long-term issues. He was back at it during the spring, limited somewhat but clearly itching for the fall. That should make Colorado happy, as the linebacker corps is spotty with Major, a disaster without Major. He’ll start on the strong side and challenge for 100 tackles and all-conference honors, but what about his running mates? At middle linebacker, junior Doug Rippy looks like Michael Sipili’s replacement. Rippy was part of a strong recruiting class a few years ago but has yet to make his mark, partly due to injuries. Patrick Mahnke rounds out the starting lineup. Not a great group, even with Major back at full strength.

This isn’t the first time we’ve heard that defensive tackle Conrad Obi has turned a corner. Why would this year be any different? Well, it might not. But it’s now or never for the senior, and perhaps he’s been energized by the new coaching staff. You cannot underestimate what a disciplined and motivated Obi would mean to this defensive line, which could then rotate four good, solid tackles.

Obi would be one. Senior Curtis Cunningham is solid and experienced. Junior Will Pericak, a converted tight end, earned honorable mention all-Big 12 honors last fall. Sophomore Nate Bonsu must show he’s bounced back from last year’s knee surgery, but he was very good as a freshman in 2009.

Depth at end took a hit when Forrest West opted to transfer to N.C. State. He had finished second on the team in sacks a year ago and was poised to play a major role. Colorado does return its best pure pass rusher in end Josh Hartigan (24 tackles, 7 sacks), but his lack of size is an impediment against the run. West’s transfer does open up a significant role for sophomore Chidera Uzo-Diribe, though he might have grabbed a starting role regardless. Nick Kasa’s ready to breakout, whether at end or inside.

Position battle(s) to watch

Wide receiver The Buffaloes will miss the steadiness of Scotty McKnight, who concluded his career — which began as a walk-on — as the program’s all-time leader in receptions and receiving scores. In my mind, the overall welfare of the receiver corps hinges on the development of two returning contributors: Toney Clemons and Paul Richardson. For Clemons, it’s about delivering on a week-to-week basis, perhaps filling the steady, intermediate role that McKnight held for four seasons. If Clemons can be Hansen’s security blanket on third down, this offense will really benefit. For Richardson, a sophomore, it’s about delivering on the massive potential he flashed in a record-breaking rookie campaign. He set new C.U. freshman records in receiving yards (514, breaking McKnight’s record) and scores (6), really coming on strong down the stretch once he began to grasp the offense. I have no doubt that this pair will lead the way, and little doubt that this pair will deliver — particularly Richardson, who has a bright future. The key will be finding options three through six, and the cupboard is a little bare. A pair of former walk-ons, seniors Kyle Cefalo and Jason Espinoza, will be in line for snaps. And sophomore Jarrod Darden has intriguing size, even if he lacks top-end speed. There are a large number of young freshmen, redshirt or true, also in the mix. That includes Keenan Canty, who’s even slighter than Richardson but is currently running second behind the sophomore on the depth chart. The secondary might be the larger concern, as at least Colorado has two good options at receiver, but it will be interesting to see how the depth chart will shake out behind this leading duo.

Game(s) to watch

Colorado is one of the small handful of teams in the F.B.S. with a 13-game schedule. My in-depth, hard-hitting immediate analysis: with the extra game comes an extra chance for a win or a loss. The last Pac-12 team to play a 13-game regular season under a rookie coach was Washington State, which went 2-11 under Paul Wulff in 2008.  Speaking of Washington State: must-win for the Buffaloes. So are games with Colorado State and Hawaii. No game looks easy, though some look easier than most.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Colorado can sit back and take a deep breath, free from the confines of Dan Hawkins and his misguided blueprint for the program. But don’t relax for too long: come September, one of the nation’s most intimidating schedules awaits. It’s positively ghastly, providing few chances for clear wins, and it’s one reason why I’d be surprised to see Colorado make an improvement in the win column. There are other reasons for concern. One is a rookie coach in Embree, who will experience quite a learning curve in his first season. I do like his staff in spots, and having a star lieutenant in Bieniemy at his side and experienced hands like Brookhart, Brown and Scherer for support will aid him immensely. A second worry is the dearth of big-play guys on offense. Perhaps this is a slighter concern now than it was in 2010, thanks to someone like Richardson, but I’m not sure if this offense is going to strike fear into the hearts of the Pac-12. At its most basic level, is the offense potent enough to hang with a conference loaded with firepower? No group on the defense seems secure, though the defensive line looks like the strongest of the bunch. There are question marks at linebacker and particularly in the secondary. Look at some of the quarterbacks on the schedule: Foles, Barkley, Thomas, Luck, Tuel and Moniz. Think those guys aren’t salivating? Lost in the positive vibes following the coaching and conference moves is the fact that Colorado is four years removed from its last bowl trip and six years removed from its last winning season. The light is not just going to turn on, especially with a rookie coach and these issues.

Dream season Feel the love. Embree’s an immediate hit, with some help from his staff, and Colorado goes bowling for only the second time since 2005.

Nightmare season Some of the goodwill accompanying Embree’s arrival dissipates after a 2-11 mess, complete with several lopsided losses at the hands of Colorado’s new conference brethren.

In case you were wondering

Where do Colorado fans congregate? Colorado has a number of football-oriented independent sites, which is always good to see. If you’re interested, take a look at Net BuffsBuff Backers and All Buffs. For recruiting coverage, check out Buff Stampede and Buffalo Sports News. And do yourself a favor and visit Ralphie Report, the clear and undisputed leader of Colorado blogs. There’s more to be found at Buff Scoop, which also touches on Colorado’s recruiting.

Word Count

Through 34 teams 91,560.

Up Next

Who is No. 86? The highest point in the state housing tomorrow’s university is named after the geographer known for creating the quadrangle map, a basic subdivision of the United States Public Land Survey System

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  1. Nick says:

    Sorry to do this, but Colorado is in the PAC-12 South. I’ll let it slide since their new, but won’t let it slide for any other Pac-12 teams

  2. Cole says:

    This is the first one I’ve ever guessed… Wyoming is next.

  3. Burnt Orange says:

    Sonny Grandelius may well have been the first coach fired for using a slush fund for paying recruits but he was not the first to use such a weapon. Jim Tatum and Bud Wilkinson were using the device 10 – 12 years earlier at OU – a fact documented in Jim Dent’s book- The Undefeated. Grandelius was sick and tired of the Bufffs coming in second second to OU. When Wilkinson was putting together his 47 game winning streak, a couple of the closest wins were last minute escapes against Colorado.

  4. jjtiller says:

    In 1924, Stanford and California accused USC of subsidizing its players. (…) “Many believe this is the reason USC fired their head coach Elmer Henderson after the season”

  5. Steve says:

    I’m surprised the Kansas loss wasn’t the low point.

  6. Dr. Klahn says:

    My guess is Utah State. Highest point in Utah is King’s Peak, named after Clarence King the first director of the USGS.

  7. katster says:

    And the one fun bit about one of Colorado’s games is that, even though Colorado and California are in the same conference, the game between the two is not a conference matchup, but an OOC game. Ah the fun of having prior schedule arrangements before conference realignments…

  8. PavlovsDog says:

    Steve, you might be right but that loss was what finally cost Hawkins his job and there was much rejoicing. It might qualify as the high point given the context.

  9. AERose says:

    Offensive line play will be worth watching since the Buffs’ new o-line coach, Steve Marshall, was drummed out of Berkeley after completely tanking the front five.

  10. MarylandBuff says:

    Who’s Dan McCartney? Buffs have a rough schedule, but will be back.

  11. archalon says:

    Sinful omission on the sites list:


    Best source for inside information, coaching interviews, recruiting coverage, etc. Unlike many others, constantly updated info and true inside scoop on the program.

  12. Go Buffs says:

    Dan McCarney? He was Iowa State’s coach 1995 – 2006. Surely you mean Bill McCartney. He’s only the most successful coach history of the program.

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