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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. 93: Colorado State

Blame the rise of the Mountain West for Colorado State’s fall. Back when the Rams were consistent winners – it wasn’t so long ago, I swear – the program took full advantage of a pedestrian M.W.C., one that in 2002, for instance, had only two winning teams. Then came 2003, when Utah came of age; the Utes took home the conference title in their first season under Urban Meyer. T.C.U. came in 2005, the same year that B.Y.U. hired Bronco Mendenhall. Then Air Force experienced a resurgence under Troy Calhoun, beginning in 2007. Then T.C.U. and Utah took it to the next level; then San Diego State began playing up to its potential. All of a sudden, the Rams weren’t quite the crop of the Mountain West. Hey, at least Utah and B.Y.U. are no longer part of the picture, and T.C.U. follows suit next fall. What’s that? Boise State’s coming to town? That’s not good.

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Fort Collins, Colo.

Nickname
Rams

Returning starters
12 (6 offense, 6 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 96

2010 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 110

2011 schedule

  • Sept. 3
    at New Mexico
  • Sept. 10
    Northern Colorado
  • Sept. 17
    Colorado (in Denver)
  • Sept. 24
    at Utah St.
  • Oct. 1
    San Jose St.
  • Oct. 15
    Boise St.
  • Oct. 22
    at UTEP
  • Oct. 29
    at U.N.L.V.
  • Nov. 12
    San Diego St.
  • Nov. 19
    at T.C.U.
  • Nov. 26
    Air Force
  • Dec. 3
    Wyoming

Last year’s prediction

It’s simply not easy to place Colorado State anywhere but here, not when considering last season’s disastrous final two months and the lost talent on both sides of the ball, especially on offense. It doesn’t seem — on paper — like a recipe for success. Not to say there aren’t things to like about the Rams. Take the depth at the running back, for instance. If any one thing can help speed along the development of a young quarterback, it’s a successful running game; of course, if anything can take the wind out of the sails of a running game, it’s a weak offensive line. The returning experience on defense, such as that star-studded linebacker corps and a deep defensive line. I know one thing about this C.S.U. team: it won’t be as bad as it was a season ago. Until we know more about this muddled situation on offense, it’s hard to predict much more.

2010 recap

In a nutshell At least the Rams beat New Mexico, something they failed to do in 2009. Outside of that win, the song remained the same: three wins, blowout losses, little offense, even less defense. In fact, it’s safe to say that 2010 was even worse than 2009, which seems hard to believe. Colorado State scored 16.5 points per game, 116th in the land, allowed 34.7 points per game, tied for 104th, and really put up a good fight in defeat only once, losing by five points at San Diego State in November. Maybe the continued struggles were to be expected, as the Rams were woefully inexperienced at several key positions. But after hitting a home run in his debut campaign, 2008, Steve Fairchild has posted back-to-back 3-9 marks, which puts him on the hot seat heading into the fall.

High point I’m not going to get too excited about wins over the Lobos and U.N.L.V., though any win has been cause for celebration over the last two years. The best win on the season – the only win left – was a 36-34 home victory over Idaho, which featured a season-best offensive showing and a game-winning field goal as time expired.

Low point So it’s not San Diego State, we know that. It could be Colorado, the Rams’ in-state rival. It could be Nevada, which won by 45 points; Utah, which won by 53; or either B.Y.U. or Air Force, both of which dropped 49. There’s an easy answer, however: Wyoming. In the season finale, the Cowboys mauled the Rams, 44-0, for their lone M.W.C. win on the year. For the Rams, it was a low point nearly on par with the loss to New Mexico in 2009.

Tidbit Sixty-eight teams went bowling in 2008. Colorado State, 7-6 in Fairchild’s first year, was one of those teams. Of those 68, 44 have returned to bowl play in each of the last two seasons — 45 if we arbitrarily decide to count U.S.C., which has been bowl eligible both years. Of the 23 remaining teams who have not done so, not including the Trojans, 12 have gone to bowl play in one of the last two years; teams like Texas, Cincinnati, Oregon State, Maryland, Notre Dame and Houston, among others. So there are 11 teams, of which Colorado State is one, that achieved bowl eligibility in 2008 but have stayed home in the two years since: the Rams, Kansas, Memphis, Rice, Buffalo, Ball State, Western Michigan, Wake Forest, Louisiana Tech, Florida Atlantic and Vanderbilt. Of those 11, only three have lost at least nine games in each of the last two years: Vanderbilt, 2-10 and 2-10; Memphis, 2-10 and 1-11; and Colorado State, 3-9 and 3-9.

Former players in the N.F.L.

14 WR David Anderson (Houston), OG Mike Brisiel (Houston), TE Joel Dreessen (Houston), LB Clark Haggans (Arizona), QB Caleb Hanie (Chicago), DE Tommie Hill (Oakland), RB Gartrell Johnson (Atlanta), DE Jessie Nading (Houston), OT Clint Oldenburg (Washington), OT Erik Pears (Buffalo), OT Cole Pemberton (Houston), LB Joey Porter (Arizona), OG Shelley Smith (Houston), TE Kory Sperry (San Diego).

Arbitrary top five list

St. Louis Rams wide receivers
1. Torry Holt (1999-2008).
2. Isaac Bruce (1994-2007).
3. Elroy Hirsch (1949-57).
4. Henry Ellard (1983-93).
5. Jack Snow (1965-75).

Coaching

Steve Fairchild (Colorado State ’81), 13-24 after three seasons with the Rams. While the last two years have been disastrous, Fairchild’s debut season marked a happy return to Fort Collins for the former record-breaking C.S.U. quarterback and longtime assistant under Sonny Lubick. The Rams were able to break its streak of four consecutive non-winning seasons, the program’s longest stretch since 1981-84, and win its first bowl game since 2001. Fairchild’s impressive offensive background served the Rams well, as the team posted the most points in a season since 2003 (its last winning season) with the help of a bruising running game reminiscent of the best Lubick-coached teams. It is not surprising, therefore, to know that Fairchild was a key member of Lubick’s staff during the program’s heyday. His assistant experience with Colorado State spanned from 1993-2000 and included stints as the team’s quarterback coach (1994-96) and offensive coordinator (1997-2000). In 1997, his first year as coordinator, the Rams set school records for total points (442) and touchdowns (59) in a season; the offensive production helped the Rams finish the season ranked 16th in the nation. In all, Fairchild coached three M.W.C. offensive players of the year (Moses Moreno, 1997; Kevin McDougal, 1999; and Matt Newton, 2000) and helped the Rams win three conference championships. He moved up to the N.F.L. in 2001, joining the Buffalo Bills as the team’s quarterbacks coach. After two seasons in Buffalo, Fairchild was hired as the offensive coordinator in St. Louis, where he served for two seasons (2004-5) before returning to the Bills as its coordinator (2006-7). Yes, his first season showed Fairchild capable of winning at his alma mater; 2009 raised a few concerns; 2010 placed Fairchild firmly on the hot seat entering this season.

Players to watch

For the first time in four years, Colorado State returns its starting quarterback. Pete Thomas was the only true freshman to start each of his team’s games in 2010, and while he had his freshman moments, Thomas fared pretty well as a rookie starter. It’s a tough situation to be thrust into: months removed from high school, unfamiliar with the speed of the college game and surrounded by a pretty bad team. Still, Thomas did set a new program record in completing nearly 65 percent of his attempts, throwing for 2,662 yards altogether. Interceptions were a worry: 13 of them against only 11 scores, though Thomas did attempt nearly 400 passes. His future is bright, no doubt about that, but is he ready to take the next step in 2011? Depth here is a concern, as the Rams lost one quarterback to a transfer and another to early graduation. Some folks — and I’m not naming names, or pointing fingers — choose to stay in college an extra year or two, or three, for seasoning; Klay Kubiak opted to enter the work force.

The Rams have some game-tested receivers to choose from, but bring back only one with extensive starting experience. That puts a ton of weight on Lou Greenwood’s shoulders: he led the Rams in receiving yards last fall (474) and led the team’s receivers in touchdowns with two, but he needs to do more now that Colorado State must replace Tyson Liggett. The team will count on a pair of converted quarterbacks, Matt Yemm (21 catches for 265 yards) and T.J. Borcky (18 for 157), and hope that junior Marquise Law plays up to his physical gifts. More than anything, seeing that Fairchild wants a passing game that spreads the ball around, Colorado State wants to go six or seven deep in the passing game. If that’s the case, perhaps there’s a receiver out there who will come in under the radar and provide a boost.

The line looks the strength of the offense. Four starters are back from last fall, led by rising star Weston Richburg at center. Now a sophomore, Richburg looks like nothing if not a four-year starter and perennial all-conference candidate. Left tackle Paul Madsen is the elder statesman of the bunch – he’s entering his third year in the starting lineup – but he’s not the only senior: also on board is left guard Jake Gdowski, though he needs to shake off the injury bug. Junior Joe Caprioglio moves out from guard to right tackle, with sophomore Jordan Gragert the leading contender to step into his former role. The line should be pretty good, and it will need to be: the running game needs to improve to take some pressure off a still-young quarterback.

There are major questions to address on defense. Last year’s group was the program’s worst in nearly three decades: 416 points allowed, the most the Rams had allowed since going winless in 1981. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, and to be honest, I’m not confident that we’ll see a completely different outlook in 2011. It will help, however, to see more of the 3-4: this will get more speed on the field while diminishing the impact of two senior interior linemen lost to graduation.

Colorado State won’t be 3-4 based, but rather 3-4 centric – we’ll still see plenty of the old 4-3, but from all accounts, the Rams will do more than just dabble in three-man front, as they did a year ago. And unlike several other 3-4 teams we’ve seen so far on the Countdown, the Rams actually have the size to make this work. That’s thanks to a senior like Nuku Latu, a reserve in the past but someone with the size to stand up on the nose. Junior Zach Tiedgen, a former end, will see plenty of time inside, as will redshirt freshman John Froland. Three linemen with starting experience are back at end: Broderick Sargent (37 tackles, 6.5 for loss)s, C.J. James and former defensive back Davis Burl.

Senior linebacker Mychal Sisson isn’t just the face of the defense: he’s probably the most overlooked defender in the Mountain West, which is saying something. Sisson isn’t to blame for this group’s inability to get stops; he got the job done in 2010, finishing second on the team in tackles (95), leading the team in tackles for loss (15) and leading the nation with seven forced fumbles. He’ll move to the weak side this fall, which will take advantage of his speed and athletic ability. Michael Kawulok steps in at middle linebacker, where he made a pair of starts last fall. The linebacker I’ll be watching with extreme interest is sophomore Mike Orakpo, the younger brother of Brian, the former Texas great.

There’s enough experience at cornerback that I wonder: Why not move one or two to safety? Colorado State moved Elijah-Blu Smith to cornerback, his natural position, from free safety, but that leaves his former spot vacant. Sophomore Ezra Thompson made three starts there last fall and would seem to be the best choice, but he has his hands full with redshirt freshman Austin Gray. Ivory Heard (81 tackles, 1 interception) returns at strong safety.

It will be Smith on one side, Momo Thomas on the other at cornerback, with questions only about how to work sophomore Shaq Bell into the mix. The talent and experience here is nice, lending some credence to the idea that this year’s pass defense will be better than it was a year ago, when it was the worst in the Mountain West. But you don’t just gain a year’s experience and go from allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete nearly 70 percent of their attempts to being stingy. It’s very much a work in progress.

Position battle(s) to watch

Running back It’s strange, but even with the loss of three multiple-year contributors, Colorado State doesn’t lack for options at running back. There’s enough depth – albeit of the slightly unproven variety – to be excited about this group’s potential, in fact. I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see the Rams go with a by-committee approach to the ground game, though even that would entail trimming a list of potentially six or seven competitors down to three, four at most. We’re all familiar with one of the leading contenders: Raymond Carter started at U.C.L.A. before transferring to Colorado State, where he flashed his talent at times in 2010, such as against Idaho, but did not provide the impact some expected. Carter’s dual-threat ability would play well when combined with sophomore Chris Nwoke’s (357 yards last fall) bruising running style. If this pair leads the way, I’d like to see Nwoke loosen up defenses early, setting up Carter in space – either as a runner or receiver – while Nwoke finishes teams late, grinding out the clock. That’s if this pair ends up leading the way; Colorado State could also turn to senior Derek Good, a strong return man without a ton of backfield experience, or even freshman Dorian Brown, should he be healthy after missing last season with a knee injury. More options arrive in the fall, when the Rams add three more young options. I’m betting on Carter and Nwowke doing most of the work, but they’ll have to prove themselves against a handful of other backs.

Game(s) to watch

Must-win games: Wyoming, San Jose State and Northern Colorado at home; New Mexico and U.N.L.V. on the road. If the Rams get five wins there, they may get a sixth win from a group consisting of Utah State, UTEP and Colorado. Maybe. Just know that the Rams need to win at least four from the first group, as a 3-2 mark against those weaklings will not allow this team to reach bowl eligibility.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Does Steve Fairchild have a plan? I hear about this sense of urgency that has pervaded the program: Colorado State wants to win right now, this year, and has focused very much on that goal. So does Fairchild have a plan? Were the last two seasons for naught, or will the 18 losses in 24 games lead to brighter days in 2011 and beyond? Let’s save the big picture view for another day – though it remains a vital issue to address, and one whose answer we’ll know once the Rams kick off in September. Focus instead on what these Rams bring to the table in 2011: more experience. Thomas is a year wiser at quarterback. The offensive line will be a strength. Colorado State’s decision to play more snaps out of the 3-4 accentuates the defense’s speed; there is nice experience in the secondary; and a linebacker who goes unnoticed outside the M.W.C. but ranks among the nation’s most productive at his position. So there are pieces in place for a bowl run, which brings us back to square one: Does Fairchild have a plan? Has he been building to this season, willingly accepting a pair of 3-9 stumbles to get to this point? Or does he not have a grasp on the situation? I’m not willing to believe the latter, though nor am I willing to give Fairchild the benefit of the doubt. The schedule is not altogether difficult, so if the Rams have their act together this team has the talent to get to 6-6. Still, you’d really need a positive outlook to project a bowl berth in 2011. Better? Yes. Three wins better? I’d guess no, but maybe Fairchild does have a plan.

Dream season So Fairchild did have a plan after all. After two years of bottom-feeding, the Rams rebound to go 8-4, 6-2 in Mountain West play.

Nightmare season More of the same: 2-10, 1-7.

In case you were wondering

Where do Colorado State fans congregate? For solid C.S.U. chatter, check out RamNation.com, though you’ll need to sign up to frequent the message board. For recruiting coverage, try Gold & Green News and RamsInsider.com. As always, please send me your favorite message boards, blogs and beat reporters for inclusion in this section.

Word Count

Through 28 teams 73,739.

Up Next

Who is No. 92? By size, the state housing tomorrow’s university is comparable to Guyana; by population, it’s comparable to Finland.

You can also follow Paul Myerberg and Pre-Snap Read on Twitter.

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Comments

  1. M Meyer says:

    Minnesota is next

  2. jjtiller says:

    Another player to watch at CSU is Kevin Pierre-Louis, brother of the 2-time national champion (and kidnapper) Florida CB, Wondy Pierre-Louis

  3. jjtiller says:

    + Crockett Gilmore, who could be the next Marecic, a versatile two-way player (TE & DE)

  4. Eksynyt says:

    Yup. Minnesota. So the only BCS conferences we haven’t seen a team from yet are the Big East and PAC 12.

  5. Adam Nettina says:

    I didn’t see any of CSU’s games last year, but my gut tells me Thomas’ 65% completion rating might be misleading, since Fairchild’s offense loves the short stuff (as a long suffering Bills fan, I call this the ‘Josh Reed effect’) Any truth to that, CSU fans?

    It seems like just yesterday that this was one of the strongest teams in the MWC on the lines – both offensive and defensive. No, they didn’t go 10-2 or 9-3, but they were competative in most games they played in, despite not really having any big name skill guys. Just goes to show you how important the lines are.

  6. Ezra says:

    CSU 2011 looks to me like San Diego State 2010– experience at o-line, QB, youth and talent at RB, with a lot of speed on defense, especially behind the line.

  7. rams says:

    This is a nice write-up of a MWC team from a national blog. Well done.

    @Adam Nettina- You are correct, most of Thomas’ stuff was dink-and-dunk. He definitely had the training wheels on. When he got a chance, his deep ball looked pretty pedestrian though. Fairchild’s offense was actually pretty wide open when he had the talent in ’08.

  8. tom adkins says:

    Excellent in-depth analysis. Some items to consider… the talent cupboards are re-stocked (Sonny’s recruiting tappered off at the end), and the young talent is now fully experienced in the most critical areas for an NFL Offense — OL, QB, RB, WR.

    The D should be improved everywhere, except DT may have some issues after loosing 1st team all-mwc DT (Guy Miller).

    One new game-bending/play-making Talent that SF recruited, got experienced last year & is ready to shine… Crockett Gilmore 6’5″ 250lb. fast/athletic kid who showed some brilliance at DE & TE.

    Big-Plays: The RAMs have lacked “big-play makers” for 2 years (since the loss of VanPelt, Sapp, Anderson, Dreesen, etc.). The confluence of highly talented athletes w/ experience like Sisson, Blu-Smith, Orakpo (on D), Thomas, Gilmore, Greenwood, Richburg (on O) should finally give the RAMs the ability to Win the close ones & compete in every single game.

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