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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. 96: Colorado State

Handsome they're not. But these fellows are the face of the Colorado State program.

Talk about a bottom dropping out. It seemed, three weeks into last season, that Colorado State would be able to duplicate the success it had experienced in Steve Fairchild’s debut season: 7-6, back in bowl play after a three-year absence. The Rams were 3-0, with wins coming against rival Colorado and, most impressively, Nevada. Two months and a day later, the Rams stood at 3-9, 0-8 in the Mountain West, and facing significant questions about the health of the program heading into 2010. What happened?

Conference
Mountain West

Location
Fort Collins, Colo.

Nickname
Rams

Returning starters
12 (4 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 73

2009 record
(3-9, 0-8)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 105

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 4
    Colorado (in Denver)
  • Sept. 11
    at Nevada
  • Sept. 18
    at Miami (Ohio)
  • Sept. 25
    Idaho
  • Oct. 2
    T.C.U.
  • Oct. 9
    at Air Force
  • Oct. 16
    U.N.L.V.
  • Oct. 23
    at Utah
  • Oct. 30
    New Mexico
  • Nov. 6
    at San Diego St.
  • Nov. 13
    B.Y.U.
  • Nov. 20
    at Wyoming

Last year’s prediction

Best case? The Rams find capable starters on its defensive line, the secondary prevents the big play and Sisson tackles everything in sight. Worst case? Due to its losses in the front seven, C.S.U. is again abysmal against the run, and teams are able to exploit both that and a secondary forced to step up into the box. If the best case occurs, the Rams can win eight games; worst case, Colorado State may not reach five. I don’t think either is likely to occur: I have the Rams matching last fall’s six-win total, with four wins coming in M.W.C. play.

2009 recap

In a nutshell One area where the 2008 Rams excelled — and where last year’s team struggled — was in winning close games. Such comparisons represent a slippery slope, but bear with me. In 2008, Colorado State went 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less; last fall, C.S.U. went 1-4 in similar games against F.B.S. competition. It didn’t help that the Rams did not do anything particularly well: in only statistical category, kick returns, did C.S.U. rank in the top 50 nationally. Among the real issues, as predicted heading into last season, was the defense. This unit allowed 29.8 points per game, mostly due to the poor play of the secondary.

High point Colorado State’s 3-0 start seemingly validated the success the Rams had in Fairchild’s first season. A season-opening win over Colorado in the Rocky Mountain Showdown is always good for morale, even if the Buffaloes struggle, as has recently been the case. Two weeks later, Colorado State scored an impressive victory over Nevada. Then the bottom dropped out.

Low point It would be easy to choose the entirety of the eight-game losing streak to end the season, but one game in particular stands out: a 29-27 loss to New Mexico, the Lobos’ lone win on the year. That the Rams blew a fourth quarter lead the following week against Wyoming certainly didn’t help matters; at least the Cowboys won six games on the season, unlike U.N.M.

Tidbit One can make a pretty accurate estimate of the over all effectiveness of a defense based on the unit’s ability to do three things: penetrate the line of scrimmage, create turnovers and force fourth downs. You see this coming – Colorado State’s defense was putrid in each category. The Rams finished 94th in tackles for loss, 80th in turnovers gained and 120th (that’s last) in third down defense.

Former players in the N.F.L.

18 WR David Anderson (Houston), OG Mike Brisiel (Houston), TE Joel Dreesen (Houston), WR Rashaun Greer (Dallas), LB Clark Haggans (Arizona), QB Caleb Hanie (Chicago), DE Tommie Hill (New York Giants), RB Gartrell Johnson (New York Giants), C Adrian Martinez (Seattle), WR Dion Morton (Cleveland), DE Jesse Nading (Houston), OT Clint Oldenburg (Washington), OT Erik Pears (Oakland), OT Cole Pemberton (Houston), LB Joey Porter (Arizona), OG Shelley Smith (Houston), TE Kory Sperry (Miami), C Tim Walter (Chicago).

Arbitrary top five list

Most important forts in U.S. military history
1. Fort Sumter, S.C.
2. Fort Ticonderoga, N.Y.
3. Fort McHenry, Md.
4. Fort Donelson, Tenn.
5. Fort Knox, Ky.

Coaching

Steve Fairchild (Colorado State ’81), 10-15 after two seasons with the Rams. While last season was a disaster, Fairchild’s debut season marked a happy return to Fort Collins for the former record-breaking C.S.U. quarterback and a 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 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; that offensive production helped the Rams finish the season ranked 16th in the nation. That C.S.U. squad featured a pair of 1,000-yard rushers for the second straight season, an F.B.S. first. 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; last season raised a few concerns.

Players to watch

Trouble exists elsewhere, but Fairchild can feel very secure in his deep stable of running backs. As each of the last two seasons have indicated, the third-year coach envisions his offense to be propelled by a power running game; this group should allow him to realize his goal. Though the Rams return three players who rushed for at least 147 yards a year ago — led by seniors Leonard Mason and John Mosure — it seems the two lead backs will be a pair that did not see the field for C.S.U. at all in 2009: junior Raymond Carter and redshirt freshman Chris Nwoke. Carter is a former U.C.L.A. transfer whose speed will compliment Nwoke’s bruising style. Not to say that Mason (team-best 766 yards rushing lat fall), Mosure (650 yards) or sophomore Lou Greenwood (147) won’t see plenty of time; they will, especially given how Fairchild plans to rely heavily upon this rushing attack.

The offense line goes from perhaps the most experienced in the Mountain West — four senior starters last fall — to the offense’s biggest question mark. There are two sure things up front, however, as junior Jake Gdowski and senior Mark Starr have each played well in part-time starting roles in the past. Gdowski, for instance, earned four starts in the first month of last season, helping the Rams land their solid start. Starr will start at right tackle, opposite Paul Madsen, the line’s lone returning starter from a year ago. Developing starters at the remaining two interior spots will be key.

The talent level at wide receiver was hurt badly by graduation, as C.S.U. must replace both Rashaun Greer and Dion Morton, a pair of multiple-year starters. Doing so won’t be easy: the returning receiver corps is defined by its inexperience, as the group has accounted for only six career starts heading into 2010. The Rams will need a big season from senior Tyson Liggett, a former walk-on who has become a big-play threat for this C.S.U. offense. He made 17 receptions for 253 yards a season ago. Fairchild will likely call upon T.J. Borcky, who has split time at quarterback thus far in his career, to make the move full-time to receiver. In that case, Borcky would compete with sophomores Byron Steele and Marquise Law — as well as a handful of incoming and redshirt freshman — to earn a starting role alongside Liggett.

The Rams are stacked at outside linebacker, at least. Few non-B.C.S. conference teams can match the start power Colorado State will feature at linebacker, what with senior Ricky Brewer, back with the team, joining junior Michael Sisson in the starting lineup. Each is a candidate for conference defensive player of the year. Brewer returns to action after being suspended for all of last season. He led the Rams with 104 tackles (5.5 for loss) in 2008 from the weak side position; his suspension allowed Sisson to move to the weak side, where he excelled. Sisson continued his assault on the C.S.U. record book, leading the team in tackles (91), tackles for loss (15.5) and sacks (6). In last year’s preview, I wrote that for this defense to succeed, Sisson would have to tackle everything in sight; he nearly did. Given Sisson’s terrific play, it’s not too surprising to hear that he’ll remain on the weak side while Brewer moves to the strong side, where he played well as a redshirt freshman in 2007. Senior Alex Williams will reclaim his middle linebacker spot after missing three games a year ago due to injury.

The defensive line features a nice mix of veteran contributors and talented underclassmen. Two seniors who are almost assured of retaining their starting roles are end Cory Macon (35 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and nose tackle Guy Miller (39 stops, 2 sacks). Another senior, Ty Whittier, will move inside after starting at end in 2009. He’ll battle junior Nuku Latu for the starting tackle role alongside Miller, though Whittier will continue to see action at end in certain situations. The C.S.U. staff is also very high on sophomore end C.J. James, who played well in spurts as a true freshman last fall, as well as redshirt freshmen Te’Jay Brown and Curtis Wilson.

The secondary must improve. It should, thanks to the added experience gained by a number of contributors a season ago, though the Rams do need to replace starting cornerback Nick Oppenneer, who led the team with four interceptions. It helped that a player like cornerback DeAngelo Wilkinson, a senior, was able to land some playing time in 2009; as the favorite to replace Oppenneer, Wilkinson comes into his final season without the usual inexperience accompanying a first-year starter. The same can be said of junior strong safety Ivory Herd, who earned the most significant playing time of his career a season ago. Herd — or senior Travis Ford — will line up next to free safety Elijah-Blu Smith, who accounted for 74 tackles and 3 interceptions a season ago. Smith, along with junior cornerback Momo Thomas, will be asked to lead this defensive backfield by example.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Positions that could also work in this spot: offensive line, wide receiver. I’m going to stick with quarterback, however, where a pair of freshmen have moved ahead of the pack to stand one-two on the depth chart entering the summer. The first is Nico Ranieri, a former all-state product out of Florida, who had the luxury of learning the intricacies of the C.S.U. offense during a redshirt season a year ago. His competition, true freshman Pete Thomas, is perhaps the most ballyhooed quarterback recruit in program history. The California product arrived on campus this spring, in time to compete during spring drills, beginning the process of catching up with Ranieri. Thomas also arrived with sizable expectations. According to Fairchild, the pair left the spring in a dead heat; competition will recommence when the Rams return to the practice field in the fall. One thing is certain: after starting a fifth-year senior in each of his first two seasons, Fairchild has embraced the opportunity to have a young quarterback learn and grow in his system. It’s a move that may end up paying off for the Rams, though this season may be a bit of a struggle. I’d be surprised if Fairchild doesn’t go with Thomas.

Game(s) to watch

The rivalry game with Colorado annually ranks among the opening weekend’s must exciting event, even if — like last season — both teams are awful. Meetings with Colorado State’s brethren among the bottom half of the Mountain West will dictate this team’s bowl hopes, but sooner or later, the Rams will have to beat one of the top four teams in the conference: T.C.U., Utah, B.Y.U. and Air Force.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell 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. Let’s ignore the first issue and touch on the second: who will step up on offense? Better yet, let me ask you this question: even if C.S.U. had won seven games last fall, would you predict a team with a freshman quarterback, unproven wide receivers and an inexperienced offensive line to have success in the competitive Mountain West? I wouldn’t. 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.

Dream season The Rams show 2008 was no fluke, finishing 9-3, 6-2 in the Mountain West. One of those nine wins, of course, is against the Buffaloes.

Nightmare season The Rams show 2009 was the norm, not the exception to the rule: 3-9, 1-7 in conference play.

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 your team for inclusion in this section. Some of you, like loyal reader Philip, have already taken advantage of the offer.

Up Next

Who is No. 95? The only university in the country whose campus doubles as a UNESCO World Heritage Site. As its graduates are only too happy to inform you.

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Comments

  1. Jeff says:

    “Most important forts in U.S. military history”

    …Fort Knox?

    Paul: Oh, right. Fort Knox. Seen “Goldfinger” enough to remember Fort Knox. Though Knox is better known for its gold depository, it has a proud military history. Taking Benning out of No. 5 and putting Knox in its place.

  2. Rex Kramer says:

    University of Virginia? Good to see the countdown is still alive!

  3. James says:

    What about reaching back to the French and Indian War and taking Fort Duquesne (the future Fort Pitt, then Pittsburgh)?

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