10-4, 8-1 in Conference
Key Wins: Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, Washington State, Utah
Key Losses: USC
The 2016 season was nothing short of a wild success for the Buffs. Mike McIntyre, the head coach, literally doubled his win total at Colorado (4 wins in 2015, 2 wins in 2014, and 4 wins in 2013). Before McIntyre, Colorado had not had a double-digit win season since 2001 that ended in their only BCS Bowl appearance at the Fiesta Bowl. I have been picking key wins and losses for these teams based on how it molded the narrative surrounding the team itself. In 2016, beating Oregon showed that they were here to compete (equally as much as it showed Oregon was not). Wins over Stanford and Washington State showed their propensity to compete, as well. Beating Utah and UCLA gave them the leg up they needed to make their first conference championship appearance since the 2005 Big XII Championship (sporting a 7-6 record and getting promptly massacred by Vince Young’s Texas Longhorns, 70-3).
Colorado’s moneymakers were on defense. In a conference that showcases brilliant passing attacks, the Buffs shaped a shutdown secondary and landed at 20th in points allowed per game in the country. Headlined by Chidobe Awuzie, Kenneth Olugbode, Tedric Thompson, and Jimmie Gilbert, this squad took the Pac-12 South by storm. Watching the games, though, it was readily apparent that QB Sefo Liufau was the lynchpin of the whole operation. Unfortunately, Liufau had issues with injuries last year. While his numbers were less-than-noticeable, every loss Colorado sustained last year featured backup QBs getting non-insignificant playing time. Liufau has since graduated as the Buffaloes transition to new leadership under center.
Coach: Mike McIntyre
Despite having a relatively quiet career, Mike McIntyre comes by his coaching aptitude honestly. His father, George, was a coach at University of Tennessee – Martin and Vanderbilt. During Mike’s playing career, he played two years under his father at Vanderbilt and two years at Georgia. He was not a standout on either team but his efforts were eventually rewarded with a graduate assistant spot at the University of Georgia. A long and winding road through the NCAA, NFL, and even German semi-pro football led him to his first head coaching gig at San Jose State.
In three seasons McIntyre took the Spartans from a two-win season to a ten-win season that culminated in their first appearance in the AP Top 25. Colorado, coming off a one-win season, saw something special in McIntyre’s ability to create something out of seemingly nothing. The Buffaloes’ athletic department, understanding this team was a major work-in-progress, endured three losing seasons under McIntyre before it began to click. His greatest feat has yet to come after losing heralded defensive coordinator, Jim Leavitt, to their conference foes in Oregon.
As aforementioned, the Buffs lost their senior quarterback to graduation. Stephen Montez appears to be the heir apparent for 2017. In 2016, he had up-and-down performances. Against Oregon and Oregon State, Montez dazzled with a combined 625 yards and six touchdowns, throwing only two interceptions. In their four losses, he was only able to muster a total of 320 yards, one touchdown, and two interceptions on 68 attempts. Standing at a towering 6’5″, he showed his ability to scramble and evade pressure when he was at his best in terms of pocket presence. Besides Liufau, nearly all of the skill positions are returning including RB Phillip Lindsay (1,745 total yards, 17 total tds) and WR Shay Fields (883 receiving yards, 9 TDs). If Montez can work on some of his inconsistencies, there’s no reason to think Colorado can’t come back this season where they left off on the offensive side of the ball.
The defense, on the other hand, loses just about everyone who was impactful. Their tackle leader, Kenneth Olugbode (115 total tackles) was a senior. Their sack and tackle-for-loss leader (14 for both), Jimmie Gilbert, was a senior. Their interceptions leader, Tedric Thompson (7 INTs), was a senior. Their do-it-all man in the secondary, Chidobe Awuzie, was a senior. On top of all that, Jim Leavitt, their defensive coordinator who took them from 120th in points allowed per game in 2014 to 20th in 2016, is gone. New defensive coordinator D.J. Elliott will need to ensure that all things are right in his camp for the Buffaloes to see any success in 2017.
Projected Record: 6-6
In a vacuum, a regression from ten wins to six seems like a problem. In this case, a six win season for a team who hadn’t seen that mark in ten seasons would be a remarkable feat. While I predict they win six and make a bowl, Arizona State and Colorado State are near-coin flips and could very well push their record back into four-win territory. It will be very, very important for QB Steven Montez and DC D.J. Elliott to have seamless transitions into the void their predecessors left behind.