The Colorado Buffaloes came into the 2013 season with a fresh coaching staff, a fresh attitude, and absolutely no expectations. They ended up walking off of the field in late November with four wins to their credit. Now set to begin the 2014 campaign, a newly slimmed down Mike MacIntyre and his Buffs have created a ground floor of expectations to build upon.
Picturing a 6-win Colorado team seems like it would require a fantastical journey in Neil deGrasse Tyson's Ship of the Imagination but it could actually be something observed with our own eyes right here on Earth this very season!
(Puts on silver and gold shades)
Here's how the Golden Buffaloes can find themselves playing football after Thanksgiving weekend for the first time since 2007. (Or at least come away with more than one win in conference play.)
Most crucially, this team will need to show marked improvement in line play on both sides of the ball. Leaky offensive line performances and ineffective defensive lines have doomed Colorado teams in many a contest over the past decade.
Reports out of fall camp indicate that junior tackle Stephane Nembot has made large strides in his game. If he becomes the monster-beast that he's meant to be, and if the younger guys such as Jeromy Irwin, Alex Kelley, and Auburn transfer Shane Callahan can provide steady downs then this unit led by senior Daniel Munyer can give the offense the protection it needs to start hammering out yards.
Behind that line will be sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau, who is among the toughest players in the conference. He has the size, arm strength, and pocket presence to keep plays alive under pressure. With more time to hit his wide array of targets and the support of an effective stable of tailbacks the Sefo-led offense is capable of sustaining long, damaging drives and in turn giving their defense rest that it rarely received last season.
Often outmanned and outgunned a year ago, Colorado's defense comes into 2014 with plenty of experience absorbing the Pac-12's firepower.
Stepping in to fill the void on the defensive front left by Chidera Uzo-Diribe's departure is redshirt freshman Derek McCartney, Colorado legend Bill McCartney's grandson. Juniors Josh Tupou and Justin Solis will be charged with clogging the running lanes and disrupting the read option.
With junior defensive end Tyler Henington out for the season after suffering a major knee injury, young guys like Jimmie Gilbert, Christian Shaver, and De'Jon Wilson are going to have step up in a hurry and senior Juda Parker is going to be forced to move inside to defend up the gut. If they can consistently get off the edge and produce a push, this crew has the potential to at least slow down the Pac-12's assortment of laser-rocket arms.
Backing this line is the conference's leading tackler, sophomore Addison Gillam and a now-veteran secondary highlighted by senior Greg Henderson and the rising star of junior Ken Crawley. The loss of senior safety Jered Bell to an ACL tear certainly hurts but MacIntyre does have some depth at the position, beginning with sophomore Tedric Thompson who has the skill set to step up and contribute now.
The defense's job does not get any easier this season. If the Buffs aren't constantly playing from behind and if the line can maintain pressure they have the talent up the middle and in the secondary to keep themselves in contention late in games far more often than in any of the past three seasons.
Ultimately, line play is going to be the single most important factor in whether CU can exceed their 2013 win total and challenge for a bowl game. They'll also need some VERY friendly bounces to hop their way in order to steal a game or two.
Here's how I see this year's schedule shaking out:
Gotta Have ‘Em: Colorado State, @ UMASS, Hawaii, @ Cal.
Definitely Not Winning: @ Oregon, @ USC, UCLA
Probably Losing: @ Arizona, Oregon State
Swing Games: Arizona State, Washington, Utah
The most intriguing matchup is the ASU tilt on September 13th. If the Buffaloes happen to be 2-0 heading into their first home game, which kicks off at 8 PM, in front of a packed, raucous, and largely blacked out Folsom, they could quite possibly create some of that Boulder magic.
(Takes off silver and gold shades)
Winning six will require Colorado to claim two road victories in the span of three weeks. It's been seven years since the program won two road games in a single season. This team is still very, very young and they've already sustained a couple of key injuries.
Nobody outside of Dal Ward truly expects the Buffs to achieve a bowl appearance in 2014. This year was always going to be another building block in the MacIntyre era's foundation. However, if equaling last year's tally is expected, then getting one more is attainable. If these players are running out behind Ralphie on November 29th with five wins on the shelf, well, anything can happen.