Much like the age-old tree falling in the forest question, it seems worth asking, “If a team gets better, but its record stays the same, does it really matter?” The answer to that question should be yes, but all too frequently it doesn’t. Mike MacIntyre is doing his best to turn this program around and they are improving, but the unfortunate fact remains that Colorado is in a tough division and still might not have the horses to compete on a week-to-week basis.
Nelson Spruce is one of the players on this roster to whom that doesn’t apply. Spruce is one of the top possession receivers in the country, and proved it last year hauling in over 100 passes for 1,198 yards and twelve touchdowns. He also managed a spot as a Biletnikoff Award semifinalist. Shay Fields also returns after catching 50 passes for 486 yards last season. These two aren’t the most explosive receiving duo in the country, but they are sure handed and should be reliable targets for Sefo Liufau.
Liufau could use some reliable targets too, because while he put up some solid passing numbers, he also threw entirely too many interceptions. His fifteen interceptions tied for tenth in the FBS. His 3,200 passing yards and 28 passing touchdowns were both top-30 numbers however, so if he can cut down on the turnovers then Colorado might be able to move up in the win column this season.
Colorado’s offensive line does benefit from the return of both tackles and center from last season, but the Buffs will have to replace both guards. Stephane Nembot and Jeromy Irwin should be fixtures at guards, and Nembot is even considered one of the better tackles in the conference with 32 career starts at right tackle. Alex Kelley started all twelve games at center last season, and there’s no reason why he should not start every game again this season. Sophomore Gerrad Kough is the only other member of this line with starting experience, but his two career starts at left guard is more than whoever will be starting at right guard.
The Buffs have a trio of returning running backs who were okay last season, but no one stood out from the pack. Christian Powell was marginally better than the other two with 448 yards, four touchdowns and over five yards per carry, but that isn’t exactly setting the world on fire. I’d be surprised if he didn’t split plenty of carries with Michael Adkins II and Phillip Lindsay, at least early on in the season.
Josh Tupou’s dismissal from the team this past offseason is a pretty big blow to the defensive line. Tupou would have been the leading returning tackler on the defensive line. Fortunately, his replacement Justin Solis was the second leading tackler on the defensive line, so the dropoff shouldn’t be too bad, although the loss of depth is big for a team that was already pretty thin up front. Samson Kafovalu will return at defensive end after electing to take a redshirt last season, which should help ease the loss of Tupou a little more, although it would have been nice to have both of them.
Returning corners Ken Crawley and Chidobe Awuzie did not record any interceptions, but they did break up seventeen passes. If they could turn a few of those break-ups into turnovers it would be nice, but they have not played poorly all the same. Sophomore Evan White and junior Tedric Thompson are the expected starters at safety, and Thompson helped pick up the turnover slack eventually with three interceptions last season.
Kenneth Olugbode and Addison Gillam both topped fifty tackles at inside linebacker last season, and Gillam exhibited an ability to bring players down behind the line with nine tackles for loss. Jimmie Gilbert and sophomore Derek McCartney also return at outside linebacker, neither of which put up quite the tackle numbers last season that the inside linebackers did, but both topped twenty tackles at least. They both also topped five tackles for loss too.
Once again, this team is improving, but their improvement relative to their conference peers is still not enough. This team went winless against the conference last season, and it isn’t unthinkable that it may happen again this season. With a shaky running game and some question marks up front defensively, there is too much indicating that the Buffs still aren’t ready. It’s also unfortunate that all of their best potential chances to pick up a win come on the road against Oregon State and Washington State.