Fri Jul 30 01:24pm EDT
Part of the Doc's Big 12 Week.
The first auto suggestion when you search for "Dan Hawkins" is "'Dan Hawkins' Fired," which pretty much sets the mood for Colorado in 2010. Hawkins is one of two coaches this year (along with Illinois' Ron Zook) in line for the Greg Robinson Chair in Lame Duck Studies, named for the former Syracuse coach who earned an additional season in 2008 despite a steep on-field decline and no discernible sign of progress after three years. Hawkins' death rattle was echoing so loudly across the Rockies at the end of last season, his fourth straight losing campaign at a program that had taken four of the last five Big 12 North titles before he took over in 2006, that the only rational explanation for his continued employment was the expense of firing him. Every interview for the last nine months has been accompanied by the Grim Reaper.
Hawk being Hawk, enthusiasm and positivity are a given no matter the circumstances, even in universally-acknowledged make-or-break season, where the only concession to impending doom is the observation that "It's time to cinch it up a little bit." But there's no more pretending that the suffering is a necessary part of "doing things the right way," or laying tracks that will pay off in good time. The scandal-plagued Gary Barnett is too far in the past for anyone to contrast with the virtues of running a clean program. And the returns on his brand of mind-over-matter positivity have been too scant for too long to point out, for example, that this is his most experienced team, that the leading rusher and receiver are back alongside one of the most veteran offensive lines in the country.
It definitely won't do any good to remind critics of last year's 3-9 debacle (see: everyone) that he managed to get the Buffaloes to .500 and a bowl game – possibly just good enough to save his job again this year – a year after his first CU team staggered across the line at 2-10. Given Hawkins' track record when it comes to preseason exuberance, cinching up the belt and going to work is really the only way to go.
If the Hawkins era has been building towards anything, it must be this year. In Year Five, the recruits are all Hawkins', including his son, Cody, now a fifth-year senior with 28 starts under his belt at quarterback. His competition in the never-ending quarterback derby, Tyler Hansen, has started nine over the last two years. Scotty McKnight has more career receptions than any other returning player in the Big 12. Altogether, Phil Steele's "Experience Ratings" rank the Buffs as the most grizzled team in the conference. Must-win games against Baylor, Texas Tech, Iowa State and Kansas State are in Boulder. The stage for a job-saving breakthrough is as set as it's going to be at any point in the foreseeable future.
Don't mistake that for optimism. With nine starters back, this is largely the same offense that finished with the Big 12's worst total offense last year for the second year in a row, along with rock-bottom finishes in pass efficiency, turnover margin and sacks allowed. At quarterback and offensive line, especially, the seasoned vets have already achieved more in longevity than in production.
This is essentially the same team that responded to a make-or-break scenario last year by losing its first two games to Colorado State and Toledo; watching two of its more talented members, cousins Darrell Scott and Josh Smith, both jump ship for other schools; and ending the season separated from sole possession of last place in the North Division by four points in an upset at Kansas at the start of the Mangino Affair. If the high point of this season is another narrow escape against a disintegrating team They haven't won back-to-back conference games since mid-2007. And the biggest difference-maker in the lot, frankly, is probably Dan Hawkins. As little difference as he's made in his first four years, that's not a good sign.
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Matt Hinton is on Twitter: Follow him @DrSaturday.