February 25, 2010
Proud programs on hard times.
Colorado isn't far removed from a national championship under Bill Cartney, a string of top-10 finishes under McCartney and Rick Neuheisel and a run of four division titles in five years under Gary Barnett. But there's no remnant of that success after four painful years of clean, enthusiastic disappointment under Dan Hawkins. The Buffaloes are 16-33 since Hawkins came on in the wake of Barnett's tumultuous exit in 2006, with one bowl appearance and zero winning seasons. Hawkins saved his job in November largely by means of a prohibitive buyout if the university decided to fire him, but this fall will certainly be his last chance to make good on the expectations after his arrival from rising power Boise State. On paper, it's probably also his worst.
What Went Wrong. It's easy to lay the blame for the Big 12's worst total offense at the feet of the quarterbacks, Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen, who split duties and took an equal share of the blame as two of the three least-efficient regulars passers in the conference. (They were joined at the bottom only by Kansas State's Grant Gregory.) The pair barely completed half of their passes, tossed a league-high 18 interceptions and averaged a league-low 5.7 yards per pass, almost a shot-for-shot remake of the same duo's 2008 struggles.
But they hardly had a chance behind an offensive line that allowed more sacks than all but three other teams nationally and earned fewer yards per carry than all but four. Eight opponents dropped Hawkins and/or Hansen at least three times -- including Missouri, which racked up eight sacks, and Texas A&M, which notched seven -- and four Big 12 backs ran for more yards individually than the Buffs gained on the ground as a team.
What Went At Least Moderately Right. In the big picture, nothing went right -- the Buffs were just as bad on the fringes, finishing last in the conference in net punting and punt returns as well as turnover margin -- but there were some flashes of competence at various moments. CU led at Texas well into the third quarter in October, and came home to begin Kansas' in-conference death spiral by upsetting the Jayhawks in Boulder a week later; in November, the Buffs scored 35 in a one-point win over Texas A&M and led 21-10 in the third quarter at Oklahoma State before folding in the fourth. That's as good as it got: Squeakers over fellow mediocrities and moral victories against the obviously superior.
There were a couple of bright spots on offense in running back Rodney Stewart and receiver Scotty McKnight, who each led the team in their respective categories for the second year in a row. Stewart, especially, had his moments with five 100-yard games, including a 110-yard effort in the finale against one of the top defenses in the country, Nebraska. In the big picture, though, both seem like role players who happen to be the best an offense totally bereft of big-play options has to offer.
Changes, Building Blocks and Cautious Optimism. Again, very little, and it doesn't help that the play-making hole on offense continues to deepen all the time: The team's 2008 all-purpose yardage leader, Josh Smith, transferred to UCLA before the season and was soon followed by his touted cousin, running back Darrell Scott -- maybe the most decorated recruit in school history when he arrived in 2008 -- who left the team at midseason. Second-leading receiver Markques Simas (another once-touted recruit) was suspended following a DUI arrest last month, his second suspension in less than a year after missing 2008 as an academic casualty.
Things could be better in the trenches: Both lines return every starter after suffering through major attrition and overhaul last year, and former blue-chips Ryan Miller and Bryce Givens could join with all-conference pick Nate Solder to shore up the offensive front, if not exactly turn it into a strength. Frankly, though, the talent level isn't there -- the relatively well-regarded 2008 recruiting class could improve the situation some as its members come of age, but with Scott and possibly Simas moving on, no other likely skill position starter was rated better than three stars out of high school.
Target Date For Reacquisition of Mojo. It's harsh to say, but three years after Dan Hawkins is shown the door, at the earliest. The situation has clearly deteriorated beyond repair by the current regime, which hasn't been able to improve the uninspiring roster it inherited from the poisonous Gary Barnett administration and hasn't lifted the talent it does have. If Hawkins' tenure is defined by anything so far, it's sticking with his athletically limited spawn at quarterback while getting next to nothing out of one of the country's top talents in Darrell Scott, who was supposed to be a program-making recruit. Instead, he barely saw the field. And now that he doesn't even have "potential" to fall back on, I can't conjure up a single big-picture positive of Hawkins' program going into his fifth season, or any reason it won't be his last.
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Previously: Arizona State.