In 2016 Colorado emerged as the Pac-12’s biggest surprise team as they captured the South Division. Are the Buffaloes showing signs that they could have repeated success this year? Our Joe Healey examines one more of Arizona State’s foes, the University of Colorado.
Head Coach: Mike MacIntyre (ninth year overall, fifth at Colorado; 35-52 overall, 20-31 at Colorado)
Previously an assistant coach at Duke, Ole Miss and Temple as well as in the NFL with the Jets and Cowboys, after a three-year run as head coach at San Jose State capped off by a 10-2 record in 2012, Mike MacIntyre was picked as Colorado’s head coach prior to the 2013 season.
The Buffalo program had struggled mightily in its first two seasons in the Pac-12 Conference, posting a combined 4-21 record in 2011-12 including a 3-15 slate in conference play.
MacIntyre created improvement his first year, taking the 1-11 Buffaloes from 2012 to a 4-8 finish in 2013. However, Colorado still finished with just a 1-8 conference record and finished last in the Pac-12 South division.
In 2014, the Buffaloes dipped back to a poorer level with a 2-10 record and went winless in nine conference games. The 2015 season featured an uptick as Colorado finished 4-9, but again went just 1-8 in conference play and for the fourth straight season finished last in its division.
With a talented, senior-heavy defense and dynamic offensive skill players, Colorado enjoyed the most sensational turnaround by a conference team this century as MacIntyre guided the Buffaloes to a 10-4 finish and claimed the Pac-12 south championship.
For his Herculean efforts in bringing the Buffaloes back out of obscurity, MacIntyre was named the Pac-12 Conference Coach of the Year and also the Associated Press, Home Depot and Walter Camp National Coach of the Year.
2016 Review: Chosen in the preseason by the Pac-12 media to finish last in the South division and 11th in the league ahead of only Oregon State, the safe bet prior to the 2016 season was that Colorado would for the fifth consecutive season finish in the cellar of the Pac-12 South. south. south division and 11th in the league ahead of only Oregon State, the safe bet prior to the 2016 season was that Colorado would for the fifth consecutive season finish in the cellar of the Pac-12 South.
All bets were off, however, after the Buffaloes became one of the nation’s most improved teams over the course of the 2016 season and rose from the ashes of a conference afterthought to an appearance in the Pac-12 Conference championship game.
The 2016 season was one of the several superlatives for Colorado as the Buffaloes notched the most significant turnaround from one year to the next in conference history (dating back to the original Pac-8 Conference) by posting a 10-4 record compared to a 4-9 finish the year before – the first time since Stanford in 1999 a Pac team improved its record by at least five wins over the course of one season.
On a national scale, Colorado was one of six teams to improve its record by 5.5 games from 2015 to 2016 and one of only two Power-5 teams on the list as Georgia Tech joined the Buffaloes along with Army, Eastern Michigan, Troy and UCF.
Colorado’s improvement also ties for the second-best turnaround in school history, only behind the six-game improvement from 2000 to 2001.
The Buffaloes naturally returned to the favor of its fan base, as the team’s home finale last year drew the first sellout at Folsom Field since the 2008 season and had its highest per-game attendance average since 2011. Overall, the Buffaloes posted an 18.4% home attendance increase in 2016, the second-largest bump among Power-5 schools behind Miami (Fla.) at 23.0%.
Colorado’s return to prominence featured easy wins over Colorado State and Idaho State to begin the year before a competitive 45-28 loss at The Big House against Michigan. Even in defeat, the valiant effort by the Buffaloes gave every indication that Colorado was a much-improved team in 2016.
The next week, Colorado opened eyes on a conference scale by downing Oregon by a score of 41-38, then started 2-0 in league play with a 47-6 takedown of Oregon State. By October 1, the Buffaloes had already tied their previous season high of Pac-12 wins (two).
The Buffaloes dropped another close one on the road, a 21-17 loss at USC before returning home to smash ASU from pillar-to-post in a 40-16 victory to mark the first-ever victory in the series for Colorado.
From there, CU rallied five straight wins to end the regular season by beating Stanford, UCLA, Arizona, Washington State and finally Utah.
With the Pac-12 South division title in hand, the 10-2 Buffaloes took on Washington but were unable to match the high-powered Huskies and were defeated by a score of 41-10. Colorado met a similar fate in its Valero Alamo Bowl appearance against Oklahoma State with a 38-8 loss to the Cowboys.
Program Overview: Similar to Washington in the Pac-12 North, Colorado last season was a perfect example of a once prominent college football program coming full circle back to a high level of success after a long period of mediocrity.
A multiple-time league champion in the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference and Mountain State Conference in the first half of the 1900s, Colorado was the next-to-last addition to what would ultimately become the Big Eight Conference when the Buffaloes joined the league in 1948.
The first 40 years in the Big Eight were generally average for Colorado, as from 1948-88 the program had just four seasons of nine or more wins and just one outright conference championship (1961).
In the late-1980s, however, the program rocketed to a previously unexperienced level of success as in 1989 head coach Bill McCartney guided the Buffaloes to an 11-1 record – with the only loss coming to end the season in the Orange Bowl against Notre Dame – and a No. 4 final poll ranking.
Colorado built on that momentum by finishing 11-1-1 in 1990 with a second straight Big Eight title and a revenge victory over the Fighting Irish in the Orange Bowl, helping the Buffaloes share the National Championship as the pick of the Associated Press to join Coaches Poll champion Georgia Tech.
The Buffaloes would compile top-20 finishes in 1991-93 and then backed by Heisman Trophy winning running back Rashaan Salaam in 1994 post an 11-1 record, a Fiesta Bowl win over Notre Dame and a No. 3 final ranking in both polls.
McCartney retired after the 1994 season at the young age of 54, with offensive coordinator Rick Neuheisel picked to replace him.
Neuheisel would sustain McCartney’s success with 10-2 records and top-10 finishes his first two seasons, but things would take a dive in 1997 when Colorado posted a 5-6 record – its first losing season since 1984. Things improved the next season with an 8-4 record in 1998 but Neuheisel then left to take the head coaching position at Washington.
Previously the head coach at Northwestern, Gary Barnett was hired to replace Neuheisel and after a horrid start to his tenure with a 3-8 record in 2000, the Buffaloes returned to the spotlight with a 10-3 record the next season that included a Fiesta Bowl berth against Oregon and a No. 9 final poll ranking.
The next season Barnett’s Buffaloes would finish with a 9-5 record and top-25 final ranking but for more than a decade, things would fall sharply downhill for Colorado.
Amid recruiting scandals and other accusations, Barnett was forced to resign after the 2005 season and was replaced by former Boise State head coach Dan Hawkins.
Hawkins’ tenure at Colorado is likely most memorable for telling people to “go play intramurals, brother” more than anything on the field as his five-year tenure was highlighted by a 6-7 record in 2007.
Prior to the 2011 season, Colorado made the dramatic shift to leave the Big XII Conference and head west along with Utah to turn the Pac-10 into the Pac-12 Conference.
A former Colorado tight end in the mid-1980s, Jon Embree was the next man up to usher Colorado into the Pac-12 but was shown the door in quick fashion as he lasted only two seasons in charge of his alma mater and compiled a 4-21 record.
For the first five years of existence in the Pac-12 Conference, Colorado was nothing more than an afterthought as from 2012-15 the Buffaloes finished last in the South division each and every season and across those four seasons posted a dismal 3-33 record in conference play.
Hired in 2013, despite the losing ways in league play head coach Mike MacIntyre was able to show some baby steps of improvement. MacIntyre won four games in 2013, slumped to a 2-10 record in 2014 and then a 4-9 finish in 2015.
The stars would align for Colorado in 2016, as the Buffaloes surged to a 10-4 record, the Pac-12 South title, the program’s first bowl berth since 2007 and a No. 17 final ranking in the Associated Press poll – Colorado’s highest final ranking since 2001.
Series Record vs. ASU (Most Recent Meeting): ASU 7, Colorado 1 (Colorado 40, ASU 16 on Oct. 15, 2016, in Boulder)
Prior to last season, ASU had a seven-game win streak over the Buffaloes, including two non-conference games held before Colorado entered the Pac-12.
The two teams played a home-and-home series in 2006 and 2007, starting in Boulder and then played in Tempe the following year. After those two wins, ASU won five straight from 2011-15 when the two became division foes in the Pac-12 South.
Current Series Streak: Colorado, 1
After suffering seven straight losses to ASU from 2006-15, Colorado got in the win column against the Sun Devils in decisive fashion with a 24-point tail-whipping in which the Buffaloes outgained Arizona State by a margin of 580 yards to 199.
Key Number: 110 – Out of the 154 total defensive starts made by the 11 players in 14 games last year, 110 are gone from the Colorado lineup for 2017 (71.4%). Eight full-time starters depart, six of which started all 14 games last year and four of the eight earned First or Second-Team All-Pac-12 honors in 2016.
Six total defensive players return that started in 2016 in LB Rick Gamboa (14 starts), DB Afolabi Laguda (14), DB Ryan Moeller (10), DB Isaiah Oliver (three), LB Derek McCartney (two) and DL Leo Jackson III (one), however none of these returners earned first-team, second-team or honorable mention all-league recognition last season.
Key Departures: DB Chidobe Awuzie, LB Jimmie Gilbert, QB Sefo Liufao, DB Tedric Thompson, DB Ahkello Witherspoon
Colorado’s spectacular turnaround in 2016 was guided by an outstanding senior class as nine of the 16 players to earn first-team, second-team or honorable mention all-conference honors finished their Buffalo careers last season.
The Pac-12 leader in pass defense efficiency (fifth nationally) and the second-ranked team in total pass defense (20th nationally), Colorado faces the daunting task or replacing the vast majority of its starting secondary in 2017.
Last season, defensive backs Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson and Ahkello Witherspoon all were named Second-Team All-Pac-12 – no small accomplishment considering the first-team defensive backs included Thorpe Award winner Adoree Jackson and members of Washington’s NFL-ready secondary.
Unbelievably, Thompson and Witherspoon tied for the national lead with 23 total passes defended each as Thompson had 16 pass breakups and seven interceptions while Witherspoon posted a national-high 22 pass breakups and one interception. Thompson tied for second in the nation with his seven picks and third nationally with his 16 pass breakups, giving Colorado what likely was the most disruptive secondary in all of college football in 2016.
Awuzie was certainly no slouch as he was credited with 13 pass breakups and one interception, adding 52 total tackles.
The lone First-Team All-Pac-12 pick for Colorado on offense or defense and a Third-Team All-American, rush linebacker Jimmie Gilbert ended his career on a high note as he ranked second in the league in sacks (10.5), fourth in tackles-for-loss (14.5) and second in forced fumbles (six).
A starter for the majority of his four years at Colorado, Sefo Liufao had considerable influence on Colorado’s recent dramatic improvement.
Though he missed two full games and most of a third, as a senior Liufao threw for 2,366 yards with 11 touchdowns and six interceptions and added career-bests of 494 net rushing yards and eight scores. Though his passing numbers were not eye-popping figures, his leadership gave Colorado a boost in 2016.
Players Selected in the 2017 NFL Draft: 4 – DB Chidobe Awuzie (2nd round, 66th overall to Dallas), DB Ahkello Witherspoon (3rd round, 66th overall to San Francisco), DB Tedric Thompson (4th round, 111th overall to Seattle), DL Jordan Carrell (7th round, 246th overall to Dallas)
It comes as no surprise that Colorado – a school that hadn’t had a player picked in either of the last two drafts – had a productive NFL Draft output, tying its largest class since 2003.
Top Returners: WR Shay Fields, LB Rick Gamboa, RB Phillip Lindsay, QB Steven Montez, WR Devin Ross
One of the most underrated players on the conference level – and perhaps one of the nation’s most underrated players as a whole – Phillip Lindsay was a do-it-all back for Colorado in their incredible comeback season in 2016 and returns for his senior year.
After rushing for a decent output of 653 yards as a sophomore in 2015, Lindsay absolutely exploded to help Colorado claim the Pac-12 South by rushing for 1,252 yards with 16 touchdowns while catching 53 passes for 493 yards and another score on his way to Second-Team All-Pac-12 accolades.
Lindsay was the conference leader and ranked second in the nation in receptions by a running back and his 16 rushing touchdowns also was the conference high and put him in a tie for 16th nationally. Unfortunately for Sun Devil fans, a fair chunk of Lindsay’s total rushing yardage came against ASU in his 219-yard performance, the first 200-yard rushing game for a Colorado player since 2002.
In addition to the dynamic and stable presence provided by Lindsay, new starting quarterback Steven Montez will be aided by the gift of the league’s best group of wide receivers headlined by seniors Shay Fields and Devin Ross, both Honorable Mention All-Pac-12 picks in 2016.
A premier deep threat, Fields totaled 883 receiving yards on 56 catches with nine touchdowns while Ross hauled in a team-high 69 receptions for 787 yards and five scores. Fields is the Pac-12 returning leader in receiving yards from 2016 while Ross is the conference’s returning leader in receptions from last year. Fields is also the returning leader in the Pac-12 in yards per catch (15.8) among players with 35 or more receptions in 2016, legitimately giving Colorado the most accomplished one-two punch at wide receiver in the Pac-12.
As a fill-in starter for the injured Liufao last year, Montez showed sensational potential at quarterback. In his first career start, Montez threw for 333 yards with three touchdowns and rushed for 135 yards and a score in Colorado’s win over Oregon and followed that up with a 293-yard, three-touchdown passing effort in a blowout win over Oregon State.
The presumptive starting quarterback to replace Liufao in 2017, eyes will be on Montez to see if he can avoid the vaunted “sophomore slump” this fall.
One of only three returning defensive starters for Colorado, Rick Gamboa totaled 77 tackles with an interception as a sophomore in 2016. Heading into 2017, Gamboa likely will be called upon to assume a leadership role for what will be a very green Colorado starting defense.
2017 Signing Class Ranking: 32nd nationally, 7th in Pac-12
The fourth-best class Colorado has signed in the “Internet Era” and its best since 2008, the Buffaloes were able to capitalize on their best season since 2001.
Altogether, prior to this group, Colorado had only put together one signing class better than 60th nationally since 2009.
The Buffaloes were able to keep one of Colorado’s three four-star prospects in OL Jake Moretti – the first four star (or higher) in-state recruit signed by Colorado since 2009.
Top Signees: OL Jake Moretti, WR K.D. Nixon, TE Jared Poplawski, DE Jacob Callier, OL Grant Polley
Rated the No. 116 overall prospect in the 2017 class, Jake Moretti is the top overall signee for Colorado since 2012. The four-star lineman was also rated the No. 12 offensive tackle recruit in the country and had several Pac-12 offers as well as ones from schools including Florida, Georgia, Miami (Fla.), Michigan, Notre Dame, Ohio State, Oklahoma, and Wisconsin.
Colorado returns four starting linemen including both tackles for 2017, but starting left tackle Jeromy Irwin will be a senior this fall which could create an opening for Moretti in 2018.
Joining Colorado’s dynamic group of receivers is four-star K.D. Nixon, a Texas native who had an offer from ASU as well as several prominent schools. The No. 42 wide receiver recruit for the 2017 class, it may be a challenge for Nixon to break into Colorado’s stacked receiver group this season but he should be a key target in 2018 and beyond when the likes of Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross all graduate.
It is rare that an Arizona native commits to ASU but later backs off his pledge in favor of another school, but tight end Jared Poplawski is one such case.
Prior to the 2016 season, the Scottsdale Saguaro star verbally committed to the Sun Devils along with teammates Kyle Soelle and Corey Stephens, but on Signing Day switched and signed with the Buffaloes.
Poplawski’s departure isn’t one that should be dismissed by Sun Devil fans as he was rated the No. 22 tight end in the 2017 class and beside ASU and Colorado earned an offer from Oregon among several other schools.
With starter Sean Irwin now gone, only four tight ends are listed on the Colorado spring roster -- a group that combined for two receptions in 2016. Not only should Poplawski be in line for playing time as a true freshman, but depending on his physical readiness a starting position could be a possibility as well.
The top defensive signee for Colorado in 2017, California product Jacob Callier was a top-50 player in his state and the No. 26 strongside defensive end recruit in the country.
Five members from Colorado’s starting front seven are gone from 2016 including the entire starting defensive line, which could give Callier an early look for the Buffaloes.
A three-star lineman from Texas, Grant Polley was rated the No. 37 offensive tackle in the country. Polley was offered by the in-state Longhorns and visited Texas not long before Signing Day but stuck with his pledge to Colorado.
Playing time likely will be difficult to come by as a true freshman but after a redshirt year, he should be able to compete for substantial reps.