Rob Malara

Sun Devil Schedule Study: Colorado

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2015: 4-9 OVERALL (1-8 Pac-12 South)

Winspedia Match-up

2017 NFL Draft Prospects: CB Chidobe Awuzie

Colorado’s struggles since joining the Pac-12 back in 2011 looked to have finally been coming to an end early last fall as head coach Mike MacIntyre’s program had won three of its first four games in September heading into their conference opener against Oregon.  While none of those three wins were against Power Five conference schools, both health and depth finally seemed to be improving in their favor after the previous two dismal seasons on MacIntyre’s watch.   A 41-24 loss to the Ducks would begin a stretch that would see the team lose seven of its final eight games en route to once again confirm its place at the bottom of the Pac-12 South division.  The tough times would continue for a fan base that has been waiting for bowl season each and every year since their last trip in 2007.
The start of the off-season had a different feel to it though for the Buffs.  2o16 looked to be the year, in terms of roster construction, that the team could make a run at being competitive with the most experience group of players returning to the Pac-12 when you look at senior starters and returning lettermen.  But MacIntyre, now on the hot seat going into his fourth season in Boulder, would need to address concerns at the quarterback position in order for his team to sneak away with a couple of wins during conference play.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE BUFFS ON OFFENSE

2015 S&P+ Offense: 99th in FBS

2016 Returning Starters Offense: 6

Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 75.7% (48th in FBS)

Career Starts Offensive Line: 77 (34th in FBS)

The scoring offense has finished no better than tenth in the Pac-12 during MacIntyre’s tenure in Boulder. In December, the MacIntyre hired former Colorado receiver Darrin Chiaverini to the coaching staff as a receivers coach and co-offensive coordinator with Brian Lindgren.  When hired back in 2013, Lindgren was thought to be one of the better new young offensive assistants in college football, and while the offense has certainly improved, it’s been mired by inconsistency.  Chiaverini could be just what the doctor ordered as he’ll help emphasize Air Raid tendencies built for underdog  teams with an offense that isn’t going to overwhelm opponents with its skill players and will have to lean more on efficiency and tempo.

Questions still loom around the identity of this offense due to injuries carrying over from last season as well as those sustained during the spring.  MacIntyre looked to bolster the quarterback position in the off-season, where three-year starter Sefo Liufau is still recovering from the Lisfranc injury he suffered in a loss to USC in November.  By securing the services of Texas Tech transfer Davis Webb the Buffs looked to be moving in the right direction in terms of providing insurance for Liufau’s recovery.  Webb however had other ideas after spring ball and changed his mind on the Buffs in May, instead signing with Cal, “when I committed in January, that was the best situation for me, but then something that fit me better came along.”Colorado Buffaloes offense

All is not lost in Boulder if Liufau can make a healthy return however.  When healthy, he throws one of the better deep balls in the league and improved as a running quarterback last season until his injury.  He’s now the most experienced quarterback in the conference with 30 starts and has thrown for 7,397 yards, 49 touchdowns and 29 interceptions in his career. He’s just 335 yards away from breaking Buffs all-time passing record, but throughout his career, his offense line has done him little to no favors (40 sacks and 87 quarterback hits allowed in 2015), all while the Buffs have failed to produce an impact player at the running back position to take some of the weight off of his shoulders.

Last year the Buffs once again went with a committee at running back.  After graduation and transfers, junior Phillip Lindsay looks to take the reigns as the lead back after rushing for 653 yards and six touchdowns on 140 carries.  He’ll be one of the smallest starting running backs in the league, but makes up for it in this scheme by being a weapon in the pass game, catching all 26 of the passes thrown his way last season.  The Buffs took a nose dive last year in red zone efficiency, scoring touchdowns on only 48-percent of their opportunities (last in the conference), down nearly 20-percent from the previous season.  Having a more consistent run game could greatly help in this department.

Junior left tackle returns to protect Liufao’s blindside after tearing his ACL early last year and missing the remaining 11 games.  While this unit will have to replace massive offensive tackle Stephane Nembot and his 44 career starts, as a whole this unit looks stronger than last year’s, helping to improve upon the lowly 19.7 points it averaged in league play last season.

Looking to join Nembot in the NFL this fall will be receiver Nelson Spruce and his conference leading 195 receptions over the past two seasons.  Junior Shay Fields was actually leading the Buffs in receptions before suffering an ankle injury against Arizona that slowed him down for the remainder of the season.  He looks to be Liufao’s top deep threat in a group that has some surprising potential after being re-stocked over the past few recruiting cycles, after being identified as one of the key needs by MacIntyre.

WHAT TO LOOK FOR FROM THE BUFFS ON DEFENSE

2015 S&P+ Defense: 93rd in FBS

2015 Havoc Rate: 71st in FBS

2016 Returning Starters Defense: 9

Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 79.9% (12th in FBS)

Former South Florida head coach Jim Leavitt was hired away from the San Francisco 49ers to coach the defense in 2015, and while improvement may not have been monumental across the board, the defense certainly improved.  But it’s inability to to stop the run proved to be critical even though it improved from the previous season as the defense finished ninth in the Pac-12 allowing 198 rushing yards per game and over 5 yards a carry.  But this could be one of the big areas of improvement for the Buffs in 2016 as the Buffs return 10 of their top 12 tacklers on the defensive line along with 6-foot-3, 300 pound nose tackle Josh Tupou who missed last year due to suspension.

This fall Tupou will be teamed with defensive end Jordan Carrell to anchor the front of the Buffs 3-4 defense.  Carrell is still adapting to playing in the new scheme after switching over from a 4-3 and has beefed up from 280 to 295 pounds.  That these two stay healthy is of the utmost importance because each has shown the ability to play a lot of snaps for this team, among the rest of a group who has succumb to injuries during each and every season under MacIntyre’s leadership.

The program has done well at identifying talent at the linebacker position, but once again has struggled to get the majority of that talent on the field at the same time.  Case in point with Addison Gillam, a freshman all-american in 2013, but played in just two games due to knee injuries last season.  The problem was compounded when junior Kenneth Olugbode missed multiple games as well.  But their absence forced Leavitt to push Rick Gamboa into a starting spot as redshirt freshman.  Something that worked out as a blessing when Gamboa lead the team in tackles with 96.

Continued improvement in the front seven of the defense can only help to bolster the secondary, what is thought to be the strength of this team going into 2016, but it has to improve upon its 27 sacks (59th overall in FBS). “Our secondary is great,” said MacIntyre.  “But if we can’t get to the quarterback in a short amount of time they’re going to struggle because you can’t cover someone forever.”

Senior Chidobe Awuzie was a second-team all-conference performer last season, and ranks third in Pro Football Focus grades among returning Pac-12 cornerbacks.  After spending last year as the nickleback, Awuzie earned a full-time roll at corner having exhibited advanced skills in coverage (two interceptions and nine passes defensed), holding up against the run, not to mention getting to the quarterback (four sacks).  He’s far and away this team’s play-maker on defense possessing both the speed to make plays in space, and the toughness to sort through big bodies and make plays in the offensive backfield.

FINAL SYNOPSIS

In order to win close games in the Pac-12 you have to be efficient with the football.  You have to be able to stop the run, and unless your head coach is Mike Leach, you have to be able to at least keep opposing offenses honest by running the football.  The Buffs made strides last year and were competitive in many of their games against Pac-12 opponents, losing by a combined 13 points to the likes of UCLA, Utah, and USC.  But in this new era of competative play in the Pac-12, losing too many games by either small or large amounts will get you fired at the end of the day.

Liufao has to be healthy for this team to have any chance at improving and the defense must continue to take big steps in improving against the run.  Suffice to say this team has struggled to surround its difference makers with depth and a supporting cast.  And while 2016 may be the most competitive roster since joining the Pac-12, in terms of its two-deep, it still will need to find a lot of luck to defeat even ASU during a down year when the Devils visit in October.  And the conference schedule makers didn’t do the Buffs any favors as they are the only Pac-12 team that has to play Oregon, USC and Stanford on the road this season.

They will be the Devils seventh opponent, with the contest in Boulder having all the makings of a trap game coming after games against the LA schools and just before Homecoming against the high-powered Washington State Cougars.

For more statistical information on Colorado, check out Gary Doran’s Advanced Stats Report.  

**Havoc Rating was devised by Bill Connelly – “The percentage of plays in which a defense either recorded a tackle for loss, forced a fumble, or defensed a pass (intercepted or broken up). If QB hurries were a reliable stat (at the college level, there is far too much inconsistency in how they are recorded), they would be included here, too.”
**S&P designed by Football Outsiders – “Takes into account efficiency (Success Rates), explosiveness (IsoPPP), and factors related to field position and finishing drives. It is now presented in two forms: the first is a percentile, and the second is an adjusted scoring margin specific for this specific season’s scoring curve.”

About Rob Malara

Rob Malara

Rob Malara is a 2002 Sun Devil grad having spent the majority of his time in Tempe as a football, basketball, and baseball season ticket holder and front row inhabitant. A member of the Football Writers Association of America, he hosted the ASU Devils podcast and was its sub-optimal technical producer through its lifespan. Currently the president of the ASU Alumni Association's Northern Colorado Club, he is part of a family of maroon and gold residing in Fort Collins with his Sun Devil wife and nearby Sun Devil sister.

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