2014 Record: 2-10 Overall (0-9 Pac-12 South)
2016 NFL Draft Prospects: cornerback Ken Crawley, linebacker Addison Gilliam, quarterback Sefo Liufau, wide receiver Nelson Spruce
When Colorado entered the Pac-12 back in 2011, gaining competitiveness with their fellow teams in conference was one of the initial goals. But being able to do so during the two years former Buffs coach Jon Embree was in charge seemed a goal unreachable.
Two seasons and a new head coach later, Mike MacIntyre’s team won just two games including going winless against the Pac-12 slate on its schedule. But of its ten losses Colorado was out of only two games, and held the lead six times in the second half of those games only to end up sans the spoils that go to the victor. Realistically speaking, the Buffs had a solid chance to win each of their first six games in 2014, and it had been nearly a decade since you could have made the same statement about a school playing college football in Boulder.
Interestingly enough, during the Buffs 2015 Media Day, MacIntyre talked about how his players are already prepared to go bowling, for them, the wait is over. A bold statement for a transitioning program that has only won six games (one in conference) during MacIntyre’s first two seasons in charge. With the Pac-12 South being one of the best divisions in the country, it’s hard to see how the Buffs will leapfrog any of the four teams ahead of them in the 2014 final standings. Yet, to go bowling, his team must win seven, not the usual six games since they are starting the season in Hawaii and have no bye weeks the rest of the way.
In order for their dreams to become a reality, they are going to have to stay much healthier as a team, even with the improvements made in the most recent recruiting classes. And a bit of luck wouldn’t hurt either, especially on the injury front where an already weak Buffs defense was decimated by the injury bug last season.
While they’ve won only one conference game at home in two years under MacIntyre, they’ve been surprisingly competitive in Boulder, but unable to play a solid four quarters against any one opponent during this time. UCLA nearly got upset at Folsom Field during its final regular season game in November last season, and the Buffs nearly broke the streak in early October against Oregon State losing by five points to their fellow bottom dwellers in the Pac-12 North division.
ASU fans will always remember the Devils trip to Boulder last season as it was one that changed their season outlook for better or for worse. Whether it was the injury to quarterback Taylor Kelly late in the third quarter with the Devils up three scores, or the loss of spur linebacker Laiu Moeakiola in the first half. The Devils lost the field general on both sides of the ball in this game and they never seemed to return to full health the rest of the year.
What to look for from the Buffs on offense
2014 S&P+ Offense: 96.3 (77th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Offense: 7
Percentage of Offensive Yards Returning: 82% (26th in FBS)
Career Starts Offensive Line: 56 (82nd in FBS)
The Buffs offense went from one of the more inconsistent passing offenses in the nation over the last few years into something of a more respectable 40th in yards per game last season. While they may not have the firepower that Texas A&M, USC, and UCLA will have presented the Devils earlier on the schedule, this is an vastly changed offense during MacIntyre’s time in Boulder. The 342 points scored by the Buffs were its most since the early 2000s, while they scored 300-plus in back-to-back seasons for the first time since 2002-03.
Junior quarterback Sefo Liufau took a step in the right direction during his sophomore campaign under the tutelage of Brian Lindgren. Running a passing system built around getting rid of the ball quickly, Liufau lead an offense that ranked 17th in the country averaging 24 first downs a game. And while he was a little loose with the football (lead the conference with 15 interceptions), he showed the poise of a veteran in keeping himself off the ground despite the overall average skill level of his offensive line.
He lead an offense in the friendly confines of Folsom Field against ASU in early 2014 that averaged six yards per play in the loss. While the Sun Devils defense should be much improved from its previous version faced by Liufau and company last season, you have to admire some of the games he put in against the better teams in Pac-12 play, such as his 20-for-31 for 317 yards in a four point home loss to very stingy Utah. A game in which Lindgren’s offense averaged nearly seven yards per play.
They also didn’t give up a lot of sacks. During Lindgren’s two years the Buffs have surrendered 43 sacks on 905 called pass plays (the 4.75% is nearly half of the sacks allowed during Embree’s final season). Since data started being collected in 1957, this has been the best two-year stretch in school history for protecting the quarterback. Wonder how the blitz happy Todd Graham defense plans to counter that?
It’s hard to believe that when Liufau takes his first snap of the season against Hawaii, he’ll become become only the sixth three-year starter in the Buffs history. One that spans over 125 years of football played in Boulder. For Lindgren, also the team’s quarterbacks coach, if he can improve on a raw Liufau, who has performed more with physical ability than polished technique, he might be able to get even more out of the player that set 51 school offensive records in 2014.
The junior quarterback did not pull punches after last season’s 14-point loss to the Devils. “We should have won that game,” Liufau said. “We had too many turnovers, too many mistakes. … The guys fought all game and you can’t take that away from us but we moved the ball up and down the field. The defense made stops. Flat-out, we should have won that game. That’s how I feel. That’s how the whole team feels.” So confidence shouldn’t be a problem when the teams meet again on October 10th.
Liufau’s biggest weapon, wide receiver Nelson Spruce, passed up a chance to hear his name called at the NFL Draft in April, returning for his senior season with the Buffs. His 153 targets were second only to Washington State’s Vince Mayle in the Pac-12. Spruce is one of the best route runners in the country and possesses some of the best hands in the conference. He’ll more than likely hear his name called in the 2016 NFL Draft as your classic college overachiever. He gets the most out of his ability and frame, creating good separation in his routes and having the warewithal to get open in soft zones. But it was his 7.8 yards per target, 46th among all wide receivers in the conference last year, that tells you everything you need to know about the lack of vertical threat to the Buffs offense.
Put simply, the Buffs offense has to get better and generating big plays and being
“more explosive” as Arizona State head coach Todd Graham puts it. They also need to get better at finding and developing special talent. In the past nine NFL Drafts the Buffs have seen only one of their offensive skill players drafted higher than the fifth round. And boy could they use a player like current Seattle Seahawks wide receiver Paul Richardson back on their roster right now. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly put it best recently in his 2015 Colorado preview, “Big plays mask weaknesses and prevent you from having to string together 10 decent plays to score. The more snaps you need to score, the fewer cards you need to play.”
While Spruce will catch nearly everything thrown his way (3rd highest catch rate of any receiver with 100-plus targets in 2014) and is the number one option in this Buffs offense, he needs to get help from a young support group of receivers. But that’s where Buffs fans have some hope, there is a lot of promise in this position group. Whether it’s former four-star Shay Fields (s, the taller Bryce Bobo, or Donovan Lee, MacIntyre has done a good job re-stocking the depth chart with three and four-star talent.
Whether the passing game is able to gain more production in lesser plays will also be determined by the run game and the play along the offensive line. The Buffs replace both their starting guards (62 career starts) and their leading rusher from 2014. But running back Christian Powell maintains a bruising running style and will have one of the biggest right tackles in the conference to run behind in 6-foot-7, 315 Stephane Nembot. In fact CU averaged 4.11 yards per rushing attempt last season; the first time it had averaged over four yards per carry in nearly a decade.
What to look for from the Buffs on defense
2014 S&P+ Defense: 92.1 (99th in FBS)
2014 Havoc Rate: 0.131 (105th in FBS)
Percentage of Total Tackles Returning: 78% (12th in FBS)
2015 Returning Starters Defense: 9
It was rough watching the Buffs play defense last season. While moving up in scoring defense from 12th to 11th the past two seasons after finishing dead last in 2011 and 2012 under Embree, there was some improvement, but not enough to save Kent Baer’s job as defensive coordinator.
Leavitt, once sought after by ASU fans to replace Dennis Erickson back in 2011, has a great defensive background. Having built fantastic defenses at both Kansas State in the 1990s and then in South Florida last decade before heading to the NFL, his coaching chops are quite impressive. One could argue they’d need to be for him to coach this defense up just to finish in the middle of the Pac-12 in 2015. While the division is tough as nails, the trail to the team’s first bowl appearance since 2007 seems to hinge on its ability to stop opposing offenses from scoring on it at will.
During his time with the San Francisco 49ers over the past four years, Leavitt coached a linebackers group that possessed some of the best players at the position in the league. It will be intriguing to see the development of junior inside Mike linebacker Addison Gilliam under his tutelage. A standout as a freshman in 2013, Gilliam’s growth was stunted by both injuries and illness throughout most of last season. But he still managed to finish second on the team in tackles with 79. A healthy Gilliam teamed with re-stocked defensive line (including three junior college transfers) should go a long way to helping improve the worst run defense in the Pac-12.
ASU offensive coordinator Mike Norvell will be watching the tape heading into this match-up to see whether or not this Buffs defense has improved at stopping in the run. If not, you can count seeing a steady diet of Demario Richard pounding the rock early and often supplemented by fellow sophomore Kalen Ballage.
Joining Leavitt on the defensive coaching staff this season as the Buffs new safeties coach is Joe Tumpkin. That gives the Buffs a total of three (including MacIntyre) assistants who have have experience previously as defensive coordinators. All positives for a team that finished 2014 with a defense in the bottom 20 of the FBS.
Senior corner Ken Crowley, a three year starter, looks to play a big role as well in the growth of this defense. At 6-foot-1 he gives Leavitt’s defense the ability to play press off the line with his long arms and good straight end speed. But he needs to improve on his decision making in pass coverage. While he’s the team’s best pass defender with 23 passes defended in his career, he has yet to develop as a playmaker with only two career interceptions.
Whether the Buffs have a chance of keeping it close on the road at Sun Devil Stadium will have everything to do with Liufao having a signature game in his career and whether Leavitt’s new defense can force some uncharacteristic turnovers out of the ASU offense.
Liufau, like many young college quarterbacks, has developed a bad habit in staring down his primary target. He also has been confused in the past by complex coverages and blitz packages. Know any team that likes to show a bit of both against opposing offenses? If you said ASU, go ahead and pat yourself on the back.
For ASU, this is a game that certainly has trap characteristics. It follows pivotal home and away games against the Los Angeles schools with a trip the following week to Salt Lake to play Utah, its second to last divisional contest, on the horizon.
Graham’s teams have been dominant in the fourth quarter of games during his ASU tenure, while Colorado has weakened as games against conference opponents have reached the final stanza. And when you factor in his teams have only lost 3 regular season games since he took over in 2012 (all to highly ranked opponents) the odds seem stacked in the Devils favor at Sun Devil Stadium.
**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.”
**Graphs provided by Gary Doran‘s Advanced Stats Report.