Colorado: Beyond the Box Score Preseason Offensive Preview

Confused?  Catch up with the BTBS Primer.

It's Colorado Week!  Time to check in on a team with more "ifs" on offense than anybody else on the league, but key recruiting success (a.k.a. Darrell Scott and a couple of linemen) and a decent enough back seven on defense that people can't help but pick them as a sleeper for the fourth straight year.

I'm not going to lie.  There are two teams in the Big 12 whose continuously-predicted success has baffled me enough over the years that I can't help but be more of a naysayer than I like to be: Nebraska and Colorado.  The insecure Mizzou fan in me says that if Mizzou had either Colorado's or Nebraska's roster, they'd be ranked fourth or fifth in the North, but since it's Nebraska and Colorado, they're given the benefit of the doubt.  How true is this?  Am I being overly unfair?  Am I being extremely fair?

So I can get myself off the hook and leave my own biases at the door, let's take a look at what the BTBS numbers have to say about CU in 2009 to see if I'm right on, or if I'm being unfair and insecure.  Or both.

2008

Record: 5-7 (2-6)
S&P+: 192.0 (82nd in the country, 10th in the Big 12)
Scoring Margin: 242-351 (-109)
Conference Scoring Margin: 135-257 (-122)
Wins (S&P+ Ranking in parentheses): #70 Colorado State, #75 West Virginia, #79 Kansas State, #104 Iowa State, 1-AA Eastern Washington
Losses: #5 Texas, #10 Missouri, #14 Oklahoma State, #20 Kansas, #21 Nebraska, #37 Florida State, #98 Texas A&M

It was an injury-prone, youth-to-the-extreme season for Colorado in 2008, particularly on offense.  A 3-0 start was highlighted by a nice win over West Virginia, but the Buffs finished the season losing seven of nine games, scoring over 20 points just twice in Big 12 play and over 35 just once all season.  A decent defense was overshadowed by a putrid offense, the worst in the Big 12 by far.

In the end, CU was 0-6 versus teams ranked above 70th in the S&P+ rankings (though West Virginia was by far the biggest outlier in the rankings--they weren't great, but 75th is shockingly low...the S&P+ rankings really didn't like their defense) and 4-1 versus those ranked below.

In 2007, a shocking win over Oklahoma overshadowed an average season that saw them finish with a #78 ranking and 6-7 record.  So while they didn't regress much overall in 2008, they certainly didn't improve.  And here's the scary part: Colorado went 4-1 in games decided by a touchdown or less last year.  In other words, they were very lucky to finish 5-7.  A closer-to-.500 record in those games would have led to a 3-9 or 4-8 record overall.  As Phil Steele would mention, a +3 net win total in close games is usually a sign that a fall is coming the next year (and yet he picked Colorado above KU and MU anyway...strange).

But even with a little too much success in close games, Colorado was still unlucky when it came to injuries, and they still were playing a ton of young players.  So surely they will improve in 2009, right?  Right?  And if so, how much?

Should this man be smiling?

Coaching

Head Coach: Nick Nolte Dan Hawkins
Record at Colorado: 13-24 (conference: 8-16)
Pythagorean Record: 14.47 wins (-0.5/year)

Who knew that when Dan Hawkins was racking up a 53-11 record in five seasons at Boise State, he was actually holding Boise back (BSU's improved to 35-4 in the last three seasons)?  Kidding.  Hawkins brought to Boulder an outstanding track record, and while things haven't worked out for him so far--three straight losing seasons for CU for the first time since 1982-84--with the amount of youth on this team, he's still got quite a few people in his corner.  And he's insisting on accountability and taking responsibility for CU's struggles, which is refreshing.

It really has been pretty bad in Boulder, though.  Not only has CU gone only 13-24 in The Hawk's time in Boulder (11-14 if you're giving him a free pass on his 2006 debut), but they've actually underachieved a bit in terms of Pythagorean projections. And that's not even half the story.  As we've learned by now, blowouts skew the projections, and, well, Mizzou has outscored the Buffs by a cool 141-23 in the last three years.  So you would think that the Missouri results alone would give them a low Pythagorean projection, causing them to overachieve in overall wins, right?  Wrong--despite the Mizzou skew, Colorado has still managed to underachieve.

I can't tell you what kind of hot seat awaits Hawkins if he doesn't at least get back to a bowl this year--I think the 2007 win over OU bought him some extra goodwill that he hasn't quite used up yet--but I can tell you that I have been completely unimpressed.  We're not talking about a "The Beef / Ron Prince" level of unimpressed, but CU has not shown any modicum of improvement in three years, and while I'm willing to give him this fourth season to see if Year #3 really was shot down by injuries, I just don't have a lot of confidence in the CU program while Hawkins is at the helm.  If I'm being unfair, CU will probably show it this year.

Alright...to the rankings!

Offense

Overall Stats

S&P+: 82.0 (#114)
Success Rate+: 85.0 (#115)
PPP+: 78.9 (#112)

Standard Downs S&P+: 84.0 (#110)
Passing Downs S&P+: 79.9 (#114)

Red Zone S&P+: 97.9 (#71)

Q1 S&P+: 85.0 (#98)
Q2 S&P+: 75.2 (#118)
Q3 S&P+: 77.0 (#117)
Q4 S&P+: 92.9 (#89)

1st Down S&P+: 81.1 (#113)
2nd Down S&P+: 80.5 (#116)
3rd Down S&P+: 76.3 (#116)

Rushing Stats

Rushing S&P+: 85.9 (#102)
Rushing SR+: 91.7 (#97)
Rushing PPP+: 78.9 (#105)

Standard Downs: 84.2 (#108)
Passing Downs: 94.0 (#83)

Red Zone: 99.7 (#74)

Line Yards+: 91.4 (#97)

Passing Stats

Passing S&P+: 78.9 (#111)
Passing SR+: 78.8 (#117)
Passing PPP+: 79.6 (#106)

Standard Downs: 84.3 (#104)
Passing Downs: 76.8 (#112)

Red Zone: 102.6 (#59)

Adj. Sack Rate: 6.8% (#82)


Here's the question that lingers over all of these numbers: how much can a team improve in one offseason?  Because while the odds are decent that CU's offense will indeed improve this year, to say they have a long way to go is an insult to long distances.  They were sooooo bad last year.  My god.  Terrible rushing, terrible passing.  Terrible on Standard Downs, terrible on Passing Downs.  Terrible in Q1, Q2, Q3, and Q4.  Terrible on 1st downs, 2nd downs, and 3rd downs.  The bright side: they were only below-average in the red zone!  Seriously, when your best ranking in the above table is 59th (Red Zone Passing), you know things didn't go how you hoped.

With more experience at RB and OL, hopefully better QB play, and fewer overall injuries, Colorado should improve in 2009.  How much?

Two ways to look at that: first, if they were to improve back to 2007 levels, that would only get them to 73rd in S&P+.  But what if they improve a lot?

Here are the top five most improved offenses from 2007 to 2008 and how much they improved their Close-Game S&P+:

  1. Iowa (+34.0%)
  2. Notre Dame (+30.7%)
  3. Rice (+29.8%)
  4. UAB (+26.8%)
  5. Pittsburgh (+26.6%)

If Colorado were to improve by 34% in 2009, that would give them an S&P+ of 109.9, which would have garnered a ranking of 40th in 2008 and 38th in 2007.  So if they improve as much as any offense in the country--really, the best-case scenario--that might be enough to get them into the Top 40 offensively.  It's within the realm of possibility, but one does not find a lot of success in life betting on the best-case scenario.  Trust me, I've tried.

Quarterback

Ahh, Cody Hawkins.  Not sure there has been a more maligned multi-year starter in the country since Reggie Ball was taking snaps for Georgia Tech.

2008 Unit Ranking: #113 in the nation (#12 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
Cody Nolte Hawkins (5'11, 190, Jr.)
Taylor Tyler Hansen (6'1, 200, So.)
Clark Evans? (6'5, 230, Fr.)

Here's your chicken v. egg debate.  Colorado's QBs were just about the worst among all BCS conference teams (Washington State's QB unit was 118th)--was that because they really were bad, or because everybody around them was either a) injured, b) a freshman, and/or c) not very good?  If the cast of characters surrounding Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen improves considerably, can one or both of them turn into a competent guide for the offense?  Cody Hawkins earned a lot of goodwill during his redshirt freshman season in 2007, primarily because of the win over OU.  Beyond that game, he didn't show a whole lot, but he was a freshman.  Unfortunately, he regressed considerably in 2008, just like everybody else on the Colorado offense.  Hansen was able to very briefly breathe new life into the CU offense just by offering a different style of threat--he was able to generate some offense with his legs, something Hawkins is not capable of doing.

In the end, they were both not very good, but they are still young.  For better or worse, CU still has two more years of Hawkins and three of Hansen.  It really wouldn't surprise me if Clark Evans were given a look if Hawkins/Hansen prove early on that they still can't get the job done, or if one or the other gets injured.

Running Backs

Time to prove why you were a five-star recruit, Darrell.

2008 Unit Ranking: #107 in the nation (#11 in the Big 12)

Projected TB Depth Chart
Darrell Scott (6'1, 200, So.)
Rodney Stewart (5'7, 170, So.)
Brian Lockridge (5'7, 175, So.)
Demetrius Sumler (5'10, 215, Jr.)

Projected FB Depth Chart
Jake Behrens (6'0, 240, Sr.)
Trace Adams (6'0, 210, Sr.)

Both at RMN and Football Outsiders, I've introduced a new measure for evaluating running backs: POE (Points Over Expected).  It is exactly what it suggests--a look at a running back's output compared to what would be expected versus the defenses he faced.  A positive POE means he produced more than the average running back would have produced.  Negative = less than average.

Here are the POE ratings for the three CU running backs who got more than 50 carries in 2008:

  • Demetrius Sumler (-0.5 POE, 97.8 PPP+, #138 of 269 eligible RBs)
  • Darrell Scott (-8.1 POE, 73.3 PPP+, #221)
  • Rodney Stewart (-13.6 POE, 68.1 PPP+, #256)

Ouch.

We all know about Darrell Scott's recruiting profile--he was Rivals.com's #1 running back recruit in the country in 2008--but after Scott's first year in Boulder, we have absolutely no idea what he's capable of.  During an injury-prone freshman season, he showed none of the explosiveness or elusiveness that we would expect out of a national Top 10 recruit, but clearly it's not too late.  As a whole, you'd like your running back built more like Derrick Washington than Jeremy Maclin, but if Scott can stay healthy, he may (may) be able to live up to the hype.  He had 154 yards on 34 carries (4.5 per carry) in spring scrimmages, which is far from amazing, but he's clearly still young.

Beyond Scott are two guys built on misconceptions.  It seems like Rodney Stewart was pretty good in 2008.  Wrong.  Yardage-wise, he turned out to be CU's most successful freshman last year, posting 632 yards in 132 carries before getting injured himself.  Problem was, as shown by POE, most of his yards came against iffy defenses.  He did well against an okay Florida State run defense (21 carries, 107 yards), but otherwise most of his yards came against West Virginia (28-for-166) and Kansas State (29-for-141), two rather awful run defenses.  Against Missouri and Texas, the two best run defenses on the schedule, Stewart managed just 36 yards on 18 carries.

Meanwhile, since Demetrius Sumler is behind both Scott and Stewart on the depth chart, it appears that he's less productive than both.  Wrong.  Sumler was deceptively successful in 2008 (well, more successful than Scott/Stewart--overall he was extremely average).  He looked very good in the spring, but he appears to be buried on the depth chart behind three sophomores (Scott, Stewart, Brian Lockridge).

Wide Receivers / Tight Ends

Simas is expected to produce immediately.  If he doesn't, who will?

2008 Unit Ranking: #110 in the nation (#12 in the Big 12)

Projected WR Depth Chart
Markques Simas (6'2, 200, So.)
Scotty McKnight (5'11, 185, Jr.)
Dustin Ebner (6'1, 175, RSFr.)
Jason Espinoza (5'8, 175, So.)
Andre Simmons (6'3, 210, Jr.)
Cameron Ham (6'1, 200, Jr.)
Ryan Maxwell (5'9, 180, So.)
Kevin Moyd (5'7, 200, Sr.)
Kyle Cefalo (5'10, 165, So.)

Projected TE Depth Chart
Riar Geer (6'4, 250, Sr.)
Ryan Deehan (6'5, 240, So.)
Patrick Devenny (6'3, 240, Sr.)

So Colorado had the 11th worst receiving corps in the nation in 2009, 3rd worst among BCS conference teams (Michigan was 112th, Washington State 118th).  Then, after spring ball, they unexpectedly lost their only proven explosive threat*, Josh Smith, to transfer.  Well, they might have lost him to transfer--they're allowing him to only accept a scholarship to USC or UCLA, which is just petty, but if neither of those schools offer him a scholarship (sounds like UCLA is looking like a pretty viable option), then I don't know what happens.  Does he stay?  If he stays, does he play?

* He was far from amazing, but he was Colorado's Jeremy Maclin.

Regardless, a bad receiving corps probably got worse in terms of proven talent, but CU fans are putting a lot of hope in Markques Simas, a big-time recruit from Hawkins' first full-year recruiting class who sat out last due to (I believe) academics.  With Smith, Simas could have had a nice role as the explosive #2 guy while Scotty McKnight continued to fill the "possession receiver" role, but without Smith the pressure will be on Simas to make plays from the very beginning.

Beyond Simas and McKnight (46 catches, 519 yards, 5 TDs)...oy.  The seven other names I listed on the projected WR depth chart combined for...wait for it...one catch in 2008.  And that one catch (from RB-turned-WR Kevin Moyd) garnered a loss of a yard.  You never know when somebody will emerge out of the blue and thrive, but you certainly don't want to have to rely on that.  With the level of inexperience here, the WR corps is ripe for an infusion of energy from a true freshman or two--don't be surprised if either/both Jarrod Darden (6'5, 210) and/or Terdema Ussery (6'4, 205) see the field early.

On the bright side, Colorado does have some decent experience at tight end.  Riar Geer (61 career catches, 7 TDs), Patrick Devenny (15 career catches, 3 TDs), and Ryan Deehan (5 catches, 1 TD) have proven to be decent red zone receivers, but none are dangerous enough to garner special attention from a defense.  Leave them open, and they'll catch some passes, but they're not going to kill you.  Still, though, it's nice having experience at tight end, if for no other reason than you have some help on third downs and in the red zone.

And somehow Kyle Cefalo is of no relation to Jimmy Cefalo.  What a disappointment that is.

Offensive Line

2008 Unit Ranking: #102 in the nation (#11 in the Big 12)

Projected Depth Chart
G Ryan Miller (6'8, 310, So.)
G Blake Behrens (6'3, 290, So.)
T Nate Solder (6'9, 300, Jr.)
T Bryce Givens (6'6, 275, RSFr.)
C Mike Iltis (6'3, 275, So.)
T Matthew Bahr (6'4, 285, So.)
G Devin Head (6'4, 290, Sr.)
C Keenan Stevens (6'2, 285, Jr.)
T Ryan Dannewitz (6'6, 290, RSFr.)
G Shawn Daniels (6'3, 280, So.)

If there truly is hope for the Colorado offense in 2009, it probably comes from the potential of the offensive line.  Ryan Miller was another big-time recruit who got thrown into the deep end last year and actually acquitted himself pretty well.  Blake Behrens got a lot of early experience as well.  These two, combined with incoming redshirts Bryce Givens and Ryan Dannewitz, not to mention a host of sophomores (sans guard Max Tuioti-Mariner, who has suffered approximately 26 knee injuries in his brief CU career and is out at least for 2009, if not forever), should bring very solid line play to Colorado in the future. 

I can't say for sure that this will happen in 2009, mind you--the line may not congeal until 2010--but there is hope here.  Injuries and extreme youth decimated the line last year, so it's impossible to say exactly how much potential is here just yet (sounds like the running back corps, no?), but again, we're just talking about hope.  This will still be one of the conference's younger lines in 2009, but if things click soon, the entire offense starts to look a lot better.

Summary

A five-star starter at RB, a four-star starter at WR, and a five-star (with at least one four-star) on the offensive line.  From a recruiting perspective, there's some top-end talent here.  But almost none of the top-end players have proven themselves yet, and until they do, we don't know that they will, right?  My best guess for the Colorado offense in 2009 is that it will rebound to around the rankings it found in 2007...sort of.  In 2007, they were 95th rushing and 43rd passing--I can see the opposite happening this year, where Colorado does begin to establish a relatively solid running game, but the passing game still holds them back considerably.  Seriously, beyond McKnight, the entire WR unit has one career catch.  It's hard to ignore that and just assume that things will click there, even with a decent running game.

Whatever Colorado manages to do in 2009, it will likely be because of their linebackers and secondary, and maybe their running game.  There are still far too many question marks on the offense to expect much, but if they can stay healthy and rack up the experience, then they might be in pretty decent shape for 2010.

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