We've spent the last three days looking at this year's edition of the Colorado Buffaloes both through the numbers and through our skeptically tinted Missouri glasses. Today, we'd proud to welcome aboard our colleagues from The Ralphie Report, SBN's outstanding Buffs blog, for a Q&A session. Ralphie Report provides us with what I believe to be one of the most even-handed assessments I've seen of Colorado all offseason.
RMN: For seemingly the fourth year in a row, Colorado is being looked at as "the sleeper" in the North. Why should people believe this Colorado team is different from the previous three? Also, when does Hawkins' seat start to get warm?
TRR: Great, tough question. I think there are a few reasons to be more optimistic than the last three years but there are plenty of deficiencies that might keep the Buffs mediocre. Colorado is the ultimate "if" team. Tons of "ifs" and preseason hopes about how players and systems will turn out. I think the talent is there but it will come down to "if" we see it on the field. Briefly, here are some of the gains the program has made over Hawkins' first three years and reasons why there may be a change in Boulder:
- The Buffs are more experienced (and talented) at many positions like offensive line, linebacker, running back and cornerback. This group of offensive linemen has the ability to lead a top notch running game for the next three years with a solid group of running backs in Darrell Scott, Brian Lockridge, Rodney Stewart and Demetrius Sumler. The Buffs will return starters at every position in 2010 except tight end and fullback so they have solid foundation built for the future. The offense was freshman and sophomores a year ago, now they will be mostly sophomores and juniors. Overall, this team is much more experienced, still relatively young in the grand scheme of things but compared to 2008, we should see improvement.
- Cody Hawkins play will improve this year. Last year the Buffs were down multiple offensive linemen and were playing with freshmen in the backfield. The most talented wide receiver on the team in Markques Simas is eligible this season and that will provide a boost. Even though the Buffs lost WR Josh Smith, when you compare the players in 2009 at wide receiver to the past three years, it should be the best group they have had there. It isn't saying a lot obviously but JUCO transfer Andre Simmons (6'3" 210 4.5 forty - 4* transfer) should provide an instant playmaker. Coupled with Markques Simas and Scotty McKnight, this will be the best group the Buffs have had. Not saying it will be a strength of the team but it should be an upgrade.
- This team is relatively healthy. In 2008, the Buffs were killed by the injury bug. Just staying healthy and not losing 120 starter games to injury will be an instant improvement.
- Coach Eric Kiesau takes over at offensive coordinator for Mark Helfrich who went to Oregon. Many think Kiesau has a better handle on how to utilize the Buffs' strengths and many believe Helfrich's desire to go to the spread offense doomed the team last season. The offensive stats were abysmal under Helfrich so a change was probably for the better.
- I think this team is also maturing. This team lacked leadership from the Gary Barnett days and now the youthful team has grown and I believe there is more accountability and maturity evolving.
Are the Buffs going to win 10 games next year? No, but they have a chance to win 8, which is an improvement and something many fans could live with.
As for Dan Hawkins being on the hot seat, I think he feels the heat. You don't say "10 wins and no excuses" if you don't feel the need for big progress on the field. With that being said, I think it would take a monumental collapse for Hawkins to be fired after this season. Two or three wins might get him fired but the athletic department has already made it pretty clear that financially, buying out Hawkins' contract and paying a new coach would be detrimental to the budget and considering the economic times, I don't think the University could afford it. Sounds crazy but that is reality. Not saying that is the right way to conduct your business but I think that is what will ultimately keep Hawkins around if he wins 5 games this year. We are praying for Hawkins to succeed. You have to look at your program and wonder who could the Buffs get that would be better? The University of Colorado, because of a state law can't offer their assistant coaches multi-year deals. Hawkins is one of the lowest paid coaches in the Big 12. Take just those two situations into account; you start to wonder who better would take this position. We need Dan Hawkins to succeed. For me that is 7+ wins and a bowl game (preferably a win), not the highest of standards, I know, but that is progress.
Much more from Ralphie Report after the jump!
RMN: How much improvement is expected from Darrell Scott this year? How heavily will he be featured in the offense?
TRR: We expect a huge year from Darrell Scott and we believe he will be the key part of the offense...he better be. He is a different running back this year. He was a freshman in 2008 and I think people forget that and what they did when they were freshman in college. He is in better shape, dropping 20+ pounds from last season. He is back to his best playing weight at 210 pounds, cut and fast but still with the strength that can make him a special back. He has the talent developing around him so I think he is poised to break out. I have been very impressed with Scott both on and off the field and I think with the pressure somewhat off of him this season, he will rise to the occasion and surprise people.
RMN: How is the comfort level with Colorado's quarterback play amongst fans? What are the expectations for the Buffs under center?
TRR: Comfort level on a scale of 1 - 10: 2 ½. We are not comfortable but we expect improvement. Like Darrell Scott, Cody Hawkins should benefit from a better core around him with more experience. We are hoping the new offensive coordinator helps as well, getting out of the attempt to run the spread and into a more rhythm based offense that plays to Cody's strength of being a facilitator rather than a game changer with his feet and arm. I believe Cody is plenty capable and with more around him, his numbers should improve to be considered a consistent quarterback. He will be a junior so we should expect growth. It doesn't mean we are comfortable, though. If the Buffs can get consistency of any sort from their quarterback play, 8 wins is a possibility.
RMN: A lot of attention last year focused on the struggles of the Colorado offense despite fairly decent numbers from the CU defense, which led the Big 12 in pass defense. How is this unit expected to perform in 2009?
TRR: The pass defense was better than average last year but the Buffs also dodged teams like OU and Texas Tech, played three mediocre passing teams at the time in Florida State, West Virginia and Colorado State plus they couldn't stop the run ranking 9th in the conference and 86th overall so teams pounded the ball. It doesn't mean the secondary wasn't good last year but it is a misleading stat in my book. That being said, I think the cornerbacks have a chance to be one of the best units on the team and among the elite in the conference. CB Jimmy Smith should be a first round pick in a year or two and Cha'pelle Brown, Jalil Brown, Ben Burney and Anthony Wright are all very serviceable. The linebacker corps is stacked with talent which may prompt the Buffs to move to a 3 - 4. Last year's linebacker starters and all conference performers, Jeff Smart and Shaun Mohler return but aren't guaranteed their starting spots back as this unit is deep. The defensive line is the concern. The Buffs were senior heavy at the position last year with little playing time or production from the underclassmen. It's not that they are bad players (we don't think); it's just that we don't know what we are going to get from them since they will be relatively unproven and young. Pass rush was a key issue last year and it will be this year as well which is why I think CU will use the 3 - 4 a little bit more to get the most out of their linebackers and getting to the quarterback from multiple angles. You might see true freshmen DE Nick Kasa and DT Edward Nuckols get solid time on the defensive line this season as both have big upside. If the Buffs can find a solid defensive line, this could be a top 4 or 5 defensive in the conference.
RMN: The matchup with Missouri has presented all kinds of problems for CU over the last two years. With all the attrition at Missouri and the game being at Folsom Field in 2009, do you think Missouri is in a prime spot for Colorado to end this mini-streak the Tigers have started?
TRR: We feel better about the game compared to the last two years that is for sure. I think everyone who plays Missouri can say that right now. In 2010, that may be a different story but for now we are happy to see Coffman, Maclin and Daniel gone.
Missouri is pretty unknown in my book due to all of that attrition so any predictions may be crazy at this point but Mizzou loses their offensive coordinator (makes us happy after the 100+ points put up on us the last two years) and key weapons on the offensive side of the ball. I think I read somewhere that Missouri returns the fewest starters from a year ago in the Big 12 which could be a big deal, especially on the road, just ask the Buffs who have been considered inexperienced for the past three years and have won just two games away from Boulder.
Let's face it, if Dan Hawkins and this regime want to show progress, this is a game the Buffs should win. It is at home, technically Missouri is regrouping at a few important positions, Colorado is gaining experience, etc...these are the games that should be won if your program is on the rise.
RMN: Finish the following phrases:
-- Colorado will win if: Chase Coffman and Jeremy Maclin don't return to b*tch slap our secondary again. Seriously, though, if the Buffs can get any play from Cody Hawkins, they should be fine this year and in the Missouri game. I think the defensive line will come around but getting any sort of offensive production is crucial. The Buffs won't beat Kansas, Missouri or Nebraska, all at home in 2009, with the 95th ranked offense.
-- Missouri will win if: Blaine Gabbert and the relative inexperience on this team can mature quickly to be able to win on the road. I think a lot depends on the quarterback play for both teams.
RMN: Give us your non-binding, WAY too early score prediction for the MU/CU game.
TRR: 27 - 24 Buffs, it's not binding right? Of course I am going to pick the Buffs.