Confused? Catch up with the BTBS Primer. And if you just don't like or care about numbers, skip them -- I always attempt to explain what they might be telling us afterward.
Conference play begins with the final game (for the foreseeable future) of the long-running Mizzou-Colorado series. Colorado owned Mizzou for what seemed like decades, and now Mizzou has a chance to finish off the series with a fifth straight victory over the Buffs. Can Colorado fare better than it has in recent years (in other words, can they stay closer than 15, which has been the closest margin in Mizzou's four-game streak)?
Once again, we start with what I wrote over the summer, then see what's changed over the season's first four games.
One of the more enjoyable personalities in college football, Dan Hawkins has, to put it in both simple and obvious terms, not lived up to the expectations set for him in Boulder. After a long string of success and innovation at Williamette College, Hawkins was hired by Boise State to continue the Broncos' upward momentum. He did just that, as the Broncos went 53-11 in his five seasons. After a 2-3 start in his first season (2001), Boise ripped off 42 wins in 45 games. Boise was innovative, exciting, and rugged. He seemed as close to a sure-fire success as possible when Colorado hired him away following the 2005 season. Instead, Hawkins has proven that there is no such thing as sure-fire success. The talent left to him by Gary Barnett was not up to par, and even as he brought his own, sometimes highly-rated players into the fray, his tactics and methods of development have failed. (A rash of injuries, particularly on the offensive line, haven't helped matters.) Hawkins has unexpectedly built a rather consistently solid defense ... and just as unexpectedly failed to generate any offensive momentum whatsoever.
For those longing for more Hawk Love in Boulder, the 2010 season has been encouraging thus far. The Buffs throttled a far inferior Colorado State team, 24-3, then got destroyed by an athletic California team in Berkeley. At halftime of their following game against Hawaii, it seemed like the beginning of the end for Hawkins. The Buffs were down 10-0, and Hawaii's lead could have easily been 20-0 if not for some blown scoring opportunities -- their first drive ended with a fumble on Colorado's 1, and they missed a field goal on their second drive. However, in the second half, Colorado came alive. They outscored the Rainbow Warriors, 31-3, on the way to a 31-13 victory, and after a bye week, they used great early offense, resilience (it looked like Georgia was going to blow them out of the water in the third quarter), and some luck (Georgia fumbled while setting up the game-winning field goal attempt with two minutes left) to secure a 29-27 win over a Georgia team that, while 1-4, is still athletic enough to have given the Buffs serious problems in years past.
In all, this team doesn't necessarily appear to be more talented or athletic than previous Colorado teams ... they're just more experienced and more competent. Strings of bad play don't last as long, and the Buffs take advantage of the opportunities given to them. If Mizzou plays well, they will be 5-0; but if they dilly-dally, or if they blow early opportunities like Hawaii did, then Colorado has enough confidence to pull out a win with a couple of breaks.
First things first: this still isn't a very good offense. But it's better than it has been. As long as Mizzou is prepared for Tyler Hansen's attempted magic act on third downs, they can be contained with little problem. Again, this is a lot like a better version of the offense we've come to know and love (because Mizzou has been able to contain it with little problem) in recent years.
Standard Downs S&P+: 86th
Redzone S&P+: 45th
Q1 S&P+: 85th
1st Down S&P+: 102nd
Rushing S&P+: 67th
Standard Downs: 54th
Adj. Line Yards: 52nd
Passing S&P+: 78th
Standard Downs: 110th
Adj. Sack Rate: 96th
It's pretty hard to break down these numbers in a way that is favorable to Colorado. They were terrible running on standard downs (106th), they were terrible passing on passing downs (85th), they were awful in the first quarter (103rd), awful on first down (103rd), and awful in both run-blocking (76th) and pass protection (98th). Tyler Hansen did make an impact in one way: his scrambling helped Colorado to a downright solid ranking in rushing on passing downs (30th). So there's that. Of course ... if your strength is your ability to scramble on passing downs ... yeah, you really don't have a strength.
With a huge offensive line continuing to develop and two experienced backs taking advantage of holes, the running game has improved quite a bit. (The line still is not great in pass protection, though some of that might have to do with Hansen's constant improvising -- they have to protect him longer, and like Blaine Gabbert, Hansen probably occasionally scrambles into sacks.) They now can run somewhat on standard downs (54th), and they can pass on passing downs (33rd). They're still terrible on first downs, which means that they still face too many passing downs (even if they are decent at converting them); as I've mentioned before, even if you are better than average at converting passing downs, if you have to convert too many of them, you are doomed. Compared to Mizzou's proficiency at shutting teams down on first down, this is a reason for confidence. That also gives us something to watch as the game progresses: if Colorado is gaining steady yardage on first downs, this is an out-of-character development for both teams, and it favors the Buffs.
During Dan Hawkins' tenure, Colorado has thrown offers at plenty of talented quarterbacks -- Josh Freeman, Sherrod Harris and Greg McElroy in the 2006 recruiting class, Aaron Corp and Kirk Cousins in 2007, Landry Jones in 2008, Matt Barkley and Jordan Wynn in 2009 -- and yet, all he has to work with are his son Cody and Tyler Hansen.
It is easy to poke fun at this tandem, and to be sure, there are few major conference quarterback units worse than them, but Colorado's failure isn't necessarily their fault. Hansen is a good scrambler, and Hawkins has the "coach's son" mentality down pat, but despite their physical limitations, they haven't been surrounded by anything resembling breakthrough talent. They completed a combined 53% of their passes last season, with 18 touchdowns and 18 interceptions -- pretty much the definition of mediocre. But if the running game offered more of a threat, or they had a true, big-time receiver to whom they could throw (Markques Simas offered glimpses of major talent, but to say he has the proverbial "ten-cent head" is an insult to dimes), then they could probably be sufficient FBS-level quarterbacks. Instead, they have been asked to come through at a level higher than what they are capable, and anytime your offense is this bad for a sustained amount of time, the quarterback is going to get most of the hassle for it.
The passing game still is not very good, but with a better running game and a deeper array of potential receivers, it has improved at least a bit. This is Tyler Hansen's offense now, and while it is no better than San Diego State's, it is still decent. Hansen broke off a third-down run early in the Georgia game that left me wondering if the Bulldogs had scouted Colorado at all -- scrambling and draws are Hansen's M.O., and if Mizzou doesn't allow him too many opportunities in the open field, they should contain this offense.
As with the quarterbacks, in the right offense Rodney Stewart could be a solid weapon. Hell, in this offense he has had his moments. In his third collegiate game, he powered out 166 yards in an upset win over West Virginia; he went for 141 and a touchdown against Kansas State later that season. Despite his small stature, he powered out 20+ carries in four straight games in 2009, including a 32-for-127 performance against Wyoming and 24-for-108 against Kansas. In fact, he had 100+ yards in all three of Colorado's wins last season. The problem, of course, is that he has disappeared consistently (the two games after Kansas, he managed 26 carries and 52 yards against KSU and Mizzou), giving you the impression that he can take what iffy defenses give him but can't create anything on his own. (The exception to the rule: he had 21 carries for 110 yards against Nebraska.)
The biggest improvement Colorado seems to have made between the first 2.5 games and the last 1.5 is in the backfield. Either they have committed more to the run, or they've simply done it better. Here are the per-game rushing totals for Stewart and backfield mate Brian Lockridge:
The Colorado running game has been as good in the last two weeks as it was bad in the first two. They put up 400 yards combined in the wins over Hawaii and Georgia, and whether it is going well or poorly, they have shown solid commitment to running the ball. Colorado running backs as a whole have gotten at least 25 carries in each of the first four games.
Again, this is still only a solid running game and not a spectacular one, but it will provide a nice test for a Missouri defense that seems to have regressed a bit against the run so far this season.
Wide Receivers / Tight Ends
Without Markques Simas, this is once again just a large batch of possession receivers.
Andre Simmons was also kicked off the team recently, meaning the only player even remotely resembling a deep threat is Michigan transfer Toney Clemons. A former four-star recruit himself, Clemons is built almost exactly like Simas, but he has not yet thrived at the FBS level. He caught one pass for five yards in his freshman season (2007) and managed just 101 yards in 11 receptions for Michigan in 2008. Obviously the Michigan offense was far from stable in 2008 (that was the "square peg meets round hole" season of introducing his offense to personnel that just didn't fit it), so maybe he can thrive in an offense more suited to his skills. But the best predictor for success is past success ... and Clemons has none to speak of.
(Turns out Simmons was not booted from the team after all, but he has been relegated to third-string hell since reinstatement.)
There was a lot of hope this season in Clemons and surprise signees Travon Patterson (who transferred from USC when sanctions came down and was eligible immediately) and Paul Richardson (signed with UCLA but was kicked off the team following an arrest). So far, that hope has been somewhat misplaced. Clemons has been solid -- 10 catches, 156 yards, 1 TD (a 73-yarder against Hawaii) -- and Patterson and Richardson have combined for 75 yards on 12 catches. Newcomers usually take a while to get into the flow of things, especially a freshman like Richardson. Still, six of Colorado's seven leading receivers are averaging at least 10 yards per catch, which suggests a decent downfield passing attack. Mizzou's is (as surprising as it is to say) the best pass defense Colorado has faced so far, so we will see if Clemons and 17-year possession receiver Scotty McKnight (16 catches, 178 yards) can do some damage against a solid secondary.
Few teams have the level of experience that Colorado has on the offensive line. Of the ten players listed above on their projected two-deep, nine have starting experience and seven are juniors or seniors. Nate Solder is an all-conference performer (and a gigantic one at that) at one tackle spot, and likely starter Bryce Givens is a former four-star recruit at the other (he was another Nebraska commit in the doomed 2008 class; he flirted with following and to Columbia for staying close to his Denver home and committing to CU). Meanwhile, giant guard Ryan Miller was an all-world recruit as well. The talent appears to be in place for this to be a very successful unit. The problems, however, are two-fold: 1) there is no proof that this coaching staff is capable of coaching this unit up to its seeming potential, and 2) injuries have just decimated this unit over the years. The reason you don't see nine players with starting experience very often is that, quite simply, you would prefer only five players with starting experience, wouldn't you?
In theory, this line has all the size and experience you would want in a good line. Plus, their size complement their mighty-mite backs quite well -- it's hard to tackle a runner if you can't find him amid the huge bodies. But as with Toney Clemons, this unit is more potential than production right now. If the Colorado offense succeeds at a level higher than expected, the line will be the primary reason why ... but while the metrics I use to measure line success can vary significantly from season to season, do you really see this unit improving into the Top 50 in both run blocking and pass protection in one offseason? It is likely that this unit will improve in 2010 ... but only so much.
Thanks mostly to Solder and Ryan Miller, Colorado's starting line averages 6'6, 304 pounds. They make for a really nice running combination with the tiny Stewart (5'6, 175) and Lockridge (5'7, 185), and so far they have shown solid improvement in terms of run blocking. As I mentioned above, I'm not sure how much of their pass blocking issues are their fault and how much is Hansen's doing, but regardless, sacks still appear to be an issue. The pass blocking is preventing this line from meeting the standard set by their size and recruiting prowess, but like most of the Colorado offense, it is improved in 2010.
Standard Downs S&P+: 23rd
Redzone S&P+: 51st
Q1 S&P+: 41st
1st Down S&P+: 72nd
Rushing S&P+: 37th
Standard Downs: 31st
Adj. Line Yards: 15th
Passing S&P+: 22nd
Standard Downs: 35th
Adj. Sack Rate: 94th
Colorado's defense in 2009 wasn't exactly a squad of All-Americans by any means, but the Toledo game aside, they were pretty solid at holding teams below their season averages ... at least while the game was in question. They gave up a few too many big plays, but they were a rather efficient unit, particularly against the run. Despite not having one particular pass-rushing specialist, they were good at getting to the quarterback -- seven players had at least two sacks, including cornerback Cha'pelle Brown -- and they got better as both downs and quarters progressed. With an offense ranked even in the Top 60, this was a defense capable of winning some games for the Buffs. Unfortunately, their offense was not even a Top 90 unit.
Once again the defense is the strength of Hawkins' Buffs. They rank in the top 25 in overall S&P+ defense, standard downs, passing downs, third downs, and pass defense, and they are a mixed bag in the sacks department. They still have their issues -- they are only average in the first half, they are vulnerable to passing downs runs (a strength for Mizzou), and they are iffy in the red zone -- but this is a solid unit overall.
(How does a team rank 16th in standard downs sack rate and 17th on passing downs, and yet rank 94th overall? By doing a ton of damage when games are out of hand. The overall rating looks only at plays taking place when the game is "close" -- within 24 in Q1, 21 in Q2, and 16 in Q3/Q4 -- and for sample size purposes, the situational-by-downs stats look at all plays. So yeah ... if you fall far behind the Buffs or get far ahead, they'll pin their ears back and come at you, apparently.)
Despite the lack of a true star, and despite five-star true freshman Nick Kasa failing to contribute as expected (he partially tore his MCL in two-a-days, but he still played sparingly ... for god-only-knows what reason), this was a downright solid line in 2009. Plus, every major contributor returns in 2010. As Herman Edwards would say, the Buffs can build on this! If Kasa is ready to rock and roll, there is no reason to think this unit will be anything worse than equal to last year's, and the upside that Kasa brings to the table (if CU coaches can milk that upside, anyway) is tremendous. This is a big line, and it could be the best overall unit on the team ... even if none of you can name one of the returning starters right off the top of your head.
This is as good a time as any to mention that Colorado seems to vary between a 3-4 and 4-3. They list their depth chart as a 4-3, but they quite often only play three down linemen. This somewhat explains the large variety in their pass rushing -- they will always send at least four guys, but the fourth one might be a down lineman, he might be a cornerback, he might be a linebacker ... it varies. So ... they play a 4-3 with a 3-4 mindset maybe?
With the emergence of 225-pound pass-rush specialist Josh Hartigan, "big" doesn't necessarily describe this line now, but they remain strong against the run. Colorado ranks 37th overall against the run and 15th in line yards, which suggests that the line is doing is job. Hartigan (two sacks) and tackle Will Pericak (three tackles for loss and five third-down stops) have been quite solid, even if this line once again doesn't necessarily make a lot of plays -- there are four linebackers and four defensive backs who have more tackles than the leading tackler from the line.
While the line should still play a solid role in Colorado's defensive success, the linebacker unit is a concern. Gone are Jeff Smart and Marcus Burton, and while there are five players here with some starting experience, none have been true difference makers. Tyler Ahles is a playmaker -- five of his 18 tackles last year went for a loss -- but in two years he has only begun to work his way into the rotation. If he can step up his game in terms of consistency, maybe this unit stays level to where it was last year, but at least a slight regression is certainly possible.
The linebacker corps seems to be a bit all-or-nothing right now. Michael Sipili has five tackles for loss, and B.J. Beatty has been great in a pass-rushing role (five tackles for loss and six "QB Pressures," however the Colorado sports information department defines that), but Colorado has still been only decent against the run and not great.
The rankings for these units seem backwards to what your perceptions would tell you, don't they? Before I dove into the numbers, I'd have told you that the Colorado secondary, featuring Cha'pelle Brown, Jimmy Smith, Jalil Brown, Benjamin Burney and Anthony Perkins, would have been a relative strength of this team. But in reality, that was far from the case. Toledo threw for 319 yards, Kansas for 431, and Texas A&M 242. Fact is, if the pass rush wasn't getting to the opposing quarterback, said quarterback was probably picking the Colorado secondary apart.
This unit certainly does not lack for experience in 2010, at least at cornerback. It seems that Smith and J. Brown have been in Boulder almost as long as(C. Brown finally exhausted his eligibility last season; pretty sure he was in Rick Neuheisel's final recruiting class), and safety Perkins has played a primary defensive role for two seasons to boot. Experience gets you nowhere if talent doesn't tag along, but in theory this unit should be at least as (bad) good as it was last season. And if it isn't, it's time to turn the reins over to the next batch of players that will be getting the Buffs through their opening seasons in the Pac-12 -- redshirt freshmen like Olatoye, Vigo, Ohms and McAninch.
So far this season, the pass defense has seen very strong improvement. Granted, California had their way with them (8.2 yards per pass, four touchdowns), and A.J. Green did some damage (7 catches, 119 yards), but they'll do that to most teams. Colorado has intercepted five passes so far, certainly a decent total, and they have made stops when they have needed to. The Buffs' defense appears to be propped up a bit by the quality of their opposition, though, so we'll see if they can maintain this level of improvement. Missouri will certainly test the linebackers' sideline-to-sideline speed and the secondary's tackling ability. If Colorado is lacking in either of these areas, Mizzou will cruise to 30+ points.
There is just no excuse for the Colorado special teams unit to be this bad. None. Especially in terms of place kicking and net punting. It should not be hard to find kickers who can get the ball up into the thin air and have it drift into the ether. That, or Mason Crosby left such a large impression on me that I find it appalling that they couldn't find Mason Crosby II. Regardless, Aric Goodman was rather brutal last season, at least on anything over 40 yards. He was 7-for-8 on field goals of less than 40 yards and just 3-for-10 outside that distance. Ridiculous. Meanwhile, the Buffs' biggest weakness was in the punting game. Some new blood might be a good thing there, and big (for a punter) Zack Grossnickle will find it hard not to improve on CU's numbers from last season.
Brian Lockridge, a running back whom I called underrated all of last season, was given opportunities to show his stuff in the kicking game, and he did well. Unfortunately, apparently CU couldn't find anybody but Jason Espinoza capable of catching a punt; I mean ... 3.1 per return? Really? And that doesn't even include fair catches!
With the thin air, Colorado certainly kicked touchbacks and covered kickoffs as well as almost anybody in the country, but ... when your offense is struggling as much as Colorado's did last season, having a good kickoffs unit isn't the best way to maximize your resources.
As a whole, this unit can only improve in 2010 -- almost the same cast of characters returns, for better or worse, but the punting can't get worse, so ... they've got that going for them!
Here are CU's special teams rankings to date:
- Place-Kicking: 110th in field goals (1 for 3), 1st in PATs (10 for 10)
- Punting: 78th (40.0 average)
- Punt Coverage: 98th (14.1 per return)
- Kickoffs: 13th (7 touchbacks in 17 kickoffs, granted in thin air for three of four games)
- Kickoff Coverage: 78th (22.1 per return)
- Kickoff Returns: 83rd (20.7 per return)
- Punt Returns: 82nd (7.1 per return)
Kicker Aric Goodman has not earned back any of the respect that he lost last year -- Colorado has had him attempt just three field goals. He made one from 28 and missed from 42 and 52. Kickoffs are once again good, but punting has been an issue. Zach Grossnickle's punts have gone for decent yardage, but they've been very returnable so far. And Travon Patterson (punts) and Brian Lockridge (kickoffs) have yet to do much damage in the return game. They've both shown flashes (Patterson has a 25-yard return under his belt, but his other eight returns have averaged just 4.8 yards; meanwhile, Lockridge has a 39-yarder), but if Mizzou's decent string of kick coverage continues, Colorado's special teams unit remains something of a weakness.
The California game reaffirmed the worst impressions of Colorado -- not enough athleticism -- while the Georgia and Hawaii games affirmed the best; this is a team that will beat you if you let them. In previous years, you could get away with prolonged iffy play as long as you put together 1-2 solid streaks of quality. This year, it might take more than that. I expect Mizzou to win by 14-21, but the Buffs have enough to offer that dreams of sending this series into pasture with another 58-0 style beating are probably misguided.