Friday, November 7, 2014

Colorado Buffaloes Football: Reasons to Not Give Up Hope...

There have been many ways I have been approaching my thoughts on the Colorado Buffaloes football team.  The season has been disappointing with regard to their record, their opening season loss to CSU and going winless in their first 6 conference games.  Many fans see little hope for the rest of the 2014 season and feel like the Buffaloes will most likely have their first winless conference season ever.

There are the typical rumblings you get when your team doesn't meet expectations of:
  • Firing the coach or coaches: "This isn't the right coach... A better coach needs to be brought in...", "Our (insert assistants name or position coached) needs to be fired if MacIntyre wants to keep his job."
  • Of being in the wrong conference: "We shoulda never left the Big XII...", "We should have joined Nebraska in the Big 1G, that's our style of football...", "Let's just move down to the Mountain West so at least we can be a big dog in a little conference..."
  • Of recruiting: "This guy just doesn't have it, he can't get the top guys...", "How are we supposed to win with a bunch of nobody's...", "He can't sell this program..."
  • The Quarterback; the coaches are playing favoritism to (name position); play more young guys; redshirt young guys
  • And etc., etc., etc.
Every single program that doesn't meet the expectations of their fans, themselves and/or the media hears these rumblings.  Even the top teams in the country have something that people bitch about.  The bitching is vast and is about nearly everything when you are a program whose history is rich in a tradition of winning, bowl games and success but have fallen on a stretch of losing and hard times.  This can be said for many programs, but I am going to put my focus along the lines of the Colorado Buffaloes Football program and the problems CU football faces and reasons for hope as well.  And thus I start with the problems the Buffs are facing and try to shed some light on those that talk bad about them but call themselves fans.

Problem 1: Greatest Expectations-Some "fans" will only focus on the fact you won a national championship.  The fail to see that it was in a much different college football landscape with much different bowl format and conference alignments.  Since the BCS format was adopted in 1998, there has only been one season that Colorado Football has challenged for a national championship, let alone a BCS level bowl (now College Football Playoff).  The Buffs have been ranked in the final AP/Coaches poll twice since the 1996 season.  The Buffs will have gone 12 years without being ranked at the end of the season and other than a short stint in the lower Top 25, the Buffs haven't been ranked since Gary Barnett's last years

Problem 2: Re-Writing History-Colorado finished first or second in a conference that was dominated by Nebraska the last seven years of the Big XIII Conference.  What fans fail to acknowledge is that other than Oklahoma, there was no challenge in 4 conference games.  After moving to the Big XII, the Buffs success quickly dipped and they have struggled to get the easy conference wins and instead have became the doormat of the conference.  Even when they were winning the North Divisions, they weren't amongst the Top 4 teams in the Big XII South.  The Pac 12 move has done nothing in regards to success or changing the bottom feeders CU had become.

Problem 3: Recruiting Landscape Has Changed-The Buffs were a big fish in a small pond in the late 80s and early 90s and could recruit California and Texas like they were an in-state school.  They have struggled since their best recruiting group left... shortly after 1994!  It's been 20 years since the Buffs could take who they wanted from those states.
There are a few reasons; the first being the more local teams like Texas and Oklahoma became dominate teams in the late 1990s through the late 2000s.  For California; until the last few seasons, the Buffs had been trying to pull kids into a program where their families wouldn't see them playing in their home state but once every four years in a non-conference game and teams like Oregon, Stanford, UCLA, USC and Arizona State have all had Top 25 programs and sustainable success since the Buffs were brought into the Pac 12.

Problem 4: Out-of-State and local youth-A 17/18 year-old senior was 4 or 5 years old when the Buffs played for a conference championship game.  The last time they played in a bowl game they were still in elementary school. So now, even though the Buffs play in California regularly, and where they should get most of higher end recruits, the battle is that kid chooses between staying closer to home and being part of a winning tradition they have grown-up rooting for or going out east where they are told it's cold and being part of a team that hasn't made a bowl game for 7 years and haven't had a winning season in 9.  Watching the youth grow up, they wear the hats and jerseys and tie themselves to teams with success that they have seen growing up.  The most influential years of fandom seems to be between 8-15 and by then you tie yourself to a program.  A reason I am a Kentucky basketball fan is watching them play Duke in 1992.  The reason I am a Buff fan is I was 8 when they went to Orange Bowl.   People tie themselves to what they grow up watching and rooting for.    So a ton of high schoolers are fans of SEC teams or teams like Oregon. Unless their parents love Colorado football, most kids these days didn't grow up watching and rooting for Buffs football but for the teams that were the games of the week or where Game Day frequents and I don't remember the last time it was here for Buffs football.

Problem 5: Ignoring the mountain to climb-It took Bill McCartney 3 years to take a team that had fallen on its face during the 3 year Fairbanks debacle.  The mountain for Mike MacIntyre and staff is far greater.
Looking at BCS level coaches alone, it took Art Briles and two 4-8 seasons before a 7-6 season and then Top 15 success in Year 4.  He also did this with a Heisman trophy winner.  David Cutcliffe plays in a lower tiered conference in the ACC, but still a Power 5 conference and he battled through 5 losing seasons before turning the Blue Devils into a Top 25 program.
Bill Snyder took a few years to turn an awful Kansas State program into a contender TWICE!
Stanford is the best comparison to CU and the mountain ahead.  Willingham's run was similar to the Rick Neuheisel/Barnett.  Stanford then had seven consecutive losing seasons with Jim Harbaugh first two years being the end of that cycle.  In Harbaugh's third year, they finished a solid but pedestrian 8-5 but in Year 4 of Harbaugh they won the Orange Bowl and finished 4th in the AP & Coaches Polls.

Success comes immediately for a new coach when he can work with phenomenal athletes and the best recruits.  Remember Rick Neuheisel?  Success takes time and changing things around when you are completely rebuilding.  Colorado Football has been set back years by a coach that tore down a foundation that was strong but needed building on in the joke of Dan Hawkins.  Then tried to replace that dumpster fire of the Hawkins Era with a group of under qualified coaches coming back to coach the school they love in Jon Embree and company.  I have a lot of respect for Embree and believe that had he taken over for Barnett he may have seen more success and seen a third year because he would have had better talent to work with and more to sell. 

Colorado football has been trying to sell being the group that turns the ship around.  We are like Columbus headed to India but instead of landing on the amazing continent of North America, we keep ending up on deserted island after deserted island with nothing to live off.

Why Should I Have Hope?

Great question.  If you are a true die-hard fan, you have hope every year.  It's part of being a fan.  But, the hope I speak of is what die-hard fans and the angry, question things from the beginning fan want, a winning program that goes to bowl games and challenges for conference titles.  Those are the expectations when you are amongst the 25 Winning Programs in NCAA Football History.  Those are the expectations when any fan over the age of 30 can remember watching the Buffs a national title and anyone over 25 can remember Colorado beating Nebraska 62-36 and then following it up with a Big XII Conference Championship.

Here are the reasons why I see hope for Colorado Football:
Hope Reason 1: Rick George and Getting Into the Arms Race-Rick George hasn't messed around since taking over in July 2013.  Rather than just talk up a stadium expansion that had been mumbled about, he immediately got the wheels rolling and by December 2013 had a concept and plan formulated.  He had already started collecting donations for the Sustainable Excellence Initiative but needed to raise a great deal of the 1/3 total required prior to start of construction by May 2014.  Rick George delivered and in around four months after ground was first broke, the seating was put in for the first major phase of the project.  Rick George doesn't mess around.  He has added Beer Gardens to the game day atmosphere, improved the stadium's food quality by switching to Levy Restaurants and after a debacle of being understaffed for the Hawaii game, food lines have been short and quick.   The facilities may not be on Oregon level, but they are very competitive and at least will be middle of the road in the Pac 12 rather than being amongst the bottom tier of the entire Power 5 conferences.

Hope Reason 2: Pac 12 conference is our best fit-While some old-school guys won't agree, the fact is CU is meant to play in the Pac 12.  Their largest alumni out-of-state alumni base is from California.  This is the area where Colorado has constantly pulled their best recruits.  Colorado is a tourist destination spot like many areas of the Pac 12 schools are.  Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Iowa will not be mistaken for tourist hot spots for other than hunters and agriculture lovers.  The main reason is money.  The MWC doesn't have 25% of the cash the Pac 12 can offer and the Big XII is offering about 60% of the Pac 12 money to its schools outside of Texas and Oklahoma.  The Big 1G is too far away and the talent pull is not there.  The travel costs are a little higher for other programs outside of football, but the key is football needs to maximize its profit and can start doing that once they are successful.

Hope Reason 3: Local Youth Repping the Buffs-There are still a great deal of under 18 age kids that I see at Buffs games and that I see wearing Colorado apparel.  Every time I see someone under 18 wearing Colorado gear instead of some other college, I feel a little better and feel that there is still hope.  Unfortunately, I see a lot of Green and Gold coming out of the woodworks for the first time in many years due to their success and am sure some local youth will attach to that.  Also, I will add that there is an actual student section revival with Folsom Frenzy.  It is exciting to see some Buffs students take the time to get the fandom back like the students did with C-Unit and CU Buffs Basketball.

Hope Reason 4: CSU is good again-No matter how much I hate the Rams, the fact is when both CSU and CU are successful at the same time, college football matters and there is more of a buzz.  If Colorado State has a Top 25 season then next years Rocky Mountain Showdown with 2 games under both the Buffs and Rams belt, the game will have a buzz that was completely dormant.  The Rams winning 2 of the past 3 also means more buzz.

Hope Reason 5: Recruiting in Pac-12 Country-First, I want to point out that Colorado got 4 of the Top 10 kids in-state in 2014, a fifth that was Top 15 and then another Top 15 guy that walked-on for Colorado.  So, Colorado got six of  the Top 15 recruits locally.  The Buffs have 3 commits from the Top 7 and have addressed their biggest weakness by taking the great talent this state produces along the offensive line, even adding a transfer from a national runner-up Auburn in Shane Callahan.

The Buffs have 13 commits for the 2015 recruiting class, even with a 2-7 record.  They are at least offering guys that may be out of their reach and still battling.  They are recruiting California well and then hitting up other hot beds in Utah and Arizona.  They are making every effort to get the best recruits, but they have to get guys that want to buy-in to THIS team, to THIS program and the work it takes.  The Colorado NFL pipeline is an old well that saw great returns in the late 80s and 90s, had some solid returns in the early 2000s but has had very limited production since then.  There is work to be done, but the most success you have in recruiting is when your team improves in Win-Loss.

Hope Reason 6: Improvements Shown-This is the main reason to hold hope for the Buffs.  While the Win-Loss is not better than last year, the improvement in games.  Yes, there are holes and miscues and a WTF just happened play or series of plays like seems all too common in the Buffs 3rd quarter meltdowns, but the Buffs are putting up yards and they are putting up points.  They have improved slightly on defense, but their weakness is in pass rush so often their corners are put on an island and their secondary has been pretty solid this season.  The large gash runs and short screen passes, rather than the deep ball, have been the culprit of the majority of the big plays given up.  The average margin of defeat in-conference has improved from 23.9 points to 9.4 points this year and improved their output from 20.3 points to 33.2 in the Pac 12.  The Buffs offense is outgaining its conference opponent 500 to 490 yards a game after being outgained by nearly 200 yards last year 332 to 532.  That is a huge stride offensively.  There is actual hope in the 4th quarter and unlike the past three years when there was no hope in games, CU is closer to 5-4 or even 6-3 than their 2-7 record indicates.

Hope Reason 7: Mike MacIntyre has been here before-As I pointed out with great coaches like Harbaugh, McCartney, Cutcliffe and Art Briles; Rome wasn't built in a day and neither is a complete rebuilding of a down program.  It can be done.  A near extinct San Jose State Football Program was brought back to life by Mike MacIntyre and was the springboard to his hiring at CU.  MacIntyre needs the time it takes.  There will be heat turned on if improvement doesn't lead to a few more wins.  I don't know what that number is, I am not Rick George but it has to be in the range to 5-7 wins I would assume with more improvements shown. 

Hope Reason 8: Talent is better-Even though the recruiting numbers are similar to years past, there is speed and playmakers at many positions.  Most notably WR.  In a pass heavy conference and system, the amount of depth at WR is impressive.  Couple that with a large recruiting number of lineman in the last two years and as long as the Buffs improve in QB play, the offense is going to keep putting up points.  With development on defense and some size at LB, hopefully that spells wins.

So yes, there are plenty of problems and items that need resolved before the Buffs return to a Top 25 program, but there is reason for hope that the Buffs faithful may not have to wait another decade. What does it all mean for 2015?  I don't know!  I can't predict how much better the Buffs will be in 2015 because I am biased and believe 8 wins is within reach.  But there are things we see that can't be ignored.  Even though the record doesn't indicate it, I would take the 2014 Buffs over the 2013 Buffs.  The conference has improved since 2013 and the Buffs are more competitive in it.  I will take that and I will be patient for at least another 12 months.  Shoulder to Shoulder...