Dan Hawkins raised eyebrows last winter by closing out last season's team banquet by proclaiming "Ten Wins, No Excuses." I believe him when he says it wasn't a prediction, it was an expectation. Aim high, I believe. I think any coach should have high expectations for their team.
But are the Buffaloes capable of winning ten games in 2009? That's another question entirely. Colorado fans point to last season's Nebraska game as proof that the Buffs aren't far off. If it wasn't for a school record 57 yard field goal by Alex Henery, the Buffs would have finished 6-6 and gone to a bowl game. One play away from a bowl game and a chance at a winning season. That's the story in Boulder, but is that reality? Another way to look at last season's NU/CU game is to look at the difference 4 other plays had on the outcome of the game. On Colorado's first two drives, the Buffs took advantage of blown coverages by the Blackshirts to take a 14-0 lead. Three plays did the damage: a 68 yard touchdown pass to Riar Greer, followed by a 44 yard pass to Josh Smith and then a 36 yard touchdown run by Demetrius Sumler. 3 plays, 148 yards. Quite a start.
The rest of the game? 45 plays, 153 yards of offense. Add in the fourth play, that fake field goal where Jimmy Smith intercepted the pitch to Henery and raced for a game tying touchdown, and suddenly a game that Nebraska dominated on both sides of the ball - except for those four plays - is a battle all the way. So while, yes, Nebraska was lucky that Henery was able to make a 57 yarder, Colorado was even more lucky to be in a position to steal a game in Lincoln.Colorado's hopes for a winning season in 2009 are based on the ability of touted sophomore running back Darrell Scott. A former five-star recruit, he was slowed by injuries all season long and only accumulated 343 yards rushing, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Sophomore Rodney Stewart emerged as the Buffaloes top running back last season, rushing for 622 yards before breaking his leg against Texas A&M. Sumler, who will be a junior this season, finished last season with 251 yards.
Every Husker fan loves this image of Ndamukong Suh celebrating his game-clinching interception.
Junior quarterback Cody Hawkins, the coach's son, will compete with sophomore Tyler Hansen for the starting position. Hawkins is the better passer of the two, for what it's worth, completing 57% of his passes last season for 1892 yards, 17 touchdowns, and 10 interceptions. Hansen completed 52% of his passes, with 1 touchdown and 4 interceptions, after pulling off his redshirt late in the season against Kansas State. Hansen did rush for 261 yards last season in limited play.
Josh Smith's departure from the Buffaloes leaves the CU with only junior Scotty McKnight as an experienced wide receiver going into this season. McKnight caught 46 passes for 519 yards and five touchdowns last season. Sophomore Markques Simas sat out last season due to academic problems, and will be suspended for the first two games of 2009 for violating team rules. Senior tight end Riar Greer returns as well, his 68 yard touchdown catch against the Huskers gave him a season total of 183 yards.
The offensive line is young and inexperienced, though many experts rave about the potential. Junior left tackle Nate Solder started all 12 games last season, as did sophomore left guard Blake Behrens. Sophomore Ryan Miller started the first four games at right tackle last season, then suffered a leg injury. He's expected to move to right guard. Two newcomers, center Mike Iltis and right tackle Bryce Givens are expected to jump straight into the starting lineup after sitting out last season.
Only four starters return from the #4 defense in the Big XII last season, none up front. Junior defensive end Marquez Herrod did have 14 tackles and 4 sacks last season. At linebacker, senior middle linebacker Jeff Smart earned second team all-Big XII honors as Colorado's leading tackler. Senior weakside linebacker Shawn Mohler was second on the team with 97 tackles, earning him honorable mention all-Big XII.
In the secondary, senior cornerback Cha'pelle Brown was a standout last season and was joined late in the season by junior cornerback Jimmy Smith, who interecepted the fake field goal pitch against the Huskers. Two part-time sophomore starters return at safety in Patrick Mahnke and Anthony Perkins.
Turnover wasn't just limited to the players. Offensive coordinator Mark Helfrich left for Oregon after spring practice, and wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau was promoted to replace him. Helfrich's failed spread offense is out, and Kiesau's "pro style" offense is in. What does "pro style" mean? In May, Kiesau talked about emphasizing the running game, taking advantage of the running backs and the offensive line as relative strengths. But earlier this week, Kiesau added that not only will the Buffs feature "a downhill, blue-collar run game" but also "an extensive passing game."
Say what? With Cody Hawkins, Tyler Hansen, and only one returning receiver with any experience?
"We're going to get the ball downfield, let our playmakers get vertical. If you just run the ball along the box, they're going to stop you. We're going to play action and be able to throw it, we'll be extremely multiple.
"It could change from week to week - one week we could be in a lot of two-back, the next week be empty (no backs)."
No backs? Is this all a smokescreen to obscure his actual plans, or is he really thinking about asking Colorado's quarterbacks to put the ball up thirty to fourty times a game like a typical "pro-style, NFL offense?"
Here's my take: Colorado will likely try to establish a running game first, much like the New York Giants. They will need to be able to throw the ball effectively, for fear that opposing defenses will stack the box. Effectively doesn't mean frequently, but just enough to keep defenses honest. But that's easier said than done with the Buffs personnel.
So what does that mean for Colorado in 2009? Dan Hawkins told his team that he expects "10 wins". Rock M Nation ran the numbers, and also came up with 10. Ten losses, to be more precise. What's my prediction? Well, I think Rock M is closer than Coach Hawk. I don't think CU can win 10 games with this squad, though 7 or 8 might be possible if the incoming receivers can make an impact, the defensive line solidifies, everyone stays healthy, yadda yadda yadda. (Rock M came up with 10 "if onlys".)
Truth be told, while many experts talk up Colorado, they simply point out that their "breakthrough" would merely get the Buffs to bowl eligibility. And frankly, from my perspective, even that's a reach. If it wasn't for Colorado's budget issues, I'd suggest that Hawkins was on the hot seat this season. Remember that this CU squad nearly lost to Iowa State and Kansas State at home last season. That would have made the Buffs 3-9 last season, in which case would anybody be suggesting Colorado as a breakthrough team? Maybe not, unless they also remember Colorado went 3-8 in 2000.