At this juncture, just outside of 24 hours from kickoff, there's not much left to do but play the damn game and settle all of the squabble that flies around this week each year. But, since we've got a shop to run here let's highlight the three areas that will influence the outcome most.
The importance of this phase of the game always ratchets up a couple orders of magnitude in this matchup and it's very nearly a lock that something ridiculous will happen on Saturday night. Over the years plenty of CU-CSU contests have involved explosive and game-changing performances on special teams be it last-second game-winning field goals, back-to-back kickoff return touchdowns or field-flipping punt returns. However, a lot of the wild returns in past games can be attributed to the fact that this meeting usually comes at the very beginning of the season. I would expect kick coverage on both sides to be sound, at least more so than in past years.
In the event that a field goal decides this game, which is highly likely, Diego Gonzalez has been nails to this point in the season. After being two of the primary concerns during fall camp, Gonzalez and Chris Graham have quickly proven themselves to be steady and confident. If Diego comes on late to hit a go-ahead or game-tying kick Buff fans can feel confident. On the other side, Wyatt Bryan, a redshirt freshman, has already been tested with a pressure-packed kick to take Minnesota to overtime, he responded and hit the 37-yarder calmly. It would appear that both teams have reliable kicking units but maybe kicking in an NFL stadium under ever more pressure is different, both kickers are young and still relatively untested. Field goals could prove to be a real wildcard.
Punting and punt returns are where things might get crazy and where CSU might be able to press an advantage. Alex Kinney, who grew up in Fort Collins and will surely want to boot the hell out of the ball tomorrow night, is going to need to have a consistent evening. The bend-don't-break Colorado defense requires as much field to work with as possible. On the flip side, the Rams possess a legitimate Ray Guy candidate in Hayden Hunt. He booted the ball nine times in the loss to Minnesota averaging nearly 50 yards per kick. There's a good chance CU will be working with long fields following defensive stops, leading to the importance of...
I'm including this again because unlike in the UMass game, the Colorado offense is likely going to have to make more happen through the air in order to win this weekend. Maybe I'm wrong and the Buffs go wild on the ground for a second consecutive week, but I think CSU's defensive line and experienced linebackers are quality and may limit CU's rushing output to a moderate level, thus putting the onus on Sefo Liufau to get the ball out to his receivers.
In the game's early stages I expect the Buffs to try and establish themselves on the ground, and right away the offensive line is going to be pitted against a stacked box. The way the Buffaloes have been throwing blocks, I think CU should see some continued success on the ground, at least enough to force the Ram defense to make adjustments. If they struggle out of the gate however, Sefo is going to need to make some things happen. The Buffs need to get a confident and poised performance from Liufau, he's played steadily to this point but it feels like something's missing. He often times hasn't had the ideal amount of protection but even when given time to progress through the coverage he's appeared tight and tentative. If he can play loose but focused, and be given time and space to work, the Colorado receivers are more than capable of making plays to loosen up and spread the Ram defense enough to allow for a balanced attack.
Early struggles shouldn't deter the Buffs from abandoning the run by any means, that would play too much into what the Colorado State defense wants. If Sefo throws the ball 40 times, chances are the Buffs will be in trouble. That'll mean that CSU's defensive line is continually winning its battles at the point of attack and will likely be after Liufau in the backfield far too often. It's going to take a run-oriented but balanced attack to win this game and that starts with the play of Colorado's offensive line.
This category may finally be turning in CU's favor. The Buffaloes have already equaled last year's interception total and the turnovers they've caused so far have come at key moments. This can be almost fully attributed to Jim Leavitt and the new defensive attitude he's instilled. I fully expect the Colorado defense to come out hungry and opportunistic. With CSU playing two young and inexperienced quarterbacks there's blood in the water and I would not be surprised to see one or two critical mistakes come from the Ram offense.
Conversely, as mentioned above, Sefo needs to play loose but avoid the crippling interception. Much easier said then done, especially in an environment like Saturday's. If he's under pressure for much of the game there's a better than even chance that a few turnovers will be produced by CSU's defense. This comes down to attitude and want-to, Colorado's offensive line has to push CSU's front around and Colorado's defense has to continue to play fast and aggressive.
Perhaps most importantly, the team in white has won 5 of the last 6 contests, a category in which CU has the clear upper hand in this year. This game is going to be tight, the Buffaloes will be far more prepared this year and the Rams play sound, aggressive football. I think it'll swing back and forth throughout, but a turnover and a late field goal lift Colorado to a 10-point victory. Enjoy the day in Colorado's most industrial football setting.