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Colorado Buffaloes vs. Northern Colorado Bears: Week 1 College Football Preview

The Buffaloes open the 2021 season against the Bears.

NCAA Football: Middle Tennessee at Michigan Tim Fuller-USA TODAY Sports

The Colorado Buffaloes will see changes going into the 2021 football season, but they’re not too far off from where they were last December.

With former starting QB Sam Noyer transferring to Oregon State, the Buffaloes will rely on redshirt freshman Brendon Lewis to carry them this season. The dual-threat passer has very little experience under center, with his first start coming against Texas in last year’s Alamo Bowl. Despite that, Lewis comes ready to compete and hopes to silence any naysayers who doubt his ability.

As for the Buffs receiving corps, they said good-bye to KD Nixon who ended up at USC, but aren’t short of explosive play makers to help Lewis drum up the offense. La’Vontae Shenault hopes to step out of his brother’s shadow this season and flex some muscle in the process. Laviska’s younger brother isn’t the only wideout looking to make an impact on the rest of the Pac-12. He’s joined by Brenden Rice, the son of Hall of Famer & G.O.A.T., Jerry Rice, and former Cherry Creek HS star Dimitri Stanley in the starting rotation. They’ll be alongside a talented duo of Daniel Arias and Jaylon Jackson as well.

Lewis will also have a stable ground game to take some pressure off him from attempting 40+ passes per game. Jarek Broussard made the most of his opportunities in 2020, running away with a near 1,000-yard season. The Pac-12 offensive player of the year returns to Boulder and is projected to have a monster season to rival that of his debut.

Behind Broussard sits the duo of Alex Fontenot and Ashaad Clayton, who’ll be anxious to see the field. Fontenot is healthy and has shined throughout the spring with a stellar performance in CU’s second scrimmage. On the other hand, Clayton seems to have found a consistent rhythm in practice. The New Orleans native was also impressive with a two-score game against Arizona last year. It’s a well-rounded attack for CU’s backfield that looks strong with a fair amount of depth. At least one of them is expected to break the millennium mark in rushing yards this season.

The entire effort is held up by an experienced offensive line led by a group of upperclassmen. Two-year starters Kary Kutsch and Colby Pursell are at the heart of that line with a combined 36 starts and 2,432 snaps over the past three seasons. Ohio State transfer Max Wray joins the Buffs on the right side of the line. The former Top 100-ranked recruit had been sidelined since joining the Buckeyes in 2018, and is now with his younger brother, Jake, who was forced to medically retire from playing football at CU earlier this year.

Colorado faces Northern Colorado to open the season for the first time in their 104-year history. The Bears had previously reached the pinnacle and expect to be back in contention for an FCS championship under the guidance of head coach Ed McCaffrey. While the pandemic altered plans for many, the three-time Super Bowl champion wide receiver took his time to establish coaching roots in Greeley. With UNC opting out of the 2020 season, it allowed for a couple key additions to come through on offense.

Michigan QB transfer Dylan McCaffrey enters as the projected starter for his father’s debut season. He brings running back Tru Wilson with him who developed a reputation as a fantastic blocker during his time in Ann Arbor. But it’s unknown if the former Wolverine will play a significant role within the Bears offensive scheme. McCaffrey, a top-300 ESPN recruit, opted out of the 2020 season after appearing in 13 games at Michigan. He threw for 2,796 yards and 31 touchdowns as a senior at Valor Christian HS (Highlands Ranch, Colo.).

The Bears have 16 players with Division I experience including receivers Dylan Thomas (TCU) and Kassidy Woods (Washington St.). They’ll complement Jaren Mitchell, who returns after racking up 48 receptions for 740 yards and two touchdowns in 2019. McCaffrey should be pleased with the capabilities of UNC’s offense, even if it takes a couple games for them to completely get on track.

Next week’s game is perhaps the biggest test of the young respective careers for both father and son. The Bears’ offense has sat idle for the better part of the past two years with Colorado’s defense looking to build on their 2020 campaign.

Nate Landman returns as the anchor in the Buffs’ hybrid scheme under new defensive coordinator Chris Wilson. They’ve stuck with a base 3-4 over the past couple years, but will now see both defensive looks under different packages, according to CU head coach Karl Dorrell. Landman is surrounded by his partner in crime, Carson Wells, along with Guy Thomas and Jon Van Diest, and newcomer Robert Barnes in the middle of the Buffs defense. It was one of the best in the Pac-12 last season, accounting for 15 sacks in six games.

In front of them is a defensive line that features some up and coming players with Terrance Lang and Jordan Janaz returning as juniors. The Buffs will be without Jeremiah Doss, who suffered a season-ending knee injury last month. All things considered, Colorado has 11 defensive linemen on scholarship including JUCO transfer Justin Jackson and sophomores Jalen Sami and Na’im Rodman.

The Buffs secondary sees five returning starters this year led by Thorpe Award watch list recipient Mekhi Blackmon, Christian Gonzalez, Mark Perry and Isaiah Lewis. A group that allowed opposing quarterbacks a completion percentage of 55.6% in 2020 (1st, Pac-12).

Ed McCaffrey faces Dorrell for the first time as coaches for their respective teams. The former All-Pro’s position coach with the Denver Broncos has played an influential role in his mentee’s career.

From the desk of Dave Plati:

Colorado will debut Ralphie VI against UNC. The 500-pound bison replaces the previous live mascot, who retired at the end of the 2019 season.

The 132nd season in CU football history marks the second straight season opener away from Denver. However, the Buffs will try to upend No. 6 Texas A&M next week at Mile High Stadium (1:30 p.m./TV:FOX). Colorado faced UCLA in Boulder to start the 2020 abbreviated season. This year also marks the longest period in which CU hasn’t faced Colorado State since 1995.

“The Buffaloes are 22-10-1 in their last 33 season openers (dating back to 1988). In those 22 wins, Colorado scored 816 points, or an average of 37. 1 per game; in the 10 losses, CU scored 172 points, or 17.2 per (it had 31 in the tie with Tennessee in 1990). In the five-game season opener winning streak, CU has scored 206 points, or 41.2, and over the last three, that number jumps to 48.3).

“In the 22 victories, the opponent scored 385 points, or 17.5 per. The bulk of the games have been against Colorado State (20; CU won 14), but the Buffaloes are 5-0-1 against Power-5 teams.”

Colorado opens the season against Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3 at Folsom Field (7 p.m. MT/TV: Pac12 Network).