This is the year everything goes right for the Colorado Buffaloes. This is the year the Colorado Buffaloes can win the National Championship.
The main difference between 2016 and 2017 is that last year, almost everything went right. The main problem for the Buffs was that they had injury misfortune — particularly with Sefo Liufau and Derek McCartney — and they got dominated on the line by bigger and stronger teams. Enough went right for the Buffs to shock everyone and win the Pac-12 South, but it wasn’t quite enough for them to (realistically) contend for the College Football Playoff.
The Buffs in 2017 have lost Sefo Liufau and the majority of their star-studded defense, but thanks to a loaded offense and significant improvements on the line, they should be able to score at will. And if the defense surprises folks and is actually good, not just passable, this team could be special.
If they have a team with potential to win the National Championship, they just need offensive consistency, injury luck, schedule luck, unexpected breakouts, special teams to figure itself out, and hope nothing bad comes out of nowhere to derail the program. It’s very unlikely that this will come into fruition, but it’s not impossible. (This almost worked last season.)
Offense improves consistency
For the Buffs, their title chances begin and end with the offense. Colorado has always been able to score under Mike MacIntyre, but this is far and away the best offensive group we’ve seen in his tenure, and it could be CU’s best since the early 1990s. But for the Buffs to find their true potential — to go from exciting to lethal; to go from one of the best in the Pac-12 to one of the best in the nation — is only possible if they find consistency.
If the Buffs go from good to great, it will be largely because Steven Montez made the leap. In relief of Sefo Liufau last season, Montez was as erratic as he was electric. Just as he made dazzling plays look routine, he had mental lapses that resulted in back-breaking mistakes. Montez can make every play, but he tries to do too much too often. If he can figure out of the mental side of quarterbacking and realize that this offense is built on consistently making the right play, he can realize his potential and lead what would be an elite passing attack.
Dominate the air
Even if Montez doesn’t turn into Jameis Winston, the Buffs have enough weapons to be virtually undefendable. The receiving corps is possibly the deepest in the nation. They return all five leading receivers from last year and they’re adding tons of talent.
Shay Fields was one of the best receivers in the Pac-12 last year and he’s been working tirelessly to improve his game. With his speed and hands, he should be able to take the top off any defense and open up everything underneath. Devin Ross is another deep threat, but with his route running savvy, he could be a terror in the intermediate passing game. Bryce Bobo is best known for his spectacular catches, but he’s also an incredible blocker (a truly underrated skill) and he might be the hardest receiver to tackle in the Pac-12. Juwann Winfree is back from a torn ACL that kept him out last year, but he’s healthy. At 6’3, 210-lbs. with speed and great hands, Winfree may be the most overqualified fourth receiver in the nation.
And because that’s somehow not enough, the Buffs also have pesky Jay MacIntyre working in the slot, YAC monster Kabion Ento continuing his development, freak athlete John Huntley III ready to break out ... and that’s not even considering the promising freshmen Laviska Shenault or K.D. Nixon ... or Phillip Lindsay being a dangerous receiving threat out of the backfield. The Buffs’ receiving corps is flat out ridiculous and there’s virtually no chance anyone can match with them if they go 4- or 5-out.
Ground game goes wild
Considering how insane the receiving corps is, the Buffs don’t necessarily have to run the ball to be successful on offense, but it sure helps. Phillip Lindsay is back angrier than ever and he will be running behind the best offensive line the Buffs have had in a long time.
Even though Lindsay was incredible last season with 17 total touchdowns on 1,745 yards from scrimmage, he’s still criminally underrated. Lindsay wants to prove people wrong once again and show that he’s one of the most versatile backs in the nation. Thanks to the (presumed) brilliance of the passing game and the monstrosity of the offensive line, he should have plenty of room to run. In the spread formation the Buffs will likely play in, the defense will be force to spread the field with defensive backs aplenty. When Colorado runs from these formations, the offensive line just needs to occupy the defensive line and Lindsay will have space to run around linebackers and run through defensive backs. His running threat will only make the passing attack more dangerous, and vice versa.
Once the Buffs take an early lead or if they’re competing late in the game, you know this ground game would love nothing more than to break the will of the opposition. Lindsay proved last season that if he smells blood, he will go for the kill, and he does so with Arya Stark-like tenacity and efficiency. If the Buffs are to make a run for the National Championship, they will have to survive some close games. Lindsay is the closer this team needs to finish off those games. His leadership will also be key in their (nearly) impossible quest.
Defense will be good enough
The Colorado defense won’t be as good as they were last year. That defense was simply too good to repeat, especially with 8 of 11 starters graduated. But this defense doesn’t have to be great for the Buffs to be a championship contender; they just have to be good enough. For the Buffs to be solid, they need returning starters to turn into stars, role players to develop into reliable starters, and they probably need a breakout or two for everything to come together.
The stars should be easy to find. Isaiah Oliver is a freak athlete who could very well be the best cornerback in the Pac-12 by the end of the season. Rick Gamboa is a freak in the film room. His cerebral play should make him invaluable as a stabilizing presence at inside linebacker. Derek McCartney returns from a torn ACL and he’ll be there to do everything exceptionally well at outside linebacker. Hopefully Afolabi Laguda develops as a coverage safety to compliment his bone-crushing hits. After that, safety-linebacker hybrid Ryan Moeller can be the versatile playmaker who does everything well, someone who will be the glue that holds the defense together.
The role players the Buffs need to step up are the true foundation of a good defense. The stars can do their thing, but a defense is only as strong as its weakest link. Here, watch for safety Nick Fisher and outside linebacker Terran Hasselback to turn their promise into production. Hopefully Leo Jackson, Frank Umu and Timothy Coleman can be the defensive ends they need to fortify against the run. The Buffs will need big sexy Javier Edwards and Chris Mulumba to contribute at defensive tackle. And, perhaps most importantly, CU needs whichever cornerback starts opposite Oliver — likely Trey Udoffia or Kevin George — to step up and solidify the secondary.
For the potential breakouts, give me Oliver, Hasselbach and linebacker Drew Lewis. Hasselbach likely won’t be able to replace Jimmie Gilbert’s pass rushing production, but if he gets anywhere close to that level, he will be key. Lewis is an athletic freak who is looking to turn his potential into production. Gamboa is a terrific player and he’s great against the run, but the Buffs would prefer someone a bit quicker and longer to be tasked with defending running backs and slot receivers in passing downs. If Lewis finds consistency, he would be the perfect compliment to Gamboa.
Special teams isn’t garbage
This is probably the least likely outcome for the Buffs out of anything else in this article, but dammit, if we want a national championship, CU needs to have mediocre special teams, or, at the very least, a special teams that won’t actively work against them.
The kicking competition, as it stands right now, isn’t looking great. Last year, Davis Price and Chris Graham took turns struggling, and they’re both back competing with 30-year-old Australian James Stefanou, who hasn’t been super impressive (yet) either. For this kicking unit, we can realistically hope that extra points will converted at least most of the time, kickoffs will mostly be touchbacks (give me Price booming it), and that the CU offense won’t settle for field goals. The best case scenario would be for one of those three kickers to be at least semi-reliable late in games.
The punting game looks to be a bit better with Alex Kinney. Though he did struggle last year and the year before, Kinney is looking good in scrimmages and should be able to have a solid season. As always, you hope your punter won’t be needed much, but should he be, the Buffs will be confident they can (safely) win the field position battle.
The return game could be the saving grace for the CU special teams. Lee Walker and Isaiah Oliver will be returning kicks and punts, respectively. Walker is perfect for that role with his breakaway speed. Oliver proved himself last season, but the Buffs shouldn’t have him there. He’s arguably the best defender on the team and considering how little depth the Buffs have at cornerback, returning is too dangerous a role for him to play. Instead, CU should have Ronnie Blackmon or K.D. Nixon back there. Those two freshmen don’t have Oliver’s experience, but they’re both great runners with elusiveness to spare. Hopefully their performances in practice will give the coaching staff enough faith to justify keeping Oliver safe.
Colorado needs injury luck
Oliver playing punt returner is a great transition into what Colorado needs more than anything else: health. The Buffs were very fortunate last year with health, but the few players who did miss time — Liufau and McCartney, mainly — were critical losses. If the Buffs are to compete in 2017, they need every player to be at their very best, and they need those players to remain on the field. It doesn’t matter if Oliver plays like Charles Woodson if he hurts his ankle on a punt return in Week 4.
If the Buffs do struggle with any injuries whatsoever, they don’t really have the depth to maintain their (presumed) excellence. Any injury at running back, cornerback, or linebacker could spell doom for this team; an injury at any other position, sans receiver, would put the team in precarious position. The only way Colorado can combat any injuries is to have more unexpected breakouts, but considering how many breakouts the CU defense already needs to be good, that’s very improbable, even in this improbable scenario in which CU is competing for a National Championship.
For the Buffs to make a contending run, they probably need to go at least 11-1 in the regular season and win the Pac-12 Championship. Before you laugh, know this: (1) you knew exactly what you were going to read when you clicked on an article with this headline, (2) CU went 10-2 in the regular last season, so it’s not ridiculous to think they improve on that by one win, and (3) fight me.
To start, the Buffs needs to take care of a non-conference schedule that they should go 3-0 with regardless of championship aspirations. They have Colorado State, Texas State and Northern Colorado (of the FCS), all in the state of Colorado. Only CSU is a challenge, but if the CU secondary can step up against a dangerous Rams passing offense, this game should be a comfortable victory.
After that, the Buffs have reigning Pac-12 Champions Washington at home. The Buffs don’t necessarily have to win this game — UW will be a top 10 team, it’s early enough in the schedule to survive a loss, and CU can possibly avenge the loss in the Pac-12 Championship — but it would immediately show that this CU team is legit. I’m not sure how the Buffs can stop Myles Gaskin on the ground, or if they can run on UW’s monstrous defensive line, but if everything comes together and CU gets a crucial play to go their way, victory can be had.
After that, the Buffs have a three-game stretch that they should sweep. UCLA is always tough, especially if they’re healthy, but CU should be able to take that game if the offense plays to full capacity. Games against Arizona and Oregon State (in Corvallis) will test the Buffs’ run defense, but CU should dominate in every other facet of the game.
CU then has to head over to Washington State, where they’ll need every bit of defensive power to get a victory. The Cougars proved themselves last season and Luke Falk is back, somehow. If Colorado doesn’t figure out the pass rush or if the secondary struggles at all, the dream could end in potato country.
If the Buffs do survive the Cougars, they have two easy games to calm things down. California is probably the worst team in the Pac-12 and Arizona State might be the second worst. Not that any game in the Pac-12 is easy, but if everything clicks for CU — as in, they’re competing for the CFP — these should be blowouts and an opportunity for the team to get as healthy as possible before the biggest game of the year.
That brings us to USC. The Buffs will play the Trojans, a likely top-10 team, on Senior Day with the Pac-12 South likely on the line. USC should be better than they were a year ago, if you can believe it. They lose Adoree’ Jackson and JuJu Smith-Schuster, but they improve at virtually every other position, plus they’ll have Heisman contender Sam Darnold at quarterback all year. Given how great USC should be, CU will have to play as close to perfect football as possible. They will need every bounce to go their way, every tipped pass to deflect in their favor, and, perhaps most importantly, they need Folsom Field to make a significant difference. If the Buffs upset USC, the National Championship is suddenly a very real possibility. Winning this game would be, without a doubt, the biggest win since beating Nebraska 62-36.
To get to the Playoff, the Buffs will have to follow up their upset with a tough road game against Utah. The Utes will bring the fight and their defensive line should pose serious problems, but their lack of offensive threats (and depth) mean that they wouldn’t be able to keep up if CU’s offense finds their rhythm.
The next step after Utah would be the all-important Pac-12 Championship, likely against Washington or Stanford. If it’s Washington, the Buffs will have the opportunity to avenge themselves and right their earlier loss; whether or not they can win in the trenches stands to be a huge question mark. If it’s Stanford, the Buffs need to outfight them and contain the Cardinal run game; despite CU doing just that last season, that’s easier said than done. If the Buffs win the Pac-12 Championship, they would be on a 9-game winning streak with significant wins against some of the best teams in the nation. Even with an early-season loss to Washington, the Buffs would be just about impossible to deny from the Playoff.
Once in the Playoff, anything is possible for Colorado. In the Playoff, they just have to get past some mix of Alabama, Ohio State, Oklahoma, Florida State and maybe USC. Daunting that may be, we’re not here for realistic projection; we’re here to show what it would take Colorado to pull off the impossible and bring home a championship.