It's now late December, and 80 teams around the country are preparing for, or have already played in, bowl games. The University of Colorado Buffaloes, for the eighth consecutive season, are one of the 48 teams for whom the offseason is already a month old. It would not have taken much for the Buffs to be playing in a bowl game this December. Had they won two more games and finished with a 6-7 record they would almost certainly have been admitted before the 5-7 teams that wound up getting invites. All told, the Buffs lost five one-possession games in 2015, which was even more than 2014. The upside is that they won two, including an overtime game. Had that 2-5 record in one-possession games been 4-3 you would have seen CU playing in its first bowl game since 2007. Before the season I predicted that the Buffs would win at least six games, including two in conference, based on the assumption that a modest improvement in their conference point differential would result in a large improvement in the win column. So how did they fare against my prediction?
In conference play in 2015 the Buffs scored 19.67 points per game while giving up 32.33 points per game, resulting in a point differential of negative-12.66. This was an improvement of just over one point from the negative-13.89 differential the team put up in 2014. Though not quite as unusual as going 0-9 last year, a 1-8 record with that point differential is still fairly rare. CU won two conference games in 2011 and 2008 despite having far worse point differentials, and the 1982 team managed a win and a tie with a point differential nearly identical to 2014. The culprit, once again, was the team's poor performance in close games. CU did finally win one, when they escaped Corvallis with a 17-13 win over Oregon State in week 8, but they still lost four one-possession conference games in 2015.
2015 wasn't all bad, however. It was the team's best defensive performance since joining the Pac-12 conference, and it was better than their last year in the Big 12 as well. I thought a five point-per-game improvement was reasonable to expect under Jim Leavitt, but the Buffs defense improved by more than twice that much, giving up 10.89 points per game fewer than they had in 2014.
If the offense had put up the same numbers as it had in 2014, CU would have had a point differential of around negative-4, which would have more likely than not given them at least four conference wins. It's not difficult to imagine this in specific games either. The defense held the Buffs' final three opponents to 27 points or fewer, and they went 0-3 in those games. An average offensive output by 2014 standards would have won all of them. Obviously a lot of this had to do with the injury to Sefo Liufau, but the ten point performance at home against Stanford with him at starting quarterback was the lowest home output of the Mike MacIntyre era. The offense just didn't click this year, and it was the reason the Buffs are at home right now instead of at a bowl game.
That kind of offensive regression is exactly what held the Buffs back in the 1984 season, which was Bill McCartney's third in Boulder. That team's defense also improved dramatically, but the team fared even worse in conference play than they had in 1983, when it was the defense that failed the Buffs after the offense made significant improvements. I warned that this could happen in my prediction article, but the degree to which the offense fell off this year was truly unexpected. Unfortunately, these are the kinds of things that can happen on a team trying to work its way back to relevance. It's not always a linear progression in the right direction. Setbacks happen.
If CU wants to make it to a bowl game next season, they're going to have to put both sides of the ball together the way that they did in 1985, which was Bill McCartney's fourth year on the job. 2016 has the potential to be a make-or-break year for Mike MacIntyre, and the hiring of Darrin Chiaverini earlier this month shows that he's serious about improving the offense. If the defense continues to make strides under Jim Leavitt, or even if it stays where it was this year, it won't take much of an offensive improvement to get the Buffs to the four conference wins they'll likely need to make a bowl game. Hopefully I'll be sitting here at this time next year talking about how they finally put it all together and got it done. Before then, we'll have to endure another offseason of disappointment and laments about missed opportunities. Such is the life of a Colorado football fan.
To see the updated chart going back to 1979, click here.