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The Rise of Mac: The Expectations for Colorado in 2016

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Will this be the year CU is enters the top half of the Pac-12?

James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

The timeline that Colorado Athletic Director Rick George set back in 2014 might have seem ambitious. Yet, saying the Buffs should be competing for a Pac-12 Conference Championship by the 2017 season could be right on schedule. The annual spring game showcased a preview of CU's 2016 football season with some new looks. The addition of familiar faces on Coach Mike MacIntyre's staff along with developing talent on the field should make for an interesting story line to the continuing rebuild in Boulder.

A full cycle

The fourth season for MacIntyre at CU has the potential to finally turn a corner by inducing the interest that's needed for the program. A complete recruiting cycle has been established by coach Mac and his staff since coming to campus. A difficult process to watch at some points but the culture has been evolving towards the future. Love him or hate him, even the harshest critics could never knock Mac's hustle in making the Buffs better. "If you build it, they will come." A saying that is cliche, nonetheless the honest truth about the state of CU football. The entire Buffs staff has worked tirelessly to construct a winning attitude and the result are about to start showing.

Working the Line

One of the biggest struggles from last season was protecting the quarterback. The Buffs allowed an average for three sacks per game to opponents and ranked 116th in country (Third worst in FBS). The combination of an inexperienced offensive front along with injuries was a huge factor why CU struggled upfront. With Stephane Nembot moving on to the NFL, sophomore John Lisella will likely emerge as a starter at the left tackle position. He's joined by upperclassmen Jeromy Irwin, Jonathan Huckins, Shane Callahan, Sam Kronshage, Gerrad Kough, Sully Wiefels and Alex Kelley. Newcomers Tim Lynott, Dillon Middlemiss and Isaac Miller could play their way into the rotation as well. Offensive line coach Klayton Adams will have his work cut out for him after taking over for Gary Bernardi, who takes over as tight end & fullback coach. Moving Adams to the O-line position is a more natural fit considering he had the same role at Western Washington and Sacramento State.

All about the "O"

Going into 2016, the most circulated questions are regarding the offense. Quarterback Sefo Liufau continues to recover from breaking his lisfranc and Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb remains in the fold, for now. He committed to CU in January but is still keeping his options open by visiting other schools, including conference rival Cal. Webb plays with a pro-style with a skill set that some say could make him a top five passer going into next year's NFL Draft. Ultimately, coming to CU would pair him with very capable receivers like Devin Ross, Shay Fields, Bryce Bobo and Jay MacIntyre. Two newcomers to watch will be Kabion Ento and Juwann Winfree. Both have great fundamentals to play a significant role in the wide receiver corps. The task at hand will be replacing recording-setting Nelson Spruce to become a go-to target. Shay Field looks to lead that charge this year and truly it's his time to break free by developing into a premiere wideout.

Ross has been emerging in spring practices and steadily showing improvements. He could work into taking over the production left by Spruce and then some. CU ranked 45th in the nation last season in receiving due to Spruce's 1,053 yards, leading the Buffs.

Another factor to the offense has been the growing commitment by the running back by committee rotation. Michael Adkins, Donovan Lee and Phillip Lindsay will cycle through the season with Patrick Carr complementing the group as well. The push for 2,000 + yards should be obtainable this season with the expectation for Lindsay to carry most of the load. Carr has shown flashes of greatness this spring and will continue to grow under new running back coach Darian Hagan. CU's rushers could be a game changer and the difference in the offense line having to hold up pressure 50+ times a game from falling behind in games.

Defense does it

The achilles heel for the Buffs has been the lack of consistency on the defensive side of the ball. Jim Leavitt has revived the tradition of being a smash mouth unit, but there's still work to be done before considering CU a threat. Depth at most positions has been an issue and forced Leavitt to work with a skeleton crew. In the next couple years with MacIntyre and Leavit consistently growing the culture, the defense will be stacked with a more powerful base.  12 of the 22 seniors are on the defensive side of the ball with the secondary being the most experienced. Chidobe Awuzie, Tedric Thompson, and Ahkello Witherspoon will solidify the Buffs' pass defense and bring senior leadership to the position that has lacked for quite sometime. Afolabi Laguda and Ryan Moeller will continue to grow in Leavitt's system by getting reps as well. This will allow Derek McCartney and Leo Jackson to thrive in pass rush situation knowing the secondary has been battle tested.

What to expect

The Buffs will be more competitive now than past years under MacIntyre. A bowl game is realistic and it's not too much of a stretch for an upset or two. The season starts with heated rival Colorado State, Idaho State, at the "Big House" against Michigan and on the road at Autzen stadium with Oregon. The first month will give a good indication where the Buffs are headed into the bulk of their Pac-12 schedule with Oregon State, USC, Arizona State, and Stanford. The last month will conclude with UCLA , Arizona, Washington State and Utah.

Early prediction

CU will be bowl bound with a 7-5 record.