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2016 Rocky Mountain Showdown Preview: Colorado vs. Colorado State

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The 88th meeting on the gridiron between the in-state rival Buffs and Rams

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Ron Chenoy/ USA Today Sport Images

The Colorado Buffaloes (2015: 4-9, 1-8, Pac-12) come into the 2016 season with a different approach from years past. New coaches and a different offensive outlook were a part of the offseason adjustments for head coach Mike MacIntyre and his staff.

The Buffs haven't started a season off with 1-0 record since 2013 and look to break that streak against the Colorado State Rams (2015: 7-6, 5-3, Mountain West). This year's edition of the Rocky Mountain Showdown will be nationally televised on ESPN for the first time since 2003.

After a back-and-forth battle, CU won a 27-24 overtime thriller in Denver last year. The final sequence between both teams ended with Buffs defensive back Tedric Thompson blocking a 27-yard field goal attempt from Rams kicker Wyatt Bryant and Diego Gonzalez nailed a 37-yard game winning field goal for Colorado.

CU holds a 6-4 advantage in the past ten meetings and haven't lost when scoring at least 18 points since 2001.

The struggles in the Pac-12 continued last season for the Buffs, but overall the team continues to show progress with four losses decided by 7 points or less (No. 23 Utah, No. 24 UCLA, Arizona, & USC). The lone conference win on the road against Oregon State, 17-13, snapped a 14-game losing streak in Pac-12 play for CU and doubled the win total from 2014. MacIntyre and his staff have the potential to turn a corner and give the program its first winning season since joining the conference in 2011.

CSU finished their 2015 campaign with a 28-23 loss in the Arizona Bowl to conference foe -- the Nevada Wolfpack. Prior to the defeat, the Rams secured a bowl berth by winning the last four games of the season. Colorado State head coach Mike Bobo enters his second season at the helm, looking to take the program into a different direction as opposed to past eras. The longtime Georgia Bulldogs assistant turned Fort Collins transplant is tasked with developing his own style of coaching while improving the recruiting efforts.

Colorado State's potential of joining a bigger conference dominated the talk of the offseason as the school currently residing in the Mountain West has been courted by the Big 12. A new athletic facility will be an attraction for a bigger conference, but CSU will have trouble selling the idea of being a major university in a "power 5" conference.

By The Numbers

The record last season for the Buffs and Rams are different, but statically, the teams are equal in most categories (of course, one team played in the Pac-12 and the other did not).

2015 Games Passing Yards Pass TD INT's Rushing Yards Rush TD PPG Avg. Def. Efficiency T.O. +/-
COLO 13 3128 13 12 2031 23 24.6 65th 61st (+1)
COLO ST 13 2965 24 15 2571 20 28.2 107th 118th (-12)

Offensive Output

Compared to Colorado's record breaking offense in 2014, the team took a big step back last season mainly due to lackluster production from the passing game. Buffs quarterback Sefo Liufau returns under center for his senior season, after spending the offseason rehabbing a broken bone (Lisfranc) in his foot.  There was uncertainty if Liufau (who holds 75 school records at CU) would return to the field ever again, but he's determined to finish his college career strong. Despite losing premiere targets Nelson Spruce (NFL) and new JUCO transfer Juwann Winfree (torn ACL), Liufau and the Buffs' corps of wide receivers will be led by Shay Fields and looks to be strong. The junior deep-threat receiver could develop into an even bigger offensive weapon this season, alongside Devin Ross, Bryce Bobo, and newcomer Johnny Huntley.

CU's offensive game plan will see significant changes this season with two key additions to MacIntyre's staff. Buffs' assistant coach and alum, Darian Hagan takes over his natural position as running backs coach. He replaces Klayton Adams, who moves to offensive line, taking over for Gary Bernardi, who moves over tight ends & halfback. Among the shuffle, former player, turned coach Darrin Chiaverini returns to his alma mater as a coach. He's credited for instituting Texas Tech's high-powered passing offense and was given the role as co-offensive coordinator/wide receivers coach on MacIntyre's staff. The offensive pace and number of plays run per game is expected to drastically increase as the Buffaloes look to wear down opposing defenses at altitude.

The only loss for the Buffs on offensive front going into this season will be Stephane Nembot (NFL). The O-line is built with Jonathan Huckins, Gerrad Kough, Sam Kronshage, Jeromy Irwin and redshirt freshman Tim Lynott, who continues to show significant progress in camp.

Colorado's strong (if you can call it that) point on offense in 2015 was the rushing attack by committee featuring running backs Phillip Lindsay & Michael Adkins, who return looking to build off last season's combine total offense of 1,083 yards and ten touchdowns. The duo is joined by all-purpose player Donovan Lee, who's expected to contribute in the slot along with carries out of the backfield.

Colorado State's offense will likely be led by returning quarterback Nick Stevens, although nothing is certain according to Bobo, who won't announce a starter before taking the field on Sept. 2. Stevens remains in a three-way battle for the starting job throughout camp with Georgia graduate transfer Faton Bauta and Collin Hill. Similar to the Buffs and Spruce, the Rams offense will be in search of a replacement for a No. 1 wide receiver.

The Rams top three wideouts Rashard Higgins, Joe Hansley and Kivon Cartwright all departed to the NFL, leaving Xavier Williams as the next man up. Dalyn Dawkins will be utilized more as a pass catching back in Bobo's pro style hybrid scheme. The Purdue transfer was the Rams' leading rusher last season with 867 yards and two touchdowns. Izzy Matthews will be in the mix as well, complementing Dawkins' efforts by splitting the amount of carries in the backfield. A side note for Dawkins is that his uncle, Brian, played 16 seasons in the NFL as a defensive back and finished his career with the Denver Broncos.

Defensive Breakdown

The biggest struggles for CSU going into 2016 will be on the defensive side of the ball. The Rams have no returning starters on the defensive line and will rely on the play of linebacker Kevin Davis. The 6'3'', 240 pound senior has the most experience for defensive coordinator Marty English and remains one of the only players recruited by former coach Steve Fairchild. Davis led the Rams defense with 101 tackles last season along with an interception. The downside was that CSU only forced 15 turnovers and were ranked 104th in the nation.

The nine remaining projected starters on the Rams defense (not including Davis and JUCO transfer defensive tackle Darnell Thompson), accumulated playing time in an average of 7 games last season.

Colorado's defensive outlook is the opposite of CSU, with seven defensive starters returning including a majority of upperclassmen (7 seniors, 3 juniors). CU has depth at the linebacker position with Derek McCartney, Kenneth Olugbode and Addison Gillam anchoring the defense. Jim Leavitt enters his second season as defensive coordinator with his work cut for him once again. The former South Florida coach was successful in his first year by taking the Buffs from being ranked 10th to 7th in total defense for the Pac-12.

Chidobe Awuzie is a major reason for that success, he's projected to have a breakout season in the secondary. The Buffs cornerback was named to multiple watch lists for postseason awards including the Thorpe and Nagurski. Awuzie finished second on the team with 90 tackles along with two interceptions, earning all conference honors for 2015.

Projected Ticket Sales

CU has sold more tickets (27,805) ahead of the showdown. As of Friday afternoon (8/26), CSU was trailing with 25,008 tickets sold and a total of 52,813 from both schools. The Buffs are closing in on 17,000 season tickets sold for 2016 and the showdown is included in packages for both schools. CU is allotted 55 percent of total tickets to sell, with CSU receiving the remaining 45 percent. The project sales is on pace to match the 66,253 attendance from last year's matchup.

Tickets are available via Ticketmaster starting at $35.

Footnotes & History

Seven percent of CU's 1,211 football games have been played against CSU, the most of any opponent. Here's a series breakdown of the RMS since 1893.

All-time record: 63-22-2 (Colorado)

Number of games played by location: Boulder: 41, Fort Collins: 31, Denver: 14

Most combined points: 82 (1996, 48-34 Colorado) *Last game played in Fort Collins

Largest blowout: 1894, 67-0 (Colorado) *TD-4 pts, FG-5 pts

Closest Game (not a tie): 1932, 7-6 (Colorado State)

Current line: Colorado -/+8.0

Colorado and Colorado State will travel to Denver for the 88th Rocky Mountain Showdown at 6:05 p.m. MT on Friday, Sept. 2. TV: ESPN & WatchESPN App. Radio: CU- 850 AM KOA (Statewide), CSU- Mile High Sports 104.7 FM/1340 AM (Denver Metro), Rock 102.9 FM KARS (Ft Collins)