The Colorado Buffaloes should be 5-3 right now. 6-2 if you stretch your imagination. Oregon on the road, that’s a loss. Washington State on the road, that’s a loss. But Air Force and USC? Those games are two freak plays away from the win column. Arizona is a little more of a stretch, but that game still looked good for the Buffs until injuries and Khalil Tate magic made the win look farther and farther away. If Jalen Sami falls on a caused fumble against USC, and if James Stefanou doesn’t have his extra point blocked against Air Force, this is a different season.
We are 2/3rds of the way into the college football season. Most of what we need to know about Mel Tucker’s first year has already been shown. And most of what we’ve seen has been painful. CU has had to deal with a myriad of injuries on an already thin defensive side, leading to four true freshman playing most of the game against USC, and the offense has sputtered in the red zone due to some shaky quarterback play and some questionable play calling. The pass rush is mostly non-existent, the linebackers are out of position in this zone coverage scheme, and the DBs are painfully young and inconsistent. These 2019 Buffs have provided huge emotional wins, like a home stunner against Nebraska and the first ever road win at Arizona State. They also have let down the fans in the worst ways. A home loss against a local Mountain West team like Air Force hurts. Being up ten points against USC with ten minutes left, just to lose in heartbreaking fashion, hurts. The injuries are numerous, but it’s more than that. CU is ranked 23rd in Offensive SP+ (the evolution of the old S+P, an advanced stats metric), but they are ranked 117th in Defensive SP+. For having a head coach who is a defensive specialist, CU sure is soft on that side of the ball.
There have been good signs of progress. Jay Johnson has been a huge upgrade as a play-caller, in my mind. Yes, the red-zone struggles are painful, but CU has largely been able to move the ball at will. The running game has been consistently successful, and Alex Fontenot has been a wonderful surprise at the running back position. Tony Brown has proven he is an NFL-level talent that was hiding in plain sight for a long time. His connection with Steven Montez is special and has kept the Buffs in games. Young players like K.J. Trujillo and Jalen Sami have gotten valuable snaps and have started to show great signs of progress. Mikial Onu and Derrion Rakestraw have been surprisingly dynamic as a safety duo.
That’s where the pain comes from. Mel Tucker and the Buffs have been so close to accomplishing their goals. One more play, one less penalty, and the Buffs are sitting pretty. Alas, here CU sits at 3-5. The schedule does not get easier. CU need to beat UCLA and Stanford, and then pull an upset against Washington or Utah. That is not easy to do. And that’s just to get to a bowl. More than likely, the Buffs will be on the outside looking in. Again. And that hurts.