No team in the Pac-12 had lower expectations than Colorado last year, yet the Buffaloes wound up as the biggest surprise in the conference.
Head coach Karl Dorrell, hired in late February 2020, didn't conduct his first practice until October because of COVID-19. Despite the challenges, the Buffs were in contention for the Pac-12 South title until the final weekend of the truncated season, vaulted into the national rankings at one point and played in a bowl game for just the second time since 2007. Dorrell earned Pac-12 Coach of the Year honors for his work.
Dorrell's offseason has been consumed not by the Buffs' success, though. Rather, it's the 0–2 finish — and the 55–23 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl, in particular — that left a sour taste and reminded him of the work still to be done in Boulder.
"I'm very driven and passionate about getting this thing right," Dorrell says. "I think the pivotal years for that to happen, for it to change and be set in foundation and done, are these first couple years. That really sets the trajectory of where you're going, and there's still a lot of work to do."
Previewing Colorado's Offense for 2021
Colorado should be able to run the ball. After two ACL tears, Jarek Broussard came out of nowhere in 2020 to finish third nationally in rushing yards per game (149.2) and win Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors. Alex Fontenot — the Buffs' leading rusher in 2019 — is back after missing last season with a hip injury to give Broussard some help, while Ashaad Clayton, a four-star recruit in the 2020 class, hopes to get in the mix. That group will run behind a line that lost just one starter and is led by center Colby Pursell and tackle Frank Fillip.
At receiver, the Buffs have a load of talent, led by Dimitri Stanley and La'Vontae Shenault, who both had good seasons in 2020. Brenden Rice was explosive at times and could be a future star. Tight end Brady Russell, who missed most of the season with injury, will be a critical piece to the offense as well.
The real question for Colorado is at quarterback. Sam Noyer was a pleasant surprise last year, earning second-team All-Pac-12 honors in his first year as the starter. He struggled in the second half of the season, however, and transferred to Oregon State in June. The favorite to win the job might actually be freshman Brendon Lewis, a talented dual-threat who made his debut in the Alamo Bowl and led the Buffs to three touchdowns. Tennessee transfer J.T. Shrout adds experience to the room, and he'll compete with Lewis for the starting job as well.
CU hasn't finished in the top half of the Pac-12 in scoring since joining the conference in 2011, but strong quarterback play and some changes to the offense could help. "We were very vanilla offensively last year, in terms of movement and shifting, things like that," Dorrell says. "We've made some tweaks, with adding more formations and motions and doing more adjustments and shifts … which we didn't really do much of."
Previewing Colorado's Defense for 2021
Despite the Buffs showing some improvement in 2020, Dorrell cut ties with coordinator Tyson Summers and promoted defensive line coach Chris Wilson to the position. A longtime NFL and college coach, Wilson is in a coordinator role for the first time since 2010-12 at Mississippi State. Under Wilson, the Buffs are aiming for a more player-friendly system than they had under Summers, and they plan to be versatile in their scheme.
"You have to be multiple in this day and age," Wilson says. "We're gonna have that versatility."
A healthy Nate Landman is important, too. The inside linebacker was an All-America candidate before rupturing an Achilles tendon in the regular-season finale. There is hope he'll be ready to go by fall camp.
There is intriguing talent all over the defense. Outside linebacker Carson Wells racked up 16 tackles for a loss in only six games; defensive end Terrance Lang has improved every year; safety Isaiah Lewis had a breakout season; and cornerbacks Mekhi Blackmon and Christian Gonzalez formed a solid duo. Defensive backs Chris Miller and Mark Perry are also talented when healthy.
CU also hit the transfer portal for reinforcements on defense, picking up linebackers Robert Barnes (Oklahoma) and Jack Lamb (Notre Dame) and defensive end Blayne Toll (Arkansas). All three are projected to play key roles.
Previewing Colorado's Specialists for 2021
Walk-on Evan Price returns after going 6-for-8 on field goals a year ago. A part-timer early in his career, he's 15-for-18 as a Buff, with two of the misses coming on blocks. He'll still have to hold off scholarship freshman Cole Becker for the job. Punter Josh Watts, from Australia, played his first year of football in 2020 and got better as the season went along.
Dorrell had a very good debut season, but he knows there's still a lot of work to be done. There is a lot of talent but a lot of question marks, including depth. CU has won more than five games just once in the last 13 seasons, and it'll be a challenge to do it this year. The first month will reveal a lot about the Buffs, as they face Texas A&M and Minnesota before opening Pac-12 play against two of the best teams in the South: Arizona State and USC.
National Ranking: 62
Podcast: Top 25 Breakdown and Predictions
(Nate Landman photo by Joel G. Broida/Colorado Athletics)