First-year head coach Mel Tucker is taking the reins in Boulder after a seven-game losing streak to end the season led to Mike MacIntyre's dismissal. Tucker and his staff are working hard to carve out a physical, bruising identity for Colorado on both sides of the ball. The Buffaloes have 11 returning starters and a skilled senior quarterback in Steven Montez to give Tucker a foundation to build on.
Colorado State is searching for answers after posting just three wins, its worst season since enduring three consecutive three-win campaigns from 2009-11. Defensive improvement will be a focal point. The Rams fielded one of the nation's worst defenses a year ago. They allowed 451.5 yards and 36.8 points per game — including a Mountain West Conference-worst 219.5 yards on the ground.
The Buffaloes have had an upper hand in the Rocky Mountain Showdown for several seasons now. Colorado has won four straight over the Rams by an average margin of 21.5 points. Colorado State trails the all-time series 66-22-2.
Friday's game marks the final contest in Denver. The series will move to campus sites starting in 2020.
Colorado State vs. Colorado
Kickoff: Friday, Aug. 29 at 10 p.m. ET
Where: Broncos Stadium at Mile High (Denver)
Spread: Colorado -13.5
When Colorado State Has the Ball
Having Collin Hill at full strength gives the Rams some hope they can keep pace with the Buffaloes on the scoreboard. Hill is a talented quarterback who is finally back from knee injuries that sidelined or limited him for most of the past three seasons.
Hill has tallied 2,483 yards and 15 touchdowns over his career. He appeared briefly against Colorado last season, completing 1-of-4 passes for 5 yards.
The biggest problem facing Hill and Colorado State is inexperience at running back and receiver. Warren Jackson, a 6-6 junior, will likely be Hill's favorite target. Jackson totaled 405 yards and four touchdowns on 32 receptions last season. Not having Auburn transfer Nate Craig-Myers available for this contest takes away a potential weapon in the passing game.
Marcus McElroy seized the top spot in the backfield. Marvin Kinsey, Colorado State's top returning rusher, is still expected to get plenty of carries as the No. 2 back. The Rams will need one or the other to emerge to take some pressure off of Hill. Christian Hunter, a highly touted true freshman, could get a look if neither McElroy nor Kinsey can deliver.
When Colorado Has the Ball
Montez had no trouble shredding the Rams through the air a year ago. He totaled 338 yards and four touchdowns on 22-of-25 passing to power Colorado's 45-13 victory last September. You better believe that will be a plan of attack again.
The Buffaloes have plenty of reliable targets who will torment Colorado State's secondary. Laviska Shenault, a preseason All-American, and K.D. Nixon are the headliners. Shenault totaled 1,011 yards and six touchdowns on 86 catches as a sophomore. Of those yards, 211 came against the Rams. His numbers could have been even higher if not for a mid-season injury. Nixon is also a reliable deep threat after tallying 636 yards and four scores on 52 catches a year ago.
If Colorado is as dominant through the air against the Rams as last season, it will give the Buffaloes some time and space for the inexperienced backfield to find its feet. Alex Fontenot, a sophomore, will get first crack at being the featured back. True freshmen Jaren Mangham will push for carries and could be a breakout star as the season progresses.
The talent gap between Colorado and Colorado State hasn't felt this wide since the glory years of the Bill McCartney era. Both teams enter the season with plenty of questions. Figuring out which team will reign supreme in the Rocky Mountain Showdown isn't one of them. The Buffaloes have enough pieces back on offense to give the Rams fits. Don't be surprised if they pick apart the Colorado State defense early and often.
Prediction: Colorado 31, Colorado State 14
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.