The Colorado Buffaloes put together a dream season in 2016, breaking an eight-year postseason drought in a big way by winning the Pac-12 South Division. Colorado also put together its first 10-win season since 2001. Despite back-to-back blowout losses to close the 2016 campaign out, the Buffaloes entered the offseason with more momentum than they have had in more than a decade.
Simply put, expectations have been raised in Boulder. Colorado returns nine starters on offense, including running back Phillip Lindsey, who gained 1,252 yards and scored 16 touchdowns on the ground last season. A deep and talented receiving corps also is back for sophomore quarterback Steven Montez, who got his feet wet with three starts last season in place of an injured Sefo Liufau.
Despite loads of inexperience on defense and the loss of coordinator Jim Leavitt to Pac-12 rival Oregon, the 2017 Buffaloes are expected to be a threat in the division once again and should make it back-to-back bowl appearances for the first time since 2004-05. The schedule sets up pretty well with three manageable non-conference games and a Pac-12 slate that doesn’t seem too daunting, especially on the road.
As a bonus, the two toughest opponents on the schedule must travel to a newly rejuvenated Folsom Field – one in September and the other in November, giving Colorado ample time to prepare for both.
12. Sept. 16 vs. Northern Colorado
Northern Colorado, an FCS member of the Big Sky Conference, finished 6-5 last season, including a 47-21 loss to Colorado State. The Bears should put up more of a fight than Idaho State, Colorado’s FCS opponent last season that went 2-9 overall including a 56-7 loss to the Buffaloes. But this should still be a fairly game for the home team.
11. Sept. 9 vs. Texas State
How’s this for a trade? Last season, Colorado’s non-conference slate included the annual clash with in-state rival Colorado State, FCS opponent Idaho State and Michigan. This year, the Buffs play the Rams, Idaho State’s conference rival Northern Colorado, and Texas State. The Bobcats were 2-10 overall, winless in the Sun Belt and finished 2016 with an eight-game losing streak.
10. Oct. 28 vs. Cal
Cal was a dangerous team with former head coach Sonny Dykes’ offense lighting up scoreboards every week. The problem was the Golden Bears were rarely able to stop their opponent from scoring either. Though new head coach Justin Wilcox isn’t abandoning the up-tempo offense altogether, the longtime defensive coordinator is likely to have a less dynamic unit at his disposal after the loss of quarterback Davis Webb and six other starters on that side of the ball.
The defense should take a step in the right direction with Wilcox’s background, but the unit was so bad last season (127th in FBS in scoring and rushing defense, 125th in total defense), it’s difficult to imagine a major turnaround. This feels like a Year 0 situation for Wilcox, which should make Cal the easiest conference opponent on Colorado’s schedule.
9. Oct. 7 vs. Arizona
Last season was a disaster for Arizona. The Wildcats stumbled to a 1-8 record in Pac-12 play with the lone bright spot coming in a season-ending 56-35 win over archrival Arizona State. Arizona lost eight straight games before beating the Sun Devils (surrendering nearly 45 points per game during that stretch) and finished 0-5 in games outside of Tucson.
On a positive note, the Wildcats were the Pac-12’s top rushing team, ranking 19th with 235 yards per game on the ground. The offensive line returns intact, but there’s not much experience back at the skill positions. Also, Arizona ranked dead last in the league and No. 100 in the country in scoring offense (24.8 ppg).
The defense returns seven starters after finishing no better than ninth in the Pac-12 or No. 83 in the nation in the four major defensive categories – scoring (ninth, No. 118), rushing (ninth, No. 83), passing (11th, No. 117) and total (ninth, No. 115).
8. Sept. 1 vs. Colorado State (Denver)
Often overlooked on a national level because it features a Mountain West program, the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver is generally a tricky rivalry game for Colorado – especially in the years prior to 2016 when the Buffs were struggling. And this matchup could be just as troublesome given the Rams’ rise in the second half of last season.
Colorado State exploded offensively in the final six games, averaging 47.8 points per game over that stretch. Though the offensive line must be rebuilt, senior quarterback Nick Stevens, top receivers Michael Gallup and Bisi Johnson, and running backs Dalyn Dawkins and Izzy Matthews all return. Head coach Mike Bobo’s offense will provide a very difficult first test for the young Buffs and new defensive coordinator D.J. Eliot.
7. Nov. 4 at Arizona State
Expectations are low for Arizona State given the 1-7 finish to the 2016 season and the Sun Devils’ horrendous showing on defense. Arizona State ranked dead last in the Pac-12 in both total (520.5 ypg) and passing defense (357.4 ypg), which also came in second to last and last nationally, respectively.
That poor performance resulted in the Sun Devils surrendering 39.8 points per game, which was 10th in the conference and 124th in FBS. New defensive coordinator Phil Bennett and eight returning starters should help the unit improve, but it’s unlikely we’ll see a major turnaround this season.
Arizona State is always dangerous offensively, and with either Alabama transfer Blake Barnett or a healthy Manny Wilkins at quarterback, that should be the case once again. Therefore, the trip to Tempe will be far from easy, especially with Colorado’s inexperience on defense. Expect a shootout.
6. Oct. 14 at Oregon State
Colorado completely outclassed the Beavers in Boulder last season, rolling to a 47-6 victory after more than doubling Oregon State (563-226) in yards. Given the ease of last year’s victory, it would be easy to overlook this season’s trip to Corvallis – but that would be a mistake. Odds are very good the Beavers will be far more competitive this time around.
Oregon State improved after the loss to Colorado last year, picking up three Pac-12 wins, including impressive back-to-back victories over Arizona and Oregon to close things out. The 4-8 final record doesn’t look good on paper, but the Beavers doubled their win total from head coach Gary Andersen’s first season. Ryan Nall is one of the best running backs in the conference, if not the country. The defense has improved and could take another step forward with linebackers Manase Hungalu and Bright Ugwoegbu anchoring the unit.
5. Nov. 25 at Utah
On paper, Utah looks a lot like Colorado. Both teams finished the 2016 season with four losses, including two in their final three games, although the Utes did close with a win in the Foster Farms Bowl over Indiana. After losing many talented players to graduation, both teams rank near the bottom of the Pac-12 in terms of returning starters and overall experience.
However, Utah has done what Colorado hopes to do: become a fixture in the polls, as well as a consistent bowl game participant and Pac-12 South title contender. The Utes have won at least nine games three straight seasons, earning Kyle Whittingham’s team the benefit of the doubt that 2017 will be more of a reloading year than a rebuilding one. It helps that Utah returns four starters in its front six (Utes run a 4-2-6 look).
Utah is tweaking its offense (again), and could struggle through a tough schedule that includes both Stanford and Washington from the North. But of course, the regular season finale in Salt Lake City is never an easy draw.
4. Oct. 21 at Washington State
Colorado beat Washington State 38-24 in Boulder last year, which was the first of a three-game, season-ending losing streak for the Cougars. However, before that, Wazzu had won eight straight. The Cougars return an experienced roster headlined by quarterback Luke Falk. One of the top QBs in the country, Falk threw for 4,468 yards and 38 touchdowns last year with just 11 interceptions in 633 pass attempts.
Falk is the headliner, but Washington State has arguably its most well-rounded team since Mike Leach was hired as head coach. Nine starters return from an underrated defense that ranked third in the conference against the run (134.2 ypg) and finished in the top half of the league in scoring defense (26.4 ppg) as well.
The Cougars might even be a dark horse contender in the Pac-12 North this season, which makes this mid-season trip to Pullman one of the most dangerous games on the Buffaloes’ slate.
3. Sept. 30 at UCLA
UCLA was one of the most disappointing teams in college football last season. The Bruins opened ranked 16th in the country before stumbling through an ugly 4-8 campaign, which included six losses in their final seven games. Injuries – especially to quarterback Josh Rosen – played a role. However, that doesn’t excuse the team from averaging just 84.3 rushing yards per game and 2.93 yards per carry last season, which ranked UCLA second to last in the nation in both categories.
Despite last year’s struggles, and the loss of five NFL draft picks (four on defense), the Bruins remain one of the most talented teams in the Pac-12. Rosen is expected to be fully healthy this fall, and he has a strong supporting cast and a new group of offensive coaches determined to turn the unit around. Expect UCLA to get back to bowl eligibility and to compete for the division title, making Colorado’s trip to the Rose Bowl its toughest road game of the season.
2. Sept. 23 vs. Washington
On a positive note, the two toughest games on Colorado’s schedule are at home in Boulder. The negative is that these two games feature a pair of national championship contenders.
Stanford rotated off the schedule, but unfortunately the Buffaloes drew Washington out of the North as the replacement. The Huskies clobbered Colorado 41-10 in the Pac-12 Conference Championship Game, and represented the league well in a tough 24-7 loss to Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal.
Quarterback Jake Browning won Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Year honors, and is a legitimate Heisman Trophy contender. Browning won’t have wide receiver John Ross to throw to, but Dante Pettis (15.5) and Chico McClatcher (18.5) actually averaged more yards per catch last season, and the former tied for seventh nationally with 15 touchdown receptions.
Linebacker Azeem Victor leads a group of six returning starters from last year’s defense, which led the conference in scoring (17.7 ppg), passing (182.9 ypg) and total defense (316.9 ypg).
1. Nov. 11 vs. USC
If all goes to plan, USC will meet Washington in the conference title game in a de facto College Football Playoff quarterfinal. Of course, both the Trojans and Huskies will have to survive their respective visits to Boulder to be in that position.
USC enters the 2017 season on a nine-game winning streak, and returns Heisman Trophy candidate Sam Darnold at quarterback. Though Darnold and leading rusher Ronald Jones II are both back, the Trojans’ top two receivers and three offensive line starters are not. Nevertheless, USC is second to none in the Pac-12 in terms of talent at the skill positions.
Defensively, the Trojans welcome back their top two tacklers, linebackers Cameron Smith and Porter Gustin, as well as leading sack specialist Rasheem Green. However, do-everything playmaker Adoree’ Jackson is one of three defensive standouts taken in this year’s NFL draft. Plenty of talent remains on that side of the ball, which is another reason why USC is considered a legitimate national championship contender and this game is considered Colorado’s toughest.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.