The Pac-12’s depth has been no secret for the last few years, with a handful of excellent teams at the top, and bowl-caliber squads all the way down to ninth or 10th in the league standings.
Past that 10th spot has been the clear bottom of the league: spots typically inhabited by the Oregon State Beavers and the Colorado Buffaloes. As even casual college football fans could tell you, it’s been a rough time in Boulder for a decade now.
From 2006-2015, Colorado was 35-88 overall, and 17-68 in-conference (Big 12 and Pac-12). Just one season (2007) saw six wins, though it was accompanied by seven losses. All but three of those years featured eight or more losses (and four featured double-digit losses). These were depths this proud program hadn’t really seen in its history. The Pac-12 move, which took them away from traditional recruiting footprints in Texas and the Plains, was starting to look like a mistake.
Not so much this season, however. At least so far.
In 2016, the Buffs are 4-1 and currently ranked in both polls (21st in the AP, 23rd by the Coaches). Colorado’s lone loss is to No. 4 Michigan. It’s CU’s first time in the polls since they were ranked 22nd in week 10 of the 2005 season. It’s also the team’s first poll appearance since they joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
After a huge win at Oregon and a dominating effort in a 47-6 victory over Oregon State the following week, Colorado has already equaled their highest divisional win total since joining the league. At 2-0, they’re first in the South division and tied for the league-best mark with Washington up in the North. Colorado, whose recruiting rankings haven’t topped 68th in the 247 Sports composite at any point from 2013-2016 (the large majority of this roster), is one of college football’s most complete teams at this early juncture. Go figure.
Amassing 531 yards per game, the Buffs are ninth in total offense in the entire country. They’re 16th in scoring offense at 43.2 points per game (including 28 against Michigan, one of the best defenses in the country). On the other side of the ball, they’re right behind Clemson, coming in 12th in total defense, while also a respectable 36th in scoring defense (allowing 20.6 points per game).
It’s still relatively early, but how is head coach Mike MacIntyre doing this given the various challenges this program faces not just this year, but every year?
For starters, he’s done this before. At his first head coaching stop in 2010, he took San Jose State from 1-12 in year one to 10-2 and a no. 21 ranking in year three. His success in just three years made the program an attractive addition to the Mountain West (from the deceased WAC), and him an attractive addition for Colorado, looking to right a seven-year rough patch.
For Colorado, it was a perfect storm of factors that brought them to the bottom of the Big 12 and then the Pac-12 afterward. The failures of the Dan Hawkins regime began the decline, and made it difficult to pivot when they left their traditional recruiting area for the West Coast. Their in-state talent, getting better but still not elite, was of little help to stem the problem. The mix of traditional powers and rising programs made it tough to attract top talent their way when success and stability was easy to find in so many other spots.
On top of the recruiting shift (you’re seeing this sort of issue for other post-realignment programs like Nebraska and West Virginia too), that aforementioned stability issue is impacted directly by the state of Colorado.
“Colorado state law limits the number of multi-year employment contracts each school can offer to six and in recent years all of those deals at CU have been dedicated to coaches or administrators in the athletic department. The inability to offer assistant coaches more than at-will employment has long been a frustration for CU head coaches who often compete for assistant coaches with programs who can offer long-term deals and more security.”
So those ace recruiters and rising assistants bandied about around the country as the “next big hires” at school X or Y? They’re unlikely to come from Colorado, since the Buffs are handcuffed in terms of hiring like few/any other programs.
However, MacIntyre’s gotten creative with this. He’s brought in young, rising names like Brian Lindgren and Darrin Chiaverini on the offense to help mimic better offenses like his old San Jose State system and Texas Tech (where Chiaverini was from). He balances that with older coaches like defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, the former architect of the USF Bulls program and a member of the 49ers coaching staff. MacIntyre convinced the CU administration to shell out a long-term (three-year) deal for the 59-year old. It’s not a TON of stability, mind you. But it’s some.
That coaching staff is assisted by a veteran roster. While those recruiting rankings mentioned earlier still stand, a lot of those players are upperclassmen and experienced starters. MacIntyre didn’t inherit much, which allowed him to insert youth early and often. Now, he has a group that understands his system and is exceeding expectations. All of this, despite junior quarterback Sefo Liufau missing the last two games. His replacement, redshirt freshman Steven Montez, has 750 total yards and seven touchdowns, and most importantly, two wins. For the lack of blue-chip talent, there’s an awful lot of depth. And that’s exactly what Colorado will need to get through the rest of this slate.
Look around the rest of the Pac-12, and you see a collection of teams with plenty of strengths but plenty of flaws too. As mentioned, Colorado’s found incredible balance this year, which puts them at an advantage most of their opponents simply don’t possess. A trip to USC on Saturday pits them against a more talented foe, but one that’s 2-3 overall and 1-2 in conference with a media circus around them. Arizona, Arizona State, and Washington State all seem capable on offense but questionable at-best on the defensive end. UCLA and Stanford seem to have elements missing on offense even if their defenses are incredibly good. And Utah, the team the Buffaloes wrap their schedule with, is defensive-minded and still tough to get a read on.
Those teams listed above are all challenges, for certain. But right now, the Buffs are very much in the driver’s seat and, unlike every other team in the South, can take a loss and still be in control of the race. A 4-1 start guarantees little. Based on the results we’ve observed so far, however, this is not the same Colorado you’re used to watching. For the time being, they’re the favorite. It’s a new role for MacIntyre’s program, but one they already seem pretty comfortable in.