Posted on October 24, 2020
The 2020 college football season is almost upon us as we wrap up our Pac-12 football previews with the Colorado Buffaloes. The weekly series culminates in a conference-wide preview, complete with projected win-loss records and season predictions.
Overview: New coaches, Key Losses, Make for a Tough Turnaround
Coming off their third-straight 5-7 season, the Buffs must replace three-year starting quarterback Steven Montez and star wide receiver Laviska Shenault.
In February, Mel Tucker unceremoniously bolted to Michigan State after just a single season in Boulder, forcing the CU administration to quickly identity Karl Dorrell as an appropriate replacement.
The former Miami Dolphin wide receiver coach takes over the program in a rebuild year disrupted by COVID-19. Fortunately, Tucker built a strong incoming freshman class that remained loyal to the program after his poorly handled exit.
Even without the summer practice time to develop a new quarterback, Dorrell has weapons on both sides of the ball. The running back unit is among the best in the South Division, and plenty of experience returns on defense. Linebacker Nate Landman, running back Alex Fontenot, and wide receiver K.D. Nixon figure to play substantial roles in the success of the team in 2020.
But with depth questions along the offensive line and the potential of a true freshman starting under center, Colorado faces an uphill climb in Dorrell’s first season.
Best-Case Scenario: Experienced Defensive Line Prevails
With all three starting defensive linemen returning, and Dorrell’s decision to retain defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, the Buffs open the year with a victory over UCLA in Boulder. The defense’s experience paves the way for upset road victories at Stanford and Arizona, and CU heads into Week 7 with a 3-3 record.
Junior quarterback Tyler Lytle or true freshman Brendon Lewis successfully lead the run-heavy offense. Fontenot solidifies himself as one of the best running backs in the Pac-12, Jaren Mangham continues to prove his worth as the second option, and freshman Ashaad Clayton makes explosive plays when given the opportunity.
Worst Case Scenario: COVID-19 Interruptions Derail Development
The lack of practice due to COVID-19 shows early in the season, devastating Colorado’s hopes of a .500 finish. The lack of continuity between the Tucker and Dorrell offensive systems frustrates Lytle, and Lewis is unable to consistently handle college-level blitz packages.
The result is a broken offense that can’t put points on the board, even with a defense that keeps games within reach. The Buffs fall flat in Dorrell’s first year, going winless through the first six weeks of the season.
The lone silver-lining is the free year of experience Lewis gets, setting the stage for a better-than-expected 2021 season.
What Should Happen: As Many as Three Wins in the First Six Seems Possible
The Buffs should find a way to emerge victorious against some combination of UCLA, Stanford, and Arizona, or perhaps all three. Though CU is the Pac-12 program that arguably has suffered the most due to the lack of spring ball and summer camp, the defense should be the difference in close games.
When the offense is struggling to find its rhythm early in the season, the unit generates enough stops and turnovers to keep Colorado within striking distance. Even with an offense that struggles at times, the potent rushing attack led by Fontenot busts enough big plays to establish effective play-action passes to Nixon and tight end Brady Russell.
The result should be one of the more efficient red zone offenses in the Conference.
What Must Happen: Coaching and Leadership Overcome Inexperience
The inexperience at quarterback must be negated with thoughtful play calling and patient coaching. Mental toughness and leadership, by both the coaches and players, could prove to be the difference in the development of the offense as the season progresses.
Specifically, Nixon and Fontenot have to be points of emphasis in every game plan. From the opening possession, the two CU stars must constantly be fed the ball and given opportunities to make plays. The depth at running back is clear, and a run-first mentality may allow the new quarterback to ease his way into more comfortable positions.
To lighten the burden on the quarterback, the defense can’t give up early leads. If games get out of reach quickly, the lack of reps at quarterback could shine through in the form of interceptions and poor execution on third down.
On the other hand, strong showings on defense would allow Dorrell to rely more heavily on his run game and control the time of possession.
Greatest Strength: New Offensive Talent, Productive Defensive Returners
In the long run, the incoming freshmen class may turn out to be the strong suit of the team.
Clayton is a four-star running back that figures to see legitimate playing time and has the potential to emerge as a vital cog in Dorrell’s new system, if he is healthy enough to play. Similarly, four-star defensive end Jason Harris projects as a dominant force along the line, and four-star wide receiver Brenden Rice figures to see plenty of action.
Of the returning players, all three starting defensive linemen are back, led by Mustafa Johnson. The anchor of the defense and its leading tackler from the last two seasons, Landman, returns as well to provide invaluable leadership.
Alabama transfer Antonio Alfano adds a substantial threat along the defensive line, but his off the field issues led to a suspension in March and its unclear if he will see the field in 2020 due to medical issues. If he does, the Colorado front line should be among the best in the South.
Biggest Concern: Thin Offensive Line and Inexperience at Quarterback
The three quarterbacks vying for the starting role, Lytle, Lewis, and Sam Noyer have combined to throw a mere 47 career passes. That’s just not going to get it done in the South against the likes of USC, Utah, and Arizona State. The defensive coordinators of all of CU’s opponents will be licking their lips in the week leading up to the game, ready to dial up the pressure on the inexperienced quarterback.
And with only three starting offensive linemen returning and no real depth, pass protection could break down too often for comfort.
Deciding Factors: Adjustment to New Offense and Resiliancy
The pace at which the offense adjusts to Dorrell’s system may be the single most important factor in Colorado’s season. However, COVID-19 has prevented the new staff from developing their players during the offseason, and Week One is quickly approaching.
Early season struggles are likely, but the ability of the offense to learn from their mistakes could be the difference between going winless and securing a .500 record. Unfortunately, two of CU’s three winnable games are in Week One and Week Two, giving Dorrell no room for error.
A quick start on the opening drive against UCLA could be the spark that ignites a successful season.
Schedule Analysis: Overview of Shortened Conference Schedule
The season begins with a winnable game against UCLA in Boulder. Chip Kelley is fighting for his job and Dorian Thompson-Robinson is playing for his legacy, a dangerous combination that should favor the Bruins. An opening game loss is possible, and it could derail the Buffs’ entire season.
The first road game of the year is against Stanford. Of the three games on CU’s schedule that project as potential victories, this one may be the toughest. Davis Mills had flashes of brilliance in 2019, and the Buffs don’t have enough experience under center to feel confident on the road. Though Colorado could win, the Cardinal should handle their business in Palo Alto.
Week Three features a matchup with Arizona State in Boulder. A game effected by weather could be the wildcard that keeps ASU from pulling away, but Herm Edwards and Jayden Daniels likely get revenge for last year’s defeat in Tempe.
A trip to L.A. to face USC follows. The Trojans have enough offensive firepower to blow CU out of the water and a lopsided result seems likely. On the bright side, this matchup presents a good opportunity for Lewis to gain experience, and provides a nice stage for Fontenot to display his talent to NFL scouts.
The Week Five battle with Arizona in Tucson is the final winnable game of the season. The Wildcat defense is ripe for an inexperienced quarterback to exploit, and Colorado should be confident in their ability to win. The performance of the Buff defense against Grant Gunnell and the Arizona rushing attack is likely the difference between a Colorado win and a close defeat.
Utah comes to Boulder for the final game of the regular season before the Week Seven cross-divisional matchup. Though the Utes are breaking in a new quarterback as well, Kyle Whittingham likely has better depth and athletes on both sides of the ball. Crazier things have happened, but Utah should emerge with the victory.
At best, the Buffs enter Week Seven with a 3-3 record. But if things go wrong, CU may end the season with just one or two wins.
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