When CU and CSU face off in the Rocky Mountain Showdown this Friday, the Denver Broncos logo decorating seats in the north end of the upper deck of Sports Authority Field at Mile High will be visible for the fifth straight year. Why? Both Colorado and Colorado State’s athletic departments are again struggling to sell tickets. This tends to happen when the teams are simultaneously awful.
This year, though, there is hope the Buffaloes and the Rams will be consistently competitive against the better teams in their conferences. The Rams are mostly there; they finished 8-5 in 2013 and won a bowl game for the first time since 2008. Colorado will be ecstatic if they’re that good this season.
Better teams will raise the rivalry’s stakes and restore the animosity. Better teams will put fans in seats. Better teams will brighten the showdown’s future.
But such hypotheticals matter little in its present.
Still, it could be a hell of a present. Colorado State is the better team, but the Rams were the better team last year, and that didn’t stop the Buffs from winning by 14 points. Colorado State coach Jim McElwain reloaded nicely after losing his two best players to the NFL. Running back Kapri Bibbs led the nation in touchdowns in 2013, but his replacement may be an upgrade — junior Dee Hart, an Alabama transfer, was the top-rated running back of the 2011 recruiting class.
If Hart can carry the load as Bibbs did, senior quarterback Garrett Grayson will have a much easier job. Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre says he has watched more film of Grayson than any other quarterback — he coached against Grayson at San Jose State before he came to Colorado.
“I think he’s improved every year,” MacIntyre said. “He always gets them in the right play. He can make all the reads. He can make all the throws.”
Replacing linebacker Shaq Barrett will be harder for the Rams. Barrett was the Mountain West Conference’s defensive player of the year in 2013, and no Ram linebackers are as versatile or disruptive as he is. The Buffs will welcome a weaker Colorado State front seven — Colorado averaged only 2.9 yards per carry against the Rams last year.
CU underclassmen carry huge expectations
The Buffs’ running game this season will benefit from a deeper offensive line. It will be plowing holes for sophomore back Michael Adkins, who didn’t play in the showdown in 2013. Neither did sophomore quarterback Sefo Liufau. That inexperience shows throughout Colorado’s roster: Liufau, Adkins, sophomore linebacker Addison Gillam and freshman receiver Shay Fields all carry huge expectations as underclassmen.
MacIntyre knows the difficulties that come with trusting so much to young players.
“At times it’ll be exhilarating and at times we’ll wanna pull our hair out,” he said.
But the Buffs aren’t totally devoid of experience. Junior receiver Nelson Spruce, whom MacIntyre praised for his ability to catch in traffic, had a very solid sophomore season and will be Liufau’s safety blanket, at least until freshman wide receiver Shay Fields becomes more integrated into the offense.
The secondary, led by senior Greg Henderson and junior Kenneth Crawley, is Colorado’s best and most experienced position group. This group could have been better had senior safety Jered Bell not torn his ACL in camp. Bell was the secondary’s most physical player, and he excelled at creating turnovers. With Bell, this might have been the best back unit in the Pac-12. Without him, it’s merely good.
It will have to be, because Colorado’s front seven continues to be a weakness. Aside from Gillam, who should be an all-conference player this year, the Buffs lack difference-makers. Colorado had only 17 sacks last season, and it lost its leading pass-rusher, Chidera Uzo-Diribe, to the NFL. The Buffs will have to manufacture their pass rush through blitzing and hope the secondary can win unfavorable matchups.
Buffs can’t afford a loss
CSU running back Hart will be a significant challenge for Colorado’s front seven. These aren’t the Rams the Buffs ran away from last year. They are more physical now, and confident after a miraculous bowl win. Colorado is trying to replicate Colorado State’s leap in 2013 — turning momentum into wins. Beating a team that should be better than them would give the Buffs the boost they need, and Colorado can’t afford to lose the showdown if it hopes to make a bowl game. It won’t win enough conference games to become bowl-eligible, so it needs to sweep its non-conference schedule.
Of course, the Buffs aren’t thinking about bowl-eligibility or going undefeated outside of their conference — at least that’s what they say publicly. MacIntyre continues to preach that he wants players to treat each game like its own season.
“Twelve 1-0 seasons,” he said.
The season, whether it is the beginning of one or the first of 12, begins Friday. Manifestly, the first game of the season should have little impact on a team’s performance in the final 11. But this showdown is bigger. Colorado State wants to sustain success. Colorado wants to attain it. They need this game.
They need this game, and this game needs them to be good for the following four months. ESPN used to showcase the showdown. It lost prestige as the teams lost games. Now, under the lights and in primetime, there is the chance to make it mean something again.
Contact CU Independent Staff Writer Tommy Wood at Thomas.firstname.lastname@example.org.