The All-Colorado “Way Too Early” College Football Preview

Colorado Sees Three New College Coaches, Who Comes Out on Top?

Northern Colorado and Colorado State planned on having new coaches this year, but the University of Colorado did not. Instead, three of the four Division I football programs will have new faces at the helm. After Mel Tucker’s surprise departure for Michigan State’s boat-load of cash, the Buffaloes were sent scrambling days after signing day finished. The one constant in Colorado football is Air Force’s Troy Calhoun coming back for a 13th season with the Falcons.

Northern Colorado has been in a state of turmoil and lacking the ability to win since the jump to Division I (FCS). The original thought was a promising alumnus like Earnest Collins Jr. would be the right foundation to build on. While there were successful games and players to come from UNC, successful seasons would not come as easily. A fresh step was required with the flashy hire of Ed McCaffrey. Will the gamble pay off?

McCaffrey Introduction
Photo via UNC Athletics.

Colorado State has been on a roller coaster of success and mediocrity ever since the departure of Sonny Lubick. The Rams could make bowl games, but wins were zigging when CSU zagged. CSU dealt with their coach moving onto Florida abruptly in 2015, so there is a tiny bit of sympathy for the Buffs right now. The Rams need a proven winner to come forth, but is Steve Addazio at 57-55 overall the right choice?

Head Coach Addazio Announcement Graphic
Photo via Colorado State Athletics.

Colorado continues to hope they can eventually conquer the beast that is the PAC-12. The Buffs have thrown out about the same amount of coaches as CSU, but with much bigger paychecks. Money talks a big game in conferences like the PAC-12 and they hope Karl Dorrell’s experience leading UCLA will ignite the Buffs. After the heartbreak of Mel Tucker’s promises, CU fans will have little patience for mistakes. Can Dorrell run with the Colorado expectations?

Dorrell Named Head Football Coach At Colorado
Photo via Colorado Athletics.

Air Force has a great thing going with Troy Calhoun. In his 12 years with Air Force, as a head coach, he is 98-69. This success was enough for CU to consider poaching him from the Falcons. With the exception of a few bad years, Air Force is now seen as an actual competitor in the Mountain West. Can they repeat the success?

ANN ARBOR, MI - SEPTEMBER 16: Air Force Falcons head coach Troy Calhoun watches play during the Michigan Wolverines versus US Air Force Academy Falcons game on Saturday September 16, 2017 at Michigan Stadium in Ann Arbor, MI (Photo by Steven King/Icon Sportswire
Photo via Air Force Athletics.

The Resumes

Where coaches come from can determine how much success they can create. Among the group are football veterans of all types, but not all of them are head coaching veterans. There is also a big discrepancy between the contracts. Does more money mean a better coach? The best coach in this group may be the most median of all.

Ed McCaffrey steps into the ring as a true wild-card as he has played every level, but only coached high school. Will his short coaching experience be able to be padded by his leadership as a successful former player? Of all the places McCaffrey could step into UNC presents the biggest challenges structurally. Despite these hurdles, McCaffrey claimed in his press conference that he “wants to bring championship football back to Northern Colorado and it starts today”.

Steve Addazio has been a part of some very special teams in the past, but his own have faired mediocre. He might have raised the bar at Boston College to technically winning seasons at 7-6 multiple years. The problem with that is CSU fans will not be content with 7-6 and a bowl game loss. There have been too many years of losing the Rocky Mountain Showdown and embarrassing home losses for Addazio to have a long leash.

Karl Dorrell is a convoluted character to many Buffs fans. Some look at his resume and say how lucky CU is to have him replace the villain, who is Mel Tucker in their eyes. Other fans wonder with the money that was spent on him why does CU not have a “bigger name” head coach? Much like their little brother, CSU, there are high expectations to not only win but compete immediately in the PAC-12, regardless of the setbacks.

Troy Calhoun has the best head coaching record and debatably the most success as a head coach overall in this group. In addition to the awards listed above Air Force has won the Commander-in-Cheif Cup four times under Calhoun’s leadership. Air Force was the top Division I football program in Colorado last year and looks to repeat that feat again.

The Recruits

Each year seniors graduate and leave holes in the program that must be filled. That is where the underclassmen and true freshmen get to step up. New recruits might not have immediate impacts, but they help build the program. The seniors will have a chance to leave the biggest mark as they finish their legacy and teach the rookies.

Photo via 24/7 Sports

Northern Colorado’s recruiting data on 24/7 Sports is incomplete due to its recruits not being big enough to be accurately measured. The majority of 24/7 Sports resources are used for FBS schools. Despite that, Northern Colorado was able to pull in their best recruiting class overall of all time. They were able to recruit three 3-Stars and two 2-Stars, which for the Bears is a big deal. McCaffrey is starting with a mostly blank slate as numerous starters graduated last year, including Jacob Knipp and Milo Hall. The Bears have a transfer from Tyler Junior College and the University of Cincinnati.

Photo via 24/7 Sports

Colorado State did well for itself despite the coaching change. Third overall in the Mountain West will make the Rams competitive in roster strength, but will it impact on the field productivity this year? Addazio did snag some great finds, but the loyalty to Mike Bobo was strong as several starters transferred to other schools including quarterback Collin Hill. CSU has its work cut out for it as it does not seem the whole roster has bought into the Addazio Era. Additionally, two transfers are pending from Temple and Boston College.

Photo via 24/7 Sports

Colorado’s recruiting class is deceiving in the sense they are 7th in the PAC-12, but within the best 36 classes in the country. As a team, the Buffs will be strong as most PAC-12 teams. In conference play, there still may be some room to grow until those prospects mature into their full potential. The fallout of Mel Tucker abandoning CU for a lucrative Michigan State contract may not be fully realized until teams are able to make up spring camp. AD Rick George is doing a great job of marketing Dorrell as the solution, but will the players think as highly of him? CU has a transfer from Brown, the University of Miami (sitting one year), and Alabama (in process of appeals).

Photo via 24/7 Sports

Air Force finished behind Colorado State again in recruiting, yet Air Force was second overall in the entire Mountain West Conference. The Falcons are notorious for doing more with less. It shows that Coach Calhoun knows what he is doing and has an intelligent grasp of the culture and structure of Air Force as a whole.

The Way-Too-Early Predictions

All of the parts above are graded based on the season. These new coaches will disappoint greatly if the wins do not happen quickly. The fast track to success is “just win baby”. The coaches will not be expected to be perfect, but improvement is essential. Improvement of a struggling team breed hopes to players and fans alike.

Northern Colorado has a diverse schedule that offers many challenges and possible building blocks for success. The first game of the season will be a confidence booster as Division II Fort Lewis treks up from Southern Colorado. The following week the Bears travel to Lake Charles, LA to face a Cowboys team they nearly upset in Greeley.

CSU will be anxiously awaiting the Bears return in hopes of a “tune-up” game for the Rams. As for conference games, the Bears drew the short end of the stick opponent wise. All four playoff teams plus the notorious offenses of NAU and EWU will be waiting for the Bears. The good news is half of those tough games will be at home.

Depth chart, roster, scheme, playbook, and chemistry changes will happen all throughout spring camp, but as a true “way-too-early” preview we will dive into it analytically.

So, how will the Bears do in 2020? Fort Lewis should be a three-score win and the Bears should take advantage of trying different players in at different positions before their road trip. McNeese State and UNC have changed noticeably since the last meeting, but this week will set the tone for the Bears season. A win is maybe not as likely as before, but if the Bears keep a close game it should instill confidence for the future games.

UNC playing CSU we can expect a Ram win, but the last time UNC played in Fort Collins they were able to expose many flaws in Bobo’s system. Addazio should be cautious of McCaffrey’s Bears as they have nothing to lose and everything to gain from an upset. The following week will showcase a scrappy NAU team at home. How will the Lumberjacks fair without their “big-time” quarterback Case Cookus? Joe Logan may have to run the ball until a quarterback is decided.

The following two weeks could be a rough stretch for the Bears as Montana State and Eastern Washington are notorious for high octane offenses that are hard to keep up with. While the Bears have gotten close to knocking off the Eagles at home Eric Barrire is an incredibly dangerous quarterback. The next week may not be forgiving as UC Davis has significantly improved since UNC last beat them down during the 2015 Homecoming 56-27. Former CU coach Dan Hawkins has turned UC Davis into a competitive force in the Big Sky.

The schedule lightens up briefly with a trip to a truly dysfunctional Southern Utah that will need a complete rebuild to even attempt to win games against teams other than UNC. Average Joe turned powerhouse Sacramento State visits Greeley with a team that will be looking for an even better 2020 compared to their 2019 success.

The next week will be Senior Day as the last 2020 home game. The bad news is that the opponent will be the Montana Griz. Despite not being back to Big Sky glory the Griz have found ways to be dangerous and nationally relevant in last year’s playoffs. Rounding out the 2020 season the Bears will go to Ogden, Utah for a tussle with the Weber Wildcats. Even if the Wildcats do worse than last year the Weber Senior Day should be a happy one for the home team.

Coach McCaffrey, his staff, new players, and new leaders on the team will all play into how much success UNC sees at the start of this new era. So, how well should we expect the Bears to do? Well, barring key injuries, regression of current players skills, and unforeseen circumstances this should be a better year for the Bears. Like all team rebuilds, there are transition years, good years and bad years. I think this will be a transition year where the base is being set for next year, but overall performance actually still improves. At the end of 2020, I think the Bears are capable of four wins (Fort Lewis, NAU, Southern Utah, and a lucky game against UC Davis or Montana as those teams also have quarterback transitions).

Northern Colorado 2020 Outlook
Best: 6-5
Most Likely: 4-7
Worst: 2-9
Key Games: vs. Fort Lewis, vs. Northern Arizona
Keys to a Good Season: At least two wins, closer results, and find consistent starters.

Coach Addazio has a blessing and a curse of coaching in the Mountain West. That double-edged sword is the fact that all these teams are close enough geographically and competition-wise to feel like rivalries. This incites interest and passion for most of these matchups, but it also holds an even harder blow for each loss.

CSU fans are appreciative to go to the bowl games occasionally, but the rivalry losses, bad home losses, and lack of competition for the Mountain West title leave them disgruntled. In the past 10 Rocky Mountain Showdowns, the CU Buffs lead the series 8-2 and overall 67-22-2. While the rivalry has always been there the competition is not even close and it leaves Ram fans disappointed.

Another heated rivalry that is growing cold is the Border War for the Bronze Boot Trophy. In the past 10 seasons, CSU is 3-7 despite leading the series 58-48-5 overall. This rivalry might be even more important than the showdown, yet the Rams have been losing it more than they have won it recently.

The third rivalry the Rams are a part of is the Ram-Falcon Trophy. In the past 10 seasons, CSU has a 2-8 record and Air Force leads it overall with a 36-21-1 record. Of the three rivalries this might be the least important, but losing any rivalry game is a sure-fire way to let down the fans.

A sad fact is that the class of 2019 had four straight years where none of those rivalries had a CSU win. Some of those seniors went their entire time of being on the field and never seeing a rivalry win.

The 2020 schedule is set up for Coach Addazio to prove himself right out of the gates in year one of his five-year contract. CU is the very first home game as the Rocky Mountain Showdown comes back to campus. Then a quick road trip to struggling PAC-12 team Oregon State. Although the Beavers are PAC-12 the Rams have a decent chance to beat them as the last meeting was 58-27.

Returning from that Oregon trip will be a home game against Northern Colorado. Again this should be another win for the Rams, but a complete restructuring of the program under Ed McCaffrey could force the Rams to work hard until the fourth quarter. The following week will feature another out of conference struggling team in Vanderbilt. The Commodores are just not built for SEC football, but they should pose well for CSU as a competitive game for the majority of it until a decisive Ram win.

Finishing up the schedule before the bye week will be two home games against conference opponents Fresno State and New Mexico. Both games should not be much of a threat to the Rams at all as they thwarted both on the road last year. The beginning of the schedule does have some challenges to it, but if Addazio can successfully navigate it with only one loss (CU) that will instill much-needed confidence to the Rams fan base.

Coming off the bye week the Rams have a road trip to Las Vegas against UNLV followed by hosting the Border War the next week. UNLV should not pose a threat, but the Wyoming Cowboys have gotten the best of the Rams the last few meetings of the Border War. Coach Addazio needs to have a good performance in this game to rally the Ram faithful to his support. It is also important for a successful close to the season.

In the last four weeks of the season, there will be three tough road games and a decent home game. SDSU, Air Force, and Boise State will be trying times for the Rams as each of those will be a mismatch in at least one way. SDSU’s run game, Air Force’s stout turnover margin, and Boise State’s air raid will all be steep challenges. The winnable home game will be Utah State and their unstable offense. Jordan Love may have found a hail mary in a dark place with his success, but Utah State as a whole needs more roster strength and discipline to foster consistency.

Coach Addazio has an opportunity to make a good impression but will fate be on his side in this battle? The number of rivalry games will undoubtedly make a big impact on Addazio’s impression and length of tenure at Colorado State. The Rams are a foe to many but need to avoid becoming their own worst enemy if they lose those key games. Most coaches do not have to make it or break it in the first year of their contract. Addazio is not as lucky with a restless fanbase craving for success, a brand new stadium they cannot fill up, and a lack of support among the college faculty outside of the football program. This year will speak volumes about Addazio and Colorado State’s future.

Colorado State 2020 Outlook
Best: 8-4
Most Likely: 6-6
Worst: 4-8
Key Games: vs. Colorado, vs. Northern Colorado, vs. Wyoming, @ Air Force
Keys to a Good Season: Go 2-2 in rivalry games, win the easy games, keep the home games close or wins.

Coach Dorrell will have similar problems as Coach Addazio in the “buy-in” factor. With Mel Tucker swooned away to Michigan State due to a huge paycheck CU fans were left feeling betrayed and abandoned. Then AD Rick George pays a one-time head coach and since then an assistant coach/ positional coach for 3.6 million a year over five years.

Either this guy is the real deal and no one else picked up on it, or CU just paid an NFL positional coach a lot of money to flunk for five years. Worsening the problem is Dorrell has little time actually getting to know or even start spring ball with the new team due to COVID-19. The longer it takes to form a bond with the players in the longer it takes to build the necessary trust for success.

Colorado’s schedule starts off in a pleasant fashion for the Buffs. To begin the year the Buffs will get to spoil the Rocky Mountain Showdown (RMS) against the CSU Rams. This win will be even sweeter as the RMS returns to being on campus and Fort Collins hosts it first. The following week will also be a solid win as Fresno State poses a small threat with a 4-8 record in the 2019 season. The first road and home games of the Buffs’ season will be wins, guaranteed. The schedule will get noticeably difficult for the rest of the season as the next nine opponents’ average recruiting class is top 30. CSU and Fresno will be a chance to tune up the depth chart and schemes before the hardest part of the schedule.

A road trip to Texas A&M will be a huge challenge for CU as the Aggies recorded the sixth-best recruiting class in the nation. Texas A&M also offers a unique challenge as Big 12 teams are notorious for explosive offenses not seen as often in the PAC-12. The second hardest part of the season will be hosting PAC-12 powerhouse Oregon at home. The Ducks have flirted with the top ten over the past decade and have the incoming talent to keep that going. Can the Buffs spoil either one of these heavy-hitters before continuing on with the conference schedule? This could easily be a two-loss scenario, but CU may have a chance in Texas as this is a less familiar matchup that could allow for holes to open up in the Aggies plan.

The road trips resume with a visit to Arizona who finished outside the top 50 for recruiting this year (62). For comparison, Colorado did well in recruiting with a 36th overall national rank and seventh among PAC-12 competitors. Last year’s close competition at Folsom Field could result in another close finish, but the Buffs have the ability to win this one. A game the Buffs will not be likely to pull off is surprisingly a home game, but the opponent is UCLA. The 17-point loss last year was a testament to how unprepared CU was last year under Mel Tucker. Karl Dorrell will struggle at first, but a new perspective may be the key to improvement.

Arizona State will cause a similar problem like their in-state rival Arizona. A close game is in store for the Sun Devil matchup, but the home atmosphere may be enough to pull the Buffs up to a win, despite the success of last year at ASU (8-5 overall). Another game that may be surprisingly close is the USC game in Los Angeles. USC struggled to a mediocre 8-5 record that was filled with a few unexpected wins and losses. Additionally, USC has not had the stellar recruiting they once had in the mid-2000s. This year USC was as far back as 55th in the nation and 10th in the PAC-12.

Washington State goes through phases of top 25 dominance and then struggling to make a winning season. Mike Leach put all of the love and one-liners he could into the program and it will depend on Hawaii’s one-time champ Nick Rolovich to lead the Cougars to a decent season. Despite the lows of the Cougars they dominated the Buffs brutally in Pullman, Washington. Hopefully, the magic of Folsom Field will be strong when the wildcard Cougars come to play.

The tail-end of the schedule really is a steep ask of any PAC-12 team, but especially of a new team, new coach, and to find the extra endurance. Road games at Stanford and Washington are followed by a home finale of hosting Utah. Each of these teams finished in the top 30 in recruiting to their already stacked teams. On paper, Stanford should not be a team of major concern, but each year they seem to have the Buffs number even if CU wins, like last year’s 16-13 win.

Washington and Utah will be brutal games this new team will be unable to hold back. These two teams offer explosive offenses and stout red zone defense. This will be another character-building part of the schedule as they have to know how low the chance of winning is and will still need to perform 100 percent focused. Coach Dorrell will be able to find his leaders and followers during these two weeks as it will take a special player to step up while others are not as motivated. If one game goes better than the other it would have to be Utah at home since they are losing several great players to the NFL Draft.

Coach Dorrell has an opportunity to make a big impact on the Buffs fans, even if the season does not reach a bowl game. PAC-12 seasons can be dangerous as everyone expects a championship and the Buffs are nowhere near that right now. The key is to win the Rocky Mountain Showdown and keep all of the home games close, excluding Oregon. There will be ugly losses and tight wins, guaranteed. If Coach Dorrell does that along with improving players, keeping the chemistry, and avoiding the drama should ensure a good season for him and CU.

Colorado 2020 Outlook
Best: 6-6
Most Likely: 4-8
Worst: 3-9
Key Games: @ CSU, vs. Arizona State, vs. Washington State
Keys to a Good Season: Win against CSU, keep home games close, finish the season without blowouts.

Coach Calhoun is set up to have the most successful season of these four coaches. Air Force has the “most winnable” schedule and also retains the most talented roster overall. The first four games will be a rollercoaster as they have their two easiest and two hardest games to start.

Duquense (FCS) should be a comfortable tune-up for the Falcons as recent opposing FCS teams perform poorly at Falcon Stadium. One of the few “breaks” of the schedule is getting to host Boise State at home. The Broncos are a powerhouse team the Falcons must beat in order to contend for a conference championship. If the Falcons can pull the upset at home their season will be beaming with potential.

The first road game of the season will be a true test of talent as they face the Boilermakers. Although Purdue is not a contender in their conference, a Big 10 team should be respected all the same due to their high caliber recruiting. The following week will offer a more pleasing road opponent as Fresno struggled throughout the conference last year. Two road games in a row could normally pose a threat, but as long as Falcon players are healthy the Bulldogs should fold.

The Commander’s Cup is one of the most unique and prestigious trophy battles in all of college football. Air Force’s first game of the best of three is hosted at Falcon stadium against Navy. Although it would be more advantageous to host Army since they are the tougher opponent, it should offer the Falcons an expected home win.

The next three games will be a mixed bag as the Falcons travel to San Jose, host Hawaii, and travel to Wyoming. All can be successful games for the Falcons but feature a range of different abilities. Hawaii led the West Division of the Mountain West while Wyoming was a middle-of-the-pack team and San Jose was a bottom-feeder. Hawaii will be a tough team due to its offensive capabilities, but the home environment of Laramie, Wyoming could be a dangerous atmosphere for the Falcons. These two games offer unique nuances that could doom Air Force, while the San Jose game will be Falcons racing against themselves.

After a dangerous encounter in Laramie, the Falcons will enjoy a much-needed bye week to refuel before the final stretch of the schedule. Things get serious quickly after the bye week. First up is the second game of the Commander’s Cup series at West Point against Army. This will be a huge test for the Falcons as the away games of this series are either down to the wire or a wide margin loss. After the Army game, the Falcons come home to their Ram-Falcon Rivalry in Colorado Springs. CSU has not put up a respectable fight for a few years so unless Coach Addazio can ignite the Rams’ flame it will be a good day for the Falcons.

The final two weeks should set Air Force up well as the conference race tightens. New Mexico at home and Utah State on the road should not throw Air Force off the trail of success. New Mexico poses very little threat as they finished 2-10 overall. The last meeting of 44-22 was a generous result considering their season. Utah State did find a quarterback with a lot of success, but the time it took to get them consistent only allowed them to have a 7-6 season. Jordan Love goes off to the NFL in April so where does that leave the Aggies?

Coach Calhoun is set up for success and has all the tools needed to pull off another great year. There are some tough opponents sprinkled throughout the schedule. On the other hand, there are some real gifts to how this schedule worked out in hosting more tough opponents than not. The Falcons know what they have to do to get to the top of the Mountain West and now they just have to prove it.

Air Force 2020 Outlook
Best: 11-1
Most Likely: 9-3
Worst: 6-6
Key Games: vs. Boise, vs. Navy, vs. Hawaii, @ Army, vs. Colorado State
Keys to a Good Season: Stay healthy, win the tough home games to get ahead in the conference, beat Navy and Army.

Predicted Winner of the 2020 Season

Air Force will come out of the 2020 regular season at 9-3. This team will be good enough to best the other Colorado teams and contend for a Mountain West title potentially. If they do not end up in the title race the Falcons will likely get another worthwhile bowl game to play and win. Here is hoping the 2020 season will get the go-ahead and we get to see how these Colorado teams pan out.

Air Force Football
Photo via Air Force Athletics.