Colorado Buffaloes (2000: 3-8)
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Coach and programWatching Colorado approach last season was like standing on an overpass with a full view of train tracks. Approaching from one side was a team full of youthful optimism. From the other side was a schedule so ridiculous that coach Gary Barnett was griping about it the previous spring.
The opener was the critical game. In 1999, upstart Colorado State embarrassed the Buffs, 41-14, in Barnett's debut. The debacle ended with police firing tear gas into Mile High Stadium to end fan battles. Revenge was with Colorado this time but not fortune as the pesky Rams did it again, although not as comfortably, 28-24.
From there, a pair of three-point losses put the season in a tailspin. The only good thing to come out of the fourth loss, by 23 at home to Kansas State, was the emergence of freshman quarterback Craig Ochs, who entered in the second quarter and didn't leave for the rest of the season.
But Colorado was not a bad team. Running back Cortlen Johnson, linebacker Jashon Sykes, tight end Daniel Graham and center Anthony Gurode were all-conference caliber. Also, the Buffs had one of the nation's top recruits in running back Marcus Houston.
Colorado had the talent to play with anybody. But not the experience, or, after a few weeks, the confidence. That's what the offseason was all about for Colorado -- regaining confidence.
"There's no doubt we were shaken, but I think everybody came away more disgusted than anything else," Barnett said. "Spring practice has always been important but it was more so for us this year because we wanted our kids to feel confident about every phase of the game."
They would have had they not all been injured. For reasons the coaches and medical staff are still trying to determine, Colorado had the most injury-plagued offseason in memory. Barnett counted 23 who missed spring workouts, including eight who needed shoulder surgery.
Barnett felt good enough about his team to take on an additional game, at home against Fresno State on Aug. 25. If Colorado can't find some confidence by October this year, then Barnett needs to be evaluating more than sore shoulders.
OffenseOchs set school freshmen records for passing yards (1,778) and total offense (1,884), and he became the first player in school history to throw for a touchdown, rush for a touchdown and catch a touchdown pass in the same game in the Buffs' 37-21 victory over Oklahoma State.
Maybe Ochs' most impressive performance came in the season finale against Nebraska. After a lousy start, Ochs rallied to complete 21 of his last 30 passes for 235 yards and a touchdown. He also rifled a conversion pass with 47 seconds to play that gave Colorado a lead.
"We're looking to go to the next level in the passing game," Barnett said. "We want Craig to have greater control."
Not since the days of Rashaan Salaam has Colorado potentially looked this good at running back.
Last year, the Buffs essentially got a full season out of senior Johnson (5-9, 195), Houston (6-2, 205) and sophomore Bobby Purify (6-0, 195), who combined to rush for 1,131 yards in 16 games.
All three battled injuries throughout the season. The problems didn't stop after the season. Johnson was suspended indefinitely by Barnett during spring workouts for academic problems.
Johnson was not listed on the team's post-spring roster. If he makes it back, Johnson gives the Buffs a potential all-conference running back.
The Big 12's top receiving tight end wears a Colorado uniform. Graham (6-3, 245), a senior, is one of the nation's best. He led league tight ends with 33 receptions and 443 yards.
Senior John Minardi (6-2, 200) once again figures to be Ochs' go-to wide receiver. He caught 48 passes for 592 yards, two touchdowns and 27 first downs and was much better in the second half of the season than the first.
Defense and special teamsThe Buffs finished ninth in the league in rushing defense, surrendering 175 yards per game. Three starters are gone, and the only returning player is senior tackle Justin Bannan (6-3, 295), probably the best of the bunch, having been a second-team all-league pick in 1999 and third-team last year.
Linebacker is the strongest of the defensive positions but also the most puzzling. There's no way a player like senior inside linebacker Sykes (6-3, 230) should have let Colorado slip to the Big 12's second worst defense (422.1 yards allowed) last season.
Once again, Sykes will try and become the third Colorado player to win the Butkus Award. He'd join some elite company in Alfred Williams (1989) and Matt Russell (1996).
Colorado finished dead last in the Big 12 in pass defense. Opponents threw for 2,717 yards and 17 touchdowns. The Buffs gave up 23 first downs per game.
A major issue was big plays, a condition that reared its ugly head in the season-opening loss to Colorado State. The Rams scored four touchdowns on long plays in a 28-24 victory.
A junior college transfer who could make a difference is Omar Stewart (5-11, 190). He'll get a look at left corner.
Colorado ranked second nationally in punt returns last year, averaging nearly 18 yards per return. Senior Roman Hollowell (5-6, 160) averaged 15 yards, including a 66-yard touchdown against Kansas.
Bottom lineThere's plenty to like about Colorado. Not many other programs will start 18 seniors.
Ochs may be a terrific quarterback. Houston should be the program's next great running back. They never appeared on the field together last year.
The schedule is easier than last year, although Barnett gambled by adding Fresno State as a 12th game in the inaugural Jim Thorpe Classic. At least Washington is gone, replaced by Washington State.
The "Return to Dominance" theme introduced by Barnett when he took over in 1999 continues. But Colorado needs to return to respectability first.