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For the first time in Sonny Lubick's 13 years at Colorado State, the Rams enter a season facing questions about the program's direction. That's what happens when, following 10 consecutive winning seasons and eight bowl games, a 4-7 record appears on the ledger.
Not that the Rams weren't due for a down year; they had dominated the Mountain West Conference since its inception in 1999, winning three titles and going to five consecutive bowl games. When injuries, youth and a nasty non-league schedule finally caught up to Lubick, the rest of the steadily improving MWC was ready to pounce on the Rams.
"I'm not sure that any of us saw that coming," Lubick said. "But when you look back you could see what happened. We had a lot of young players and we had a lot of key injuries. And the schedule was probably a little too ambitious."
The good news is that the ingredients for a quick turnaround are in place. Seventeen starters return, as do several other players who filled in last year when a series of injuries hit. Nine of those starters, including quarterback Justin Holland and wideout David Anderson, are part of an offense that should be capable of posting big numbers.
Second, the schedule is not as difficult. Games at Colorado and Minnesota to open the season will be tough, but two-time national champion USC isn't there. Even though the addition of TCU makes the MWC more challenging, there's no way Utah can possibly match the magic -- and dominance -- of last year.
"We gave ourselves a little more of a chance to succeed with this schedule," Lubick said. "I really believe we have a chance to be a good team."
Holland, for one, is convinced the Rams can get back on track. "We talk about 4-7 every day," Holland said. "That's just not acceptable around here, and we're going to do everything we can to make sure it doesn't happen again."
In theory, the Rams should have no problems moving the ball in '05. Nine starters return, including Holland, Anderson and four of five starting linemen. However, Lubick has built his success around the running game, and the Rams are coming off a 4-7 season in which they averaged just 3.1 yards per carry in their one-back offense -- worst of the Lubick era.
"We have got to get back to being the power running team that we have been," Lubick said. "We need to find someone to take over that position."
Sophomore Kyle Bell, who rushed for more than 8,000 yards in high school, could be the guy. He had an impressive spring and has the size and speed the Rams are seeking. Senior Jimmy Green, freshman Gartrell Johnson III and UCLA transfer Nnamdi Ohaeri will have their say in the battle for playing time.
Holland, who passed for more than 10,000 yards in high school, was off to a stellar start last year (320 yards per game, six touchdowns through five games) when he suffered a broken ankle against San Diego State. He'll have to cut down on his interceptions (10), but he has an NFL arm.
The only thing more disappointing than the rushing offense last year was the rushing defense. Opponents rushed for an alarming 221.7 yards per game last year, easily the worst of Lubick's tenure.
The Rams return eight starters and several others who saw significant playing time. The big concern is up front. The Rams were young and undersized last year -- a bad combination.
Tackle Blake Smith and ends Jesse Nading and Bob Vomhof are sophomores who have to grow up in a hurry if the run defense is to improve.
The linebackers should be solid, with Luke Adkins, Courtney Jones and Jahmal Hall returning as starters.
The secondary should be strong as well, with senior safety Ben Stratton and junior corners Robert Herbert and Brandon Cathy returning as starters.
The Rams must replace kicker/punter Jeff Babcock, who left as CSU's No. 2 all-time scorer. Senior Kevin Mark likely will take over as kicker, with sophomore Jim Kaylor set to punt.
The big emphasis in the kicking game will be on returns. CSU averaged a paltry 4.8 yards on punt returns and 19.5 yards on kickoff returns. Sophomores Damon Morton and Johnny Walker will get a shot to perk up the return game.
The Rams made an interesting discovery last year: After years of promoting themselves as the underdog, they have become the hunted in the MWC -- and every team is giving them their best shot. Lubick made note of the change and vowed a return to the basics in 2005.
The good news for the Rams is that they really don't have to improve much to reclaim the top spot in the league. Lubick believes that if they make a 20 percent improvement in run defense and offense they can contend for the title.
Was the 4-7 record an anomaly or the start of a downward slide? With 17 starters returning, the Rams should have every opportunity to make '04 little more than a bad memory.