Thanks to the newly formed Big 12 conference, Colorado has one of the toughest schedules in the country this season, with league games against Texas A&M, Kansas, Texas, Kansas State and a regular-season finale at Nebraska. If the Buffaloes come through all that and improve on their 10-2 mark of a year ago, they should climb higher than their No. 5 ranking in last season's final poll. Slip up, though, and things could get ugly. "The Big 12 will be a dog-eat-dog conference," says coach Rick Neuheisel.
The Buffaloes' offense was potent in '95, ringing up nearly 500 yards per game, and it could be just as dangerous this season. Nine starters are back, including senior quarterback and Heisman Trophy candidate Koy Detmer, who had an amazing 189.4 passing efficiency rating before blowing out his right knee in the fourth week of the season. His replacement, John Hessler, stepped in and set or tied 12 school records, many while throwing to wide receivers Rae Carruth (1,008 yards and nine TDs), James Kidd (4.3 speed) and Phil Savoy (49 receptions), all of whom return.
The backfield also remains intact. Last season's leading rusher, junior Herchell Troutman (826 yards and five rushing TDs), is joined by juniors Lendon Henry and Marlon Barnes, who combined for 907 yards, 5.3 yards per carry and 10 TDs in 1995.
Despite that avalanche of talent, the Colorado defense dominated during spring practice. "Any team that wins a championship wins with defense," says linebackers coach Brian Cabral. "And this year we have the horses to do it." Colorado is paced up front by Greg Jones, a 6'4", 250-pound senior defensive end who led the team in sacks (eight) and quarterback pressures (16). And after spring practice there's no longer concern about senior cornerback Dalton Simmons, who sat out last year with torn knee ligaments.
Linebackers Matt Russell (page 68), Ron Merkerson and Hannibal Navies provide much of the speed, savvy and fury that fuel the Buffaloes' new 4-3 defense. "Our philosophy is, If we can get sacks and fumbles and big hits and disrupt an offense, then we'll give up a bomb now and then, no problem, because it won't be enough to put the wind back in their sails," says Russell. "We're in command. This new defense fits our style."
Now if the Buffaloes can just find a schedule maker more to their liking.