Finally, to the relief of long-starved Colorado football fans everywhere, the Buffaloes turned the corner at last in 2016. This season, however, Buffs will learn staying on that upward trajectory, becoming a perennial contender instead of a one-year wonder, is an equally daunting challenge.
The Buffs enter 2017 saddled with the weight of expectation on their collective shoulders for the first time in more than a decade. Whether that burden proves motivating or cumbersome remains to be seen.
Granted this is a refrain that echoed at this stage last season, but the Buffs are unlikely to be a 10-win team that earns a berth in the Pac-12 Conference championship game. Too many "ifs" hover around a team retooling its lineup at too many critical positions. If the new starters on the defensive front can replicate the havoc wrecked by last year's group. If opposing offenses aren't too greedy in taking advantage of the Buffs' youth at inside linebacker. If the inevitable growing pains for quarterback Steven Montez don't prove too costly. If the special teams become a factor and if the offensive line continues to improve and if, if, if.
Not to be overlooked on a defense also attempting to replace most of its secondary is the loss of former defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt and safeties coach Joe Tumpkin — with the former taking the same job at league rival Oregon and the latter getting dismissed in a domestic violence saga that lingered like foul-smelling fumes throughout the offseason. Add the departure of cornerbacks coach Charles Clark, who followed Leavitt to Oregon, and a defense that lost eight starters also lost three of its primary coaches. That sort of turnover may not rear its ugly head against Texas State or Northern Colorado, but it's too significant of a rollover for the return of one-time starters like Leo Jackson and Derek McCartney to completely gloss over.
On the other hand, the Buffs should score points in bundles. Montez's growing pains will be balanced by throwing to the deepest and most versatile group of receivers in the Pac-12. No doubt Montez won't be shy about showing off his big arm. That may lead to a few ill-advised throws, but with running back Phillip Lindsay also in tow the Buffs could feature the sort of big-play offense that's fun to watch.
The guess here is 7-5, a sort of holding pattern in "The Rise" as the talent MacIntyre and his staff have collected on the recruiting trail the past few years slowly translates to production on the field. I expect the Buffs to take care of business in a more competitive opening game against Colorado State and be 3-0 when a top-10 Washington team comes to town for the Pac-12 opener on Sept. 23 in what surely will be a much-hyped rematch of the 2016 league title game.
I'm marking the Buffs down for losses against UW and USC, and wins at home against Cal and Arizona. That means in order to reach that 7-5 mark, CU will have to go at least 2-3 during a league road slate that includes UCLA, Oregon State, Washington State, Arizona State, and Utah. My prediction is the Buffs handle the challenge, though the margin for error will be precariously slim. Going 2-3 at those locales will be no small feat.
Like the Buffs last year, one of those five teams is likely to be better than advertised. Maybe the ones with the big-armed quarterbacks, Washington State (Luke Falk) or UCLA (Josh Rosen). Utah is quietly consistent and going to Arizona State always has been a nightmare for CU. After UW and USC, the separation between the teams jockeying for position in the Pac-12's pack is marginal. Could the Buffs pull of a surprise against one of the two front-runners, especially at home? Sure. But the odds are equal, if not greater, the Buffs drop a game they were expected to win along the way.
For me, the season hinges on a run of three road games in four weeks that begins Oct. 14 at Oregon State. CU returns to the Pacific Northwest a week later to face Falk and Washington State before getting Cal at home. The pivotal stretch ends on Nov. 4 at Arizona State, where the Buffs have never won.
The Buffs arguably were ahead of schedule last year, and the pendulum will correct itself a little more toward center this season. That's not necessarily reason for fans to fret. Consecutive winning seasons with consecutive bowl games, no matter the destination, is a significant benchmark for a program that ended a run of 10 consecutive losing seasons just a year ago. And regardless if fans agree with the lean punishment MacIntyre received for his role in the sordid Tumpkin affair, from his perspective it's finally in his rearview mirror, at least until Tumpkin finally has his day in court. Looking strictly at his work on the field, MacIntyre earned the contract extension — the one delayed until the Tumpkin internal investigation was settled in June — through 2021 with the Buffs' return to prominence last year. Whether he learns from his recent off-the-field missteps and keeps the Buffs on the right track is entirely up to him now.
The pressure to make the Buffs relevant again is done. The pressure to keep them there begins in 2017. But competing for a spot in the Pac-12 title game? Check back in 2018.