To college football fans, the last week of July is a little like that first sunny taste of spring training for baseball junkies.
Hope springs eternal, so to speak, and in a season likely to feature a crowded pack behind Pac-12 Conference front-runners Washington and USC, it should be no different for the Colorado Buffaloes.
This past week the league held its annual football media day among the glitz and glamour of Hollywood, and some of the league's offseason impressions played true to form. The Pac-12 is in need of a big finish in 2018 after the 1-8 showing in bowl games after the 2017 season (not to mention the three one-and-dones that accounted for the Pac-12's contribution to the NCAA men's basketball tournament, with two of those exits in the round of 68). Washington remains the league's best hope for the Pac-12 to crash the playoffs, with USC expected to rule the South Division.
After that? Beyond the electrifying individual highlights Arizona quarterback Khalil Tate is expected to deliver, the race for bowl contention is an open field with five new coaches on the sidelines. As my colleague Brian Howell pointed out astutely in an article earlier this week, the Buffs' ability to win close games could make the difference between a second bowl appearance in three seasons or the 12th losing record in 13 seasons.
In order for it to be the former and not the latter, it's time for quarterback Steven Montez to be the best player on the field for the Buffs as a matter of routine this fall.
While football remains the ultimate team game, and no doubt any success the Buffs enjoy also will be reliant upon marked improvement in the trenches on both sides of the ball, the 2018 season is Montez's time to shine. Montez no longer is the intriguing raw-but-oh-so-talented backup who had his moments spelling Sefo Liufau during the 2016 divisional title season. Nor is he the first-year starter who balanced eye-popping plays with head-scratching mistakes in 2017.
This year, Montez has to be the man in order for the Buffs to go bowling.
There is little question Montez is capable. Despite mistakes at critical junctures (the pick-6 early in the second half against Washington that turned a seven-point game into a Huskies rout springs to mind) Montez still established a program record with 172 consecutive attempts without an interception. He already ranks ninth all-time at CU in passing yards and, if he's under center for the next two seasons, Montez has a chance of eventually supplanting Liufau as the Buffs' all-time leader. And with a 6-foot-5 frame, rocket arm, and nimble feet, Montez brings an all-around skill set few can match.
Yet what Montez has to bring to the table this fall goes beyond statistics. Heading into his first year as the starter Montez was expected to be more of an offensive facilitator, calmly spreading the ball to established seniors like Phillip Lindsay, Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields, and Devin Ross. This season Montez needs to set the tone working with a less established yet no less talented group of skill position players. The Buffs need more of the Montez who went 8-for-10 in the fourth quarter while rallying the Buffs to victory at Oregon State and less of the Montez who struggled to get going in winnable road losses against Washington State and Utah.
Pinning the fortunes of an entire football team on just one set of shoulders isn't done without a concession to other mitigating factors that need to fall into place for the Buffs. No doubt, the porous run defense from a year ago isn't something that can continue. An offensive line full of question marks needs to make life easier for Montez, and the ill-timed drops from last year have to become big plays this year. A productive working relationship with new quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper obviously wouldn't hurt as well.
Yet as long as such shortcomings are mild weakness and not glaring obstacles, Montez has the ability to offset a team's deficiencies if he can take his game to another level. By all accounts Montez has accepted this challenge throughout the offseason, and it may not take long to find out where his game is at in 2018. How Montez responds in two pressure-packed situations to start the season — the Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver against CSU, and the hostile environs of Nebraska — may provide a big indicator of things to come.
Fall camp begins Wednesday. Montez is a veteran now, a fourth-year junior with experience on his side. It's time to get to work.