The Russian winter that is the college football offseason is finally over. Game day is here 279 days after the last. The Colorado Buffaloes begin a new journey on the gridiron they hope will finally end in a bowl game for the first time in five years.
An old, familiar rival stands on the opposite sideline with hate in the eyes even as many of the faces beneath the helmets, caps and visors on both sides of the field are making their debuts in this grudge match.
First-year Colorado State coach Jim McElwain, fresh off two national championships and a Heisman Trophy win while offensive coordinator at Alabama, is hoping to pull an upset behind a stout running game and experienced offensive line. Meanwhile, second-year CU coach Jon Embree will unveil new quarterback Jordan Webb along with more than a dozen true and redshirt freshmen expected to see their first action in black and gold after a month of closed practices.
"It's always fun playing those guys," Embree said, recalling his first game in the rivalry as a player nearly 30 years ago. "We know how they're going to come out ready to go and excited. I know coach McElwain. I know what I was thinking last year going into your first game and all that stuff. It's a lot of fun and it's good for the state."
The game returns to Sports Authority Field for the third consecutive year but the smallest crowd ever to see the game in Denver is expected and the future of the game in the big city seems in doubt even with seven years remaining on the contract.
The Buffs have won the past four meetings in Denver, which might help explain why CSU has struggled mightily to sell tickets this year and last.
Uncertainty abounds with Colorado wondering what to expect from the new set of coaches at CSU and the Rams unfamiliar with much of the Colorado personnel.
In an effort to deal with the unknown and the nerves, CU defensive ends coach Kanavis McGhee has kept the message simple with his players since the start of fall camp.
"Being a former player, I'm not letting them take this game lightly because there is so much behind it when you're talking about who is the best team in the state," McGhee said. "... If we go out there and play Colorado football, everything else will work itself out, and we stressed that going into camp this year."
McGhee came off the bench in his first game as a freshman in 1987 against the Rams. He played so well, coaches named him a starter the following week and he became a fixture on the Buffs' defense for the next four years.
McGhee said it's possible, maybe even likely, history could repeat itself with some of the young Buffs who will make their college debuts Saturday.
Cornerback Kenneth Crawley was the only true freshman to win a starting job outright in fall camp. The four-star product of Washington D.C., can expect to be tested Saturday by CSU quarterback Garrett Grayson, who gained some experience with a handful of starts at the end of last season.
Several more young defensive backs such as Yuri Wright and Marques Mosley will play Saturday along with four or five defensive linemen, led by powerful nose tackle Josh Tupou.
Webb makes his first start for the Buffs after transferring from Kansas where he started 19 games for the Jayhawks the past two seasons. Webb gives the Buffs a decided advantage when it comes to experience under center, but he will be surrounded by plenty of inexperience at the skill positions.
It's a familiar problem. Webb played along side plenty of freshmen and sophomores in his two years as the starter in Kansas. His ability to help those young players avoid mistakes and play fast right out of the gate is probably his biggest challenge.
"It's a new team on both sides for him," Embree said. "He has never faced Colorado State. It will be a new experience for him, but it helps that he has been under center, he's played in front of people and he has been sacked before. All of that will help."
The Buffs are favored by six points but that means little to the coaches and players involved. There is a level of intensity in this game -- in all rivalry games -- that can't be measured but is sometimes underestimated by the oddsmakers.
Colorado offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has tried to prepare his large group of freshmen tailbacks and fullbacks for their first encounter with the Rams by telling them about his clashes with green and gold.
Bieniemy also came to Colorado in 1987 and he was struck immediately by how seriously his veteran teammates were taking the game that season. Those players had been upset by the Rams the previous season.
"That was a very, very big deal to us," Bieniemy said. "We made sure we dotted out Is and crossed our Ts. Just like this weekend, those kids will be ready to play. The first whatever amount of minutes we played last year, they were kicking our tails up and down the field.
"We put together a last drive and ended up showing something, but we've got to come out and play 60 entire minutes as if it's our last play. It's huge on many aspects."
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