The handful of question marks surrounding the defending Pac-12 Conference South Division champions heading into the 2017 season probably won't be fully answered until Washington comes to town in three weeks.
Still, for an opening act, coach Mike MacIntyre's bunch certainly will take it.
The Buffaloes fans among the biggest crowd to witness a Rocky Mountain Showdown in 14 years celebrated a victorious debut, as Colorado outlasted Colorado State 17-3 Friday night in a contest equally balanced by promise and the sort of frustrating blemishes typical of an opener.
It certainly wasn't the offensive showcase most were predicting. Instead the rivalry battle turned into a war of attrition marred by a flag fest — at least a few of which were thrown for legitimate penalties.
While the Buffs did enough things well to remain in control throughout the contest, MacIntyre will have plenty of mistakes to sort through. Among the biggest "what ifs" surrounding the Buffs on the heels of a 10-win season was how well Steven Montez would fare in his new role as the undisputed field general of the CU offense, and how well a revamped defensive interior would hold up against a CSU offense that hung 58 points on Pac-12 rival Oregon State six days earlier.
Montez, the redshirt sophomore with the gunslinger mentality, displayed both poise and patience as the Buffs asserted control early, calmly executing an early game plan designed to take advantage of the sizeable cushions CU's receivers were given along the perimeter. Delivering the ball quickly and on-target, Montez connected on eight of his first nine passes, gaining just 53 yards but keeping the chains moving until the Rams' defense loosened up. Eventually Montez made the sort of play unique to his skill-set, scrambling out of the pocket to his left before delivering a strike along the opposite side of the field to Shay Fields for a 31-yard score that pushed CU's lead to 17-0.
It hardly was a flawless performance for CU's new full-time starter, as that strike early in the second quarter pretty much ended the offensive highlights. Montez's interception early in the fourth quarter was underthrown into tight coverage (and into the end zone) on first down when a throw-away would have been a better option. Sacks were taken unnecessarily as well. Zero points over the final 43-plus minutes won't get the job done in Pac-12 play.
Defensively, it was encouraging to see the Buffs consistently getting in the face of CSU quarterback Nick Stevens. After completing 67 percent of his passes for 334 yards and three touchdowns against Oregon State, CU's pressure was a critical factor in the 24-for-47, two-interception night Stevens endured at Sports Authority Field.
Kudos to new defensive coordinator DJ Eliot for having his group ready to play. His credentials didn't exactly provide a wow factor following his arrival from Kentucky, yet for a squad that was forced to replace eight defensive starters along with three prominent defensive coaches, the Buffs generally played inspired defense more reminiscent of the 2016 bunch than a group that experienced such a drastic overhaul.
While a win over the Rams always is cause for celebration, it's fortunate for the Buffs they have lightweights Texas State and Northern Colorado next on the ledger before the daunting Pac-12 opener against Washington. Three offensive pass interference calls against the Rams — perhaps more of that particular penalty than the Buffs can count on from their opponents throughout the remainder of the schedule — wiped out a trio of big plays for CSU, including a touchdown. The Buffs dodged an additional bullet when yet another Rams TD was erased by a hands-to-the-face penalty.
Nix a few questionable flags from the equation and the Rams would've made a game of it in the second half. Though the W sets the stage for a perfect 3-0 mark in nonconference play, a critical step in CU's goal of reaching back-to-back bowl games, clearly there remains much work to be done.