Mike MacIntyre may not need to take drastic measures to keep warm as the winter temperatures continue to plummet.
With each passing day, as the disappointment of the 2015 football season slowly gives way to the hope and promise of a new year, MacIntyre’s seat will only grow warmer.
On Tuesday MacIntyre and two undisputed bright spots this fall — defensive back Chidobe Awuzie and receiver Nelson Spruce — sifted through the ruins of another unfulfilling campaign. It began with the expectation of a bowl berth. Or, at the very least, an opportunity to compete for one in the final weeks.
It ended with a fizzle and a bowl-or-bust year on the horizon for MacIntyre.
“I think you always put pressure on yourself. You always want to be as successful as you can be,” MacIntyre said. “Definitely every year we want to win the Pac-12 championship. We want to be able to go to a bowl and see where that takes us from there.
“Every year as a coach or player, you’re trying to reach the ultimate goals that you want to reach. That’s something that we’re working for all the time.”
MacIntyre will be back next year, and deservedly so. While half of the victories MacIntyre has acquired during a 10-27 ledger through his first three seasons were of questionable quality (Central Arkansas and Charleston Southern in 2013; Nicholls this fall; and UMass each of the past two seasons) few can dispute the state of the program is far more encouraging than the broken shards MacIntyre was asked to put back together when he was hired three years ago.
The defense improved dramatically in 2015, moving into sixth place in the Pac-12 Conference in scoring defense and total defense after finishing no better than 10th in either category the previous four seasons. After a precipitous drop in attendance between 2011 (50,355 average) through 2014 (37,778) the Buffs bucked that trend this fall by making at least a marginal gain (39,889).
Most importantly, as MacIntyre noted Tuesday, next year’s collection of seniors and juniors will be the largest CU has featured in a decade and a half. It is a group assembled from the first commitments MacIntyre received in Boulder. He deserves to see it through.
The cushion, however, is giving way to a hot seat. The rhetoric of this year’s season look-back contained a litany of phrases — themes such as “getting over the hump” “so close” and “being able to beat those (Pac-12) teams” — that were eerily similar to the messages proffered after the 2014 season. If there is a similar script following the 2016 season, it likely will be read at MacIntyre’s farewell press conference.
While MacIntyre insisted his 2015 club “improved as the year went along, even with all the injuries that we had,” the assertion is debatable. The Buffs suffered a critical blocked punt on opening drive of the year. They had a field goal blocked on the opening drive of the finale against Utah.
In between the Buffs teased their backers with a running game that ultimately proved to have gotten fat off weak opponents; unleashed a defense that, regardless of results, consistently displayed hunger and tenacity; and battled through injuries that ruined the offensive line yet hardly fazed the linebacker corps during a midseason injury rash.
MacIntyre wouldn’t yet commit to changes to his staff, but finally getting over the hump should require strategic adjustments for a head coach battling for his job. Offensive coordinator Brian Lindgren remains a popular whipping boy in chat rooms and the Twitterverse, but in this corner the positions that deserve the most scrutiny are offensive line coach Gary Bernardi and special teams coach Toby Neinas.
Though injuries gutted the offensive line, a fully healthy unit still let quarterback Sefo Liufau get battered in the season opener against a Hawaii defense that later gave up 58 points to Air Force at home, and even the veterans of the bunch failed to meet expectations. On special teams, the only thing more glaring than kicker Diego Gonzalez’s late drop-off was the staggering six kicks and punts the Buffs had blocked this season. Reaching such a baffling total shows a lack of ability to learn from mistakes.
“We didn’t finish some of those games like we’d have liked to, and had some miscues, but I do feel like we’re a better football team than when we began,” MacIntyre said. “I really do believe that. A lot of those guys are coming back. They’ve played a lot of football.”
And in 2016, MacIntyre had best hope that group plays one more game than they did in 2015.