CU opponent preview: Northern Colorado aiming for FCS playoffs

Andy Cross / The Denver Post
Northern Colorado coach Earnest Collins, Jr. are one of just three FCS teams that will face two Power 5 conference teams this year.

When Earnest Collins Jr. brings his football team to Boulder on Sept. 16, he’s aiming for a victory.

More than anything, however, the Northern Colorado head coach is hoping his Bears leave Boulder in good shape for the following eight weeks.

This month, is previewing each of Colorado’s opponents, with this installment focusing on UNC, a Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) team with a bigger goal than beating the Buffaloes.

“The goal is to get to the playoffs and start making some hay and move our way up the Big Sky (Conference),” Collins said. “Our guys have a bitter taste in their mouth from last year, having a chance that last game and not winning it to get into the playoffs.”

The Bears (6-5 last year) won’t remove that bitter taste in the first three weeks of the season. In fact, there aren’t many teams in the country – at the FCS or Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) level — with a tougher two-week stretch than the one the Bears face in mid-September.

After opening at home against College of Idaho, the Bears visit defending SEC champion Florida on Sept. 9, and the defending Pac-12 South champion Buffs the next week.

UNC is one of just three FCS teams that will face two Power 5 conference teams this year (along with Delaware State and Mercer) and the only one that has to do it in back-to-back weeks. While the financial payoff is nice (UNC will pocket nearly $1 million combined from those two games), Collins simply hopes his team can get through it in one piece.

“(Health) is always a concern when you’re playing any FBS team and then you go back to back on top of that,” he said. “We’re going to be smart about it, and we’re going to compete and try to win all three of the first three. We know we’re going to take 70 guys and all 70 may play.

“But, it doesn’t matter whether you win all of (the first three games) or not; we have to go and get the next 8, because that’s how we’re going to make our way into the playoffs.”

A 55-48 loss to Cal Poly in the season finale last year cost the Bears a potential playoff spot. UNC hasn’t been to the playoffs since reaching the Division II semifinals in 2002. The Bears moved up to Division I in 2004.

Collins is excited for the opportunity to face the Buffaloes, however. It’ll be the first matchup between CU and UNC since Oct. 12, 1934. The Bears won that one, 13-7, giving them 83 years of bragging rights over the Buffs.

For the Bears, who feature 25 players from Colorado on their roster, this game is a chance to get on a big stage in front of in-state recruits, while also challenging themselves against the in-state team at the highest level of college football.

“For us, it’s important, because it’s that inner-state kind of thing,” Collins said. “It’s not a rival because we’re not at the same level they are, but we eventually hope that at some point in time we can get our program to the level where we can win a couple of those games every once in a while. That’s the level of program we’re trying to get ourselves to.

“We’re looking forward to it.”

CU opponent preview: Northern Colorado Bears

Date with CU: Sept. 16, Noon, at Folsom Field in Boulder

Head coach: Earnest Collins, Jr., 6th season (21-45)

Series: CU leads 9-2

Bears in 2016: 6-5, 4-4 in Big Sky Conference

Returning starters: 11 – 6 on offense, 5 on defense

Offensive players to watch: RB Brandon Cartagena, Sr. (78 att., 435 yards, 5 TD; 14 catches, 117 yards); WR/KR Hakeem Deggs, Sr. (34 catches, 449 yards, 10 TD; 27 returns, 563 yards); QB Jacob Knipp, Jr. (12 of 18, 211 yards, 2 TD, 0 INT); RB Zachary Lindsay, Jr. (2 att., 88 yards, 1 TD); WR Ellis Onic II, Sr. (31 catches, 234 yards, 1 TD); RB Trae Riek, Jr. (128 att., 736 yards, 3 TD; 10 catches, 195 yards, 3 TD); WR Alex Wesley, Jr. (27 catches, 374 yards, 5 TD).

Defensive players to watch: DT Khairi Bailey, Sr. (transfer from Western Michigan); CB Marshaun Cameron, So. (76 tackles); S Stone Kane, Sr. (63 tackles, 1 INT); DE Keifer Morris, Jr. (42 tackles, 3 TFL, 0.5 sacks); LB Noel Reid, So. (40 tackles, 1.5 sacks); LB Henry Stelzner, Jr. (JUCO transfer); CB Michael Walker, So. (45 tackles, 8 pass breakups).

Notable: UNC is receiving $350,000 from CU to play this game. … UNC was Colorado Teachers College at the time of the last meeting between these teams, in 1934. … In 11 meetings, all from 1917-1934, CU outscored the Bears 267-38. … The Bears have gone 6-5 each of the past two years. Prior to 2015, they had 11 consecutive losing seasons. … Knipp opened last year as the starting quarterback, but injured his shoulder three snaps into the second game and missed the rest of the year. As the primary starter in 2015, he threw for 1,969 yards, 13 TD and 10 INT, while also rushing for five TD. … Lindsay is the younger brother of CU starting running back Phillip Lindsay. … Riek has rushed for 1,532 yards and 10 TD in the past two seasons, leading the Bears in rushing both years. … Wesley is a two-time Big Sky champion in the 400-meter dash.

Brian Howell:, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.