Rooney: .500 season still might help CU Buffs gain traction

Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado linebacker Nate Landman, right, is one of several young players looking to lead the Buffs back to a bowl game.

It is a crossroads season of sorts for the Colorado football program under coach Mike MacIntyre.

Much like last year, the Buffaloes will enter their 129th season of football with a number of question marks dotting a talented yet unproven lineup. And one gets the sense the fortunes of the 2018 campaign may go a long way toward determining the program’s immediate future.

Go 7-5 or better with a rotation far less senior-heavy than the one that won the Pac-12 South Division just two years ago, and the MacIntyre-led Buffs can dismiss 2017 as a bad year, both on and off the field, that didn’t fully squash the momentum gained by the unexpected run to the 2016 league title game.

Go 5-7 or worse — a distinct possibility if the answers to all those question marks prove to be erroneous — and that 2016 run will feel more and more like an aberration, a fortuitous mixture of good breaks and a hungry senior class that, for one autumn, managed to put it all together. Flirt with the basement of the South Division for the fifth time in MacIntyre’s six seasons in Boulder, and it will be easy to wonder if athletic director Rick George’s patience about finally watching a consistent winner in Folsom Field will wear thin.

But 6-6? That, naturally, will be more difficult to gauge. Yet in this corner right now — barring game-changing injuries to the Buffs or the opposition along the way — that’s the final regular-season tally we’ll see when the Buffs trudge off the field in Berkeley on Nov. 24.

Overall, the Buffs probably are better than last year’s 5-7 bunch, but the margin is thin. Offensively, any optimism for the Buffs will be for naught if quarterback Steven Montez doesn’t fully harness his sizeable talent. I think he’ll have a big year, and improved play from Montez will make this year’s talented but less-experienced bunch of receivers look much better than the veterans that underperformed last year.

Ultimately, though, the Buffs were terrible up front on both sides of the ball in 2017, and I’m not convinced they’ve made drastic improvements on either side. Defensively, the Buffs will be relying on many of the same characters who allowed over 200 rushing yards and 450.6 total yards per game. Maybe defensive newcomers like Mustafa Johnson and Davion Taylor, along with an emerging Nate Landman, helps improve those numbers. But it will have to be a dramatic and surprising turnaround for the defense to morph into the reliable backbone that led the Buffs in 2016.

On the other side of the ball, Montez was under siege for much of 2017. Again, several familiar faces will be tasked with changing that this fall. That’s a lot of finger-crossing in hopes both interior units come through despite track records that say otherwise.

As the schedule breaks down, a loss at Nebraska should leave the Buffs at 2-1 heading into Pac-12 play. I think they will split the first two league games at home against the high-profile new coaches from UCLA (Chip Kelly) and Arizona State (Herman Edwards), before losing the tough road draws against USC and Washington.

A home win against Oregon State followed by a loss at Arizona will leave the Buffs at 4-5 going into the final three games of the year, where the 6-6 scenario grows more tenuous. Home field advantage should make the difference against Washington State, but a Utah team that could be chasing a division crown will nullify that advantage in the home finale the following week.

That will leave the Buffs in need of a win at Cal in order to reach bowl eligibility, but an improving team eager to keep playing will offset the road woes that plagued the Buffs down the stretch in 2017.

A 6-6 record and a berth in a low-tier bowl feels like a hollow consolation prize, but it probably would be enough to keep the forward momentum going for MacIntyre. Considering he signed a lucrative extension just 14 months ago, and that the Buffs have appeared in only one bowl game in the past 10 seasons, and that on paper the Buffs’ talent level appears more promising beyond 2018, and that low-tier bowl game might actually feel like something that can be built upon more readily than the lofty standard set by the surprising, senior-heavy run in 2016.

But fail to reach that six-win plateau? Then it all might be a different story.

Pat Rooney: or