Rooney: Road to six wins tough but not impossible for CU Buffs

Schedule a demanding one in first year of Mel Tucker era

Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
Steven Montez and the Colorado football team have lost their past seven road Pac-12 Conference games.
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Can the Colorado Buffaloes flip the script?

Coach Mel Tucker has made it clear he hopes to be at CU for the long haul. First, though, the goal is to set a new foundation for a program that has posted just one winning record over the past 13 seasons. Yet it’s groundwork that won’t be completely devoid of expectations.

The Buffs are a flawed football team, and while an official season prediction from this corner still is pending, the safe bet is that run of sub-.500 seasons will get extended to 14. Still, there are a number of boxes the Buffs check that would be the envy of many teams. A seasoned, big-armed quarterback in Steven Montez. A game-breaking talent with All-American potential in Laviska Shenault. And maybe, just maybe, enough proven playmakers — like Nate Landman and Mustafa Johnson — on a defense thin on depth to get the Buffs a timely stop or two late in games to affect outcomes.

It may be unlikely. But certainly it’s not impossible. There are flawed teams across the Pac-12 Conference, particularly alongside CU in the South Division. So how do the Buffs’ eke out enough wins to get to 6-6 and go bowling in Tucker’s first season? Let us count the ways.

First, the Buffs must defeat Big Red. Nebraska’s first visit to Folsom Field in 10 years will be an emotional one for CU. The verdict also could provide a huge impact as to how the Buffs’ fortunes play out. Sure, that was the same belief last year among fans and pundits alike (including this one), and we all know how that turned out. The late win at Nebraska indeed fueled a 5-0 start, yet it failed to provide enough oomph to stop the swift unraveling that led to a 5-7 finish and the departure of former coach Mike MacIntyre.

Defeating the Cornhuskers would set the stage for a possible 3-0 run through nonconference play, assuming the Buffs don’t suffer a letdown a week later in another emotionally-charged home battle against Air Force. That would set up step No. 2 for the Buffs — find a way to win on the road in the Pac-12.

That’s easier said than done. Despite last year’s win at Nebraska, the Buffs nonetheless are 1-8 on the road in league play over the past two seasons, losing the past seven of those games in a row. If the road dates at Oregon, Utah, and Washington State are almost assuredly losses, that leaves the Buffs looking for a win either at Arizona State in the Pac-12 opener on Sept. 21 or the Nov. 2 date at UCLA. CU has never won in Tempe (0-5). The Bruins appear riper for the picking, but it also is a program expecting to take a step forward in Year 2 of the Chip Kelly era.

So, if the Buffs win all three nonconference games, plus either one of the road contests at ASU or UCLA, that leaves two more wins out of four home dates at Folsom Field. Where do those wins come from? The final two home games against Stanford and Washington could be against squads eyeing berths in the conference championship game. While USC coach Clay Helton enters the season on the hot seat, the Trojans still will be the more talented team on the turf for the Friday night battle at Folsom Oct. 25. Arizona certainly is beatable in the first Pac-12 home game on Oct. 5. But the last time Wildcats quarterback Khalil Tate visited Boulder, he came off the bench to shred the Buffs’ defense for 481 yards of total offense.

There are no gimmies for the Buffs in any of those scenarios. But if Tucker can guide the Buffs through to the six-win plateau, the foundation he seeks in Boulder will be rock-solid.