Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
olorado’s Nate Landman, left, and Jonathan Van Diest are part of a defense that is lacking depth this season.

The math simply doesn’t add up for the Colorado Buffaloes.

The same team, in many crucial areas, that authored a collapse of epic proportions last year, plus a markedly more difficult schedule, equals a frustrating season looming in the crystal ball for the Buffs in 2019.

It might be a gloomy autumn for CU football fans, but at least it should be an entertaining one. First-year coach Mel Tucker looks to cement a foundational imprint for Pac-12 Conference races still to come. Fans of offensive fireworks should get their money’s worth at Folsom Field, as quarterback Steven Montez and the electric Laviska Shenault should make the Buffs a tough out for any opposing defense. And there will be plenty of opportunities for that famed Folsom magic to smite the mightiest of the Buffs’ enemies, with home dates against Nebraska, USC, Stanford, and Washington highlighting an intriguing home slate.

Still, the new leadership aside, we’ve seen this Buffs team before. And that’s why it’s difficult to foresee the Buffs finishing better than 4-8 in Tucker’s inaugural season. The Buffs will score points. Maybe a heck of a lot of them, if some cohesion and Tucker’s much-professed team toughness takes hold of the offensive line. But will CU be able to stop anyone?

Throughout the offseason and during several of our recent BuffZone.com podcasts, I named the Buffs’ offensive line as my biggest concern going into preseason camp. Those concerns remain, but four weeks later more urgent issues have emerged on the other side of the ball. The Buffs seemingly will be extremely vulnerable at the front end and back end of their defense.

With apologies to defensive tackle Mustafa Johnson, linebacker Nate Landman, and strong safety/linebacker hybrid Davion Taylor, the Buffs’ defensive growing pains could be particularly rough.

As with anything in football, it all begins up front, and indeed that likely will be the first headache for the Buffs. After Johnson, CU’s most experienced interior lineman is Terrance Lang, who played about 30 percent of the Buffs’ defensive snaps last year as a freshman. New defensive line coach Jimmy Brumbaugh has said he might utilize a line rotation that runs eight deep. If the Buffs actually prove to have eight interior defensive linemen that can get the job done consistently, that will count as the biggest pleasant surprise of 2019. In a 3-4 defense, however, utilizing that sort of gluttonous rotation more likely would reveal a Buffs squad desperate for answers. If the Buffs end up deploying defensive linemen like shift changes in hockey, it’s because they don’t have five or so they can depend upon from series to series.

The situation is equally grim in the secondary. Mass departures during the spring left the Buffs precariously thin at cornerback, necessitating the recent shifting of two freshmen receivers — Tarik Luckett and Dylan Thomas — to corner. Culling talent from a position of strength to fortify a position of weakness is nothing earth-shattering for any college football team. Doing it in successive weeks, in addition to the more surprising move of shifting possible backup quarterback Sam Noyer to safety, makes it easy to wonder just how confident Tucker and new defensive coordinator Tyson Summers are in the secondary’s few veterans.

CU’s schedule doesn’t do the razor-thin depth on defense any favors. The Buffs trade two 2018 Pac-12 bottom-feeders, Oregon State and Cal, for a visit to Oregon and a home date against Stanford. CU lost to those bottom-feeders a year ago, and exchanging New Hampshire for Air Force on the nonconference slate gives the Buffs another emotionally-charged matchup in lieu of a cakewalk. Kudos to the tough scheduling, but it will make for a challenging transition year.
In breaking down the schedule, expect the Buffs to finish 2-1 in nonconference play, dropping the rematch against Nebraska (take a deep breath Buffs fans; it’s just a football game) before rebounding to defeat the Falcons. CU should split against the Arizona schools, losing at ASU before, ideally, corralling quarterback Khalil Tate enough (or outscoring him) to defeat Arizona at home.

After that, it will be curious to see how this group of Buffs responds to adversity under Tucker compared to a year ago, when MacIntyre couldn’t stop the bleeding during a program-altering freefall. Expect three straight losses against Oregon, Washington State, and USC before possibly ending the slide at UCLA. That’s no given — outside of a 3-1 road mark in the South Division title season of 2016, the Buffs’ road record within the Pac-12 in their other seven seasons in the league is 4-28 — and if CU falls short at the Rose Bowl it still will need one win over a final three-game stretch against Stanford, Washington, and at Utah just to reach that four-win mark.

Better win at the Rose Bowl.

While the jury will remain out on Tucker until he has guided the ship every Saturday (and, this year, three Fridays), one can’t help but be impressed with the vision and authority he has brought to the CU program since his hiring nearly nine months ago. Call it a gut feeling, but one gets the sense the Buffs will commit fewer penalties and mental mistakes under Tucker. Eventually that will pay dividends.

Just not this year.