Rooney: Rough waters ahead for Mel Tucker’s CU Buffs

Injury bug and rough stretch of schedule collide

Andy Cross/The Denver Post
Colorado head coach Mel Tucker and the Buffs are set for a tough two game road trip starting Friday at Oregon.

Relatively speaking, this is the stretch of the schedule in which it all fell apart for the Colorado Buffaloes a year ago.

This, of course, is a new team. A new coach attempting to instill a new attitude. New expectations. A new vision for the future.

Familiar hurdles loom, however. And if Mel Tucker wants to make certain the foundation for the consistent success he hopes to build in Boulder remains rock-solid at the end of his first fall at CU, weathering the oncoming storm will prove critical.

A year ago the Buffs were a lofty 5-0 when, like this week, they embarked on their only back-to-back road dates of the season. They were struggling with key injuries, also like this week. The second of those two straight tough road foes last year, Washington, was ranked 15th. This week’s Friday night foe, Oregon, is ranked 13th.

With a team already thin on depth limping its way into Autzen Stadium, things might get worse before Tucker has a chance to make them better. The key is to avoid something his predecessor, Mike MacIntyre, couldn’t prevent by allowing a few setbacks to spiral out of control all the way through November.

Certainly the Buffs’ back-to-back midseason road losses last year at USC and Washington weren’t the catalysts behind the 0-7 finish that spelled the end of the MacIntyre era. That flashpoint rests squarely on the second half meltdown CU authored against Oregon State when it returned home, squandering a 31-3 lead in a program-altering collapse.

Yet despite building what seemed like an insurmountable lead against the Beavers, the Buffs nonetheless returned home that week beaten and battered, a pratfall Tucker must avoid. The CU team that set out on those back-to-back road games last year never returned. With Friday’s Oregon game followed by a visit to Washington State — one of many unpredictable teams from week-to-week in the Pac-12, but still a locale that has given the Buffs fits — CU has a strong chance of returning home with a sub-.500 record for the first time in the very young Tucker era.

From what we’ve seen so far, I’d expect more of the same in terms of the Buffs’ results the rest of the way. It’s said almost every week in this corner as well as during our weekly podcast that the Pac-12 is too riddled with up-and-down teams, as well as parity, for the Buffs to not enjoy a few moments the rest of the way. One gets the sense that Tucker will find a way to keep the ship moving forward, even if it doesn’t always show up on the scoreboard.

That said, with injuries mounting, the next-man-up philosophy is being stretched so thin that before long certain position groups won’t have any more able-bodied men to turn to. A game-changing fourth quarter at Arizona State notwithstanding, a CU defense expected to be vulnerable has been exactly that, surrendering big plays as a matter of routine (though a knack for causing turnovers often has at least limited the damage). The offense has been a mixed bag, equally as adept at recording big plays as it is prone to sputtering. There is little reason to expect those traits change the rest of the way on either side of the ball.

Tucker’s challenge isn’t to upset the mighty Ducks, as memorable as that would be, or even find a way to win next week in Pullman. It’s to make sure the Buffs keep fighting, something they didn’t do in 2018.

CU is coming off a loss at home against Arizona that, on paper, had the looks of perhaps being the most winnable matchup remaining on the schedule (though at UCLA on Nov. 2 merits a strong argument). It is unlikely the long list of injured players labeled day-to-day will be 100 percent Friday night, and that’s not even adding to the equation recent season-ending setbacks to cornerbacks Chris Miller and Mekhi Blackmon and starting guard Colby Pursell, who hasn’t technically been ruled out for the season but won’t be back anytime soon due to surgery to remove his gall bladder. Coaches show how good they are, and how much their charges believe in them, when adversity mounts. And right now it’s piling up quickly for the Buffs.

Chances are, in two weeks CU will limp home in a fairly similar state to last year. If Oregon registers the expected knockout, it will be interesting to see how Tucker and the Buffs pick themselves up from the mat.