Rooney: Senior Day symbolizes changing of the guard for Mel Tucker-era CU Buffs

Upsetting UW would further set stage for step forward in 2020

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Colorado head coach Mel Tucker and the Buffs should be focused on a bowl game in 2020.

It will be a festive atmosphere Saturday night for Colorado football’s home finale.

Senior Night has arrived for the Buffaloes, with a small handful of the 17 seniors set to be honored before the Pac-12 Conference battle against Washington providing some of the last links to the 2016 South Division title that, barring two straight upset wins and a victory in some third-tier bowl, remains the only winning season for CU since 2005.

The always-emotional annual senior festivities will be magnified by the retirement party for Ralphie V, who couldn’t quite make it to the finish line in her 12th and final season.

Win or lose, it should be a fun night. And, win or lose, first-year Colorado coach Mel Tucker should perhaps savor the moment. The next time he sets foot on the Folsom turf the honeymoon period will be over. And by the time Tucker conducts his next Senior Day ceremony, Buffs fans will be expecting to make bowl plans.

Certainly that’s not to say Tucker’s rebuilding efforts should propel the Buffs into the College Football Playoff picture in 2020. Yet as Tucker completes the home portion of his first season in Boulder, followed by next week’s regular season finale at No. 7 Utah, it seems a fitting time to look ahead to what might be in store for Year Two of the Tucker era.

Bowl or bust? That’s a definite overstatement. Barring some inexplicable bottom falling out, or an off-the-field circumstance completely out of character with the Tucker Buffs fans have gotten to know so far, Tucker isn’t going anywhere after 2020 no matter how the season unfolds. And while a bowl game undoubtedly should be the stated goal of the 2020 Buffs, falling short of that destination shouldn’t be the death knell of a program that has made going to a bowl game a once-in-a-generation perk.

Still, glance around the league, particularly the Pac-12’s South Division, and why not the 2020 Buffs? ASU freshman quarterback Jayden Daniels will be a headache for years to come, but the Sun Devils’ late swoon this fall hardly inspires confidence. Arizona’s defense is even more beleaguered than CU’s and prompted the firing of defensive line coach Iona Uiagalelei this week and coordinator Marcel Yates last month.

USC will be more talented than the Buffs, as usual, but the Trojans likely are in line for a coaching staff overhaul. UCLA has made strides in Year Two of the Chip Kelly regime, but hardly enough to strike fear into the rest of the division. Utah will be tough, but the Utes will be saying farewell to the majority of its vaunted defense as well as quarterback Tyler Huntley and running back Zack Moss.

As for the Buffs themselves, sure, that defense has taken it on the chin this fall. Yet even during some of the blowout losses on the road over the past six weeks, and certainly during the home win against Stanford two weeks ago, that battered unit still has displayed signs of progress. Essentially everyone will return, as will injured defensive backs Chris Miller and Mekhi Blackmon. If prized recruit/Alabama transfer Antonio Alfano eventually is deemed eligible for the 2020 season, suddenly that vulnerable CU defense could morph into a team strength.

The offense perhaps is more difficult to project, particularly given how the overall production has been disappointing with fifth-year quarterback Steven Montez running the show. Tucker seemingly has been reluctant to use backups Tyler Lytle and Blake Stenstrom, further clouding just who will be behind center for the Buffs next year. CU also is likely to lose receiver Laviska Shenault to the NFL.

Still, the bulk of the offensive line is slated to return, with sophomore tackle Frank Fillip returning to the mix after a redshirt season. And the backfield duo of Alex Fontenot and Jaren Mangham has proven more than capable. CU is averaging just 19.7 points per game in Pac-12 play going into the Washington game. The Buffs should be able to improve on that regardless of how the quarterback situation plays out. Plus, all of this conjecture doesn’t even include the welcoming of a recruiting class that appears as if it will provide a huge influx of talent.

Of course, there remains work to be done this season. CU has notched just one win on Senior Day since 2011, and while topping the Huskies would qualify as an upset, it probably wouldn’t count as a monumental one.

So send Ralphie on her merry way with a win. Celebrate the seniors. But when Tucker and the Buffs return to Folsom — Sept. 12, 2020 against Fresno State, if you wish to mark the calendar — it will be time to get down to business.