Rooney: Subtle or not, bye week changes in spotlight for CU Buffs against Arizona

All eyes on what struggling Buffs cooked up during week off

BOULDER, CO - October 2, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder's head coach, Karl Dorrell, during the USC Pac-12 game in Boulder on October 2, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
BOULDER, CO – October 2, 2021: University of Colorado Boulder’s head coach, Karl Dorrell, during the USC Pac-12 game in Boulder on October 2, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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As is often the case in life, inspiration this week arrived through the eyes of a child.

Upon arriving home from the Pac-12 Conference basketball media days in San Francisco, where I mercifully could focus on the promise of the upcoming CU men’s and women’s basketball seasons for a few days instead of the misery of the football campaign, the older of my two young daughters was transfixed by her newest activity book.

In kindergarten now, she is obsessed with those “find the differences” challenges, where you look at two very similar pictures and, brace yourself Buffs fans, attempt to pick out the subtle differences.

It is “Subtle Changes” week for the Buffaloes, whose best chance at an actual victory against an FBS-level foe this season will unfold on Saturday afternoon against Arizona, owners of a program-record 17-game losing streak. Earlier this week, head coach Karl Dorrell promised “subtle changes” to an offense whose inefficiency has been both expansive and glaring.

One of the worst offenses in the nation apparently has looked to some fine-tuning this week instead of any significant changes in order to jump-start an attack, to use that term loosely, that has generated just 34 points in four games against FBS opponents. In the whimsical spirit of those childlike spot-the-difference challenges, I wondered what “subtle changes” will mean for the Buffs.

Much like the cartoon squirrel wearing a different colored cap from one picture to the next, maybe the offensive line takes the field up with jersey numbers one digit off from their norm. Maybe instead of flooding first-down opportunities with runs up the middle, the Buffs get wild and veer off tackle. Instead of blowing off the postgame interview with the university’s broadcast partners or shoving a news camera, maybe Dorrell this time takes his postgame wrath out on an unsuspecting water cooler.

Subtle changes indeed.

All jokes aside, maybe Dorrell’s “subtle changes” proclamation merely serves a smokescreen for adjustments that will be clear from kickoff. Buffs fans should hope so. There’s a track record that backs the possible deception. During the 2020 preseason Dorrell said the quarterback competition from Sam Noyer and Tyler Lytle was close enough he still planned to get Lytle playing time after Noyer got the job. It turned out Lytle couldn’t even get on the field even after Noyer’s injured shoulder clearly hampered his play.

And maybe quarterback Brendon Lewis has indeed improved since last season, as the coaching staff claimed leading into the season. But we’ve yet to see the player who offered so much promise at the Alamo Bowl.

The problem going into Saturday is the Buffs haven’t displayed enough offensive competency to believe subtle changes will get things turned around. There has been subtle improvement, such as it is. Twenty-seven of those 34 points scored by the Buffs against FBS opponents have occurred in the past two games. The Buffs went from a shutout loss against Minnesota to a touchdown and two field goals against Arizona State to two touchdowns against USC. Improvement doesn’t get much more subtle than that.

Hopefully the Buffs didn’t spend the bye week simply tweaking things here and there. Get things turned around, subtly or not, against the Wildcats, and there will be plenty of season left to at least set the stage for a better 2022. But with a loss, it’s not a stretch to wonder if the Buffs win again in 2021.

Look closely to spot the differences with what happens on Saturday.