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Rooney: Hope for future doesn’t help the present for CU Buffs football

Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell answers questions during media day on August 6. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell answers questions during media day on August 6. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

Signing up to be a football coach means signing up to be a nomad. Karl Dorrell is no exception.

The 2022 football season will mark Dorrell’s 35th in the profession, his third as the leader of the Colorado Buffaloes. Since that first season in 1988 as a graduate assistant at UCLA, Dorrell has worked for 11 different college or NFL programs. Some of them — CU, UCLA, the Miami Dolphins — have welcomed Dorrell into the fold on multiple occasions.

Certainly that’s not a knock on Dorrell. Most of his staff could be described as oft-traveled, the same as just about every FBS-level program in the nation. So the somewhat out of character personal insight Dorrell provided last week about how he approaches each and every season made sense for anyone who might soon be forced to, once again, pack up the entire house.

“I remember coming in my first year as a graduate assistant and I was having success and thinking, ‘I’m never getting fired. I’m going to be great at this,’” Dorrell said. “I think everybody in this profession, because of the competitiveness and we’re in the business of winning, we always anticipate you can get fired.

“I actually treat every year, every coaching year, since my UCLA years, going in with the mindset I could get fired after this year. It doesn’t matter if you’re on a five-year contract or four or two. They fire you regardless. The security that keeps you on edge or keeps you on your game is challenging yourself with the mindset that you better do it this year or you’re fired.”

So, in that spirit, will Colorado, the owner of just one winning record over the past 15 full seasons, finally “do it” this year? If by “do it” one means doing just enough for Dorrell to see a fourth season in Boulder, the answer is a rock-solid probably*. Beyond that, however, Buffs fans can expect to see the sort of discouraging final record that has become all too familiar over the past two decades.

Dorrell has touted CU’s youngsters throughout the preseason. The revamped staff has the potential to be the best in years in Boulder, and certainly is an upgrade over Dorrell’s first two seasons. But these are the pillars of programs looking to build over the long haul. This is year three for Dorrell. Do Buffs fans have the patience for another multi-year rebuild? They may not have a choice.

Dorrell noted he often measures the strength of a team by the strength of the quarterback room. With incumbent starter Brendon Lewis, a healthy JT Shrout, Drew Carter, Houston transfer Maddox Kopp, and intriguing freshman Owen McCown, that room is far more promising than a QB room that last year featured two freshmen (Lewis, Carter) and Shrout on crutches. Dorrell also has described the offense as far ahead of the pace the past two years.

All positive developments, no doubt. But really, there was nowhere for the offense to go but up. And the reality is the Buffs are probably a year away, at best, from legitimate bowl contention.

However, it may not seem like that early this season. The guess here is 4-8 for the Buffs, though CU could get tantalizingly close to bowl eligibility by Halloween before a crushing late-season gauntlet. Looking through the schedule, I’m penciling in wins against Cal and Arizona State at home, plus Arizona on the road. I’m putting marks in the “L” column for the season-ending four-game run — Oregon, at USC, at Washington, Utah — as well as the early nonconference road games, Air Force and Minnesota.

That leaves CU at 3-6 with three games I consider up for grabs in TCU, UCLA, and at Oregon State. I expect the Buffs to get one of those. The best bet, of course, is opening night against TCU. There are countless reasons why coaches don’t ever want to put too much emphasis on one game. Yet the TCU opener could dictate the course of the season.

Win, and the Buffs should at least make the first two months of the season more captivating than most predicted. Lose, however, and the bottom could fall out fast enough to make fans understand why Dorrell goes into each season wondering if it’s his last.