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Arizona football opponent preview: Colorado

A Boulder trip in early October could mean an afternoon kickoff

arizona-wildcats-colorado-buffaloes-collegefootball-opponent-preview-2019-pac-12 Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

The second game of Pac-12 Conference play will take place in Boulder against the Colorado Buffaloes. Fingers crossed for a rare afternoon kickoff for the Arizona Wildcats as no time has yet been announced. The game is scheduled for Saturday, Oct. 5.

Here’s a preview of the Colorado Buffaloes:

Introduction

After six seasons, Colorado finally cut ties with Mike MacIntyre. I say “finally” because despite winning AP Coach of the Year and Pac-12 Coach of the Year in 2016, when the Buffaloes won the Pac-12 South, his tenure was horrific. If you remove their 8-1 conference record from that season, he won six conference games over five years.

It’s hard to sit here and argue against the logic behind moving on. As a result, Mel Tucker was hired to his first college head coaching job. He was the interim coach for the NFL’s Jacksonville Jaguars in 2011 but for only five games.

Tucker has an impressive resume in both college and the NFL. Having spent the last four years in the SEC with Alabama (2015) and Georgia (2016-2018) as assistant head coach and defensive coordinator, respectively, should more than suggest he has a strong football mind. The question will be can he find success on his own?

The rundown

  • Returning production rank: 43th (71% offensive, 64% defensive, 67% total)
  • 2018 record: 5-7
  • Head coach: Mel Tucker (1st year)

The stats

The following metrics are courtesy of Bill Connelly of Football Outsiders. You can read more about the rankings and theory behind them here.

  • 2018 S&P+ Overall: 80th
  • 2018 S&P+ Offense: 85th
  • 2018 S&P+ Defense: 58th
  • 2019 S&P+ Projection: 68th
  • 2019 Projected record: 5-7

2018 recap

The Buffaloes experienced one of the most bizarre seasons I can remember. They started off very strong with a 5-0 record. From there, they finished the season with a seven-game losing streak.

At the time of their 5-0 start, they had won at Nebraska and opened conference play with wins over UCLA and ASU. In hindsight, those wins were nothing special as Nebraska finished the season 4-8, UCLA was 3-9 and ASU—arguably the best of the three—went 7-5.

Injuries had an effect on their seven-game losing streak but it can’t be the reason for this collapse. They had games down this stretch that weren’t competitive like Washington State (31-7) and Utah (30-7). They had somewhat close games like USC (31-20), Washington (27-13) and Cal (33-21).

Then they even had close losses like Arizona (42-34) and Oregon State (41-34 in OT). The low point had to be when they blew a 31-3 lead to OSU to lose in overtime. Bottom line is it was a forgettable season and it marked the end of the MacIntyre era.

Offensive outlook

If you’ve watched Colorado over the past two seasons, you’re likely familiar with quarterback Steven Montez. He hasn’t had the most success but he’s been incredibly reliable and productive. Over his three seasons, he’s recorded 6,902 passing yards, 46 touchdowns to 20 interceptions and has added 807 rushing yards with eight TDs.

Colorado returns Montez’s most productive target, Laviska Shenault Jr. Shenault missed three games in 2018 but still recorded 1,011 receiving yards on 86 catches. He also tacked on 115 rushing yards and had 11 total scores.

The running back group will have to fill the void left behind from Travon McMillian’s 1,000-yard season. Colorado will also be without its second- and third-best rushers from last season, as Kyle Evans graduated and Beau Bisharat has converted to tight end.

The good new is Montez and Shenault are able to handle designed running plays. The bad news is there is tons of inexperience that will lineup in the backfield. Sophomore Alex Fontenot is likely the frontrunner to secure the starting role.

Looking at the rest of the receivers, notable names include: K.D. Nixon (Shenault’s former high school teammate) and Tony Brown. They were the second- and third-leading receivers for the Buffaloes in 2018.

Colorado is returning two key pieces to its offensive line and has also added a graduate transfer to help transition a lot of their youth. Colby Pursell started all 12 games at center and William Sherman started nine but played in all 12 games at left tackle in 2018. Both are sophomores.

Arlington Hambright is a graduate transfer from Oklahoma State who started the first five games of the 2018 season before an injury.

Defensive outlook

Inside linebacker Nate Landman is the heart of this defense. The junior linebacker is coming off a season where he was an All Pac-12 Honorable Mention with 123 tackles (13 for loss) and four sacks.

Landman will likely be accompanied by junior college transfer rotation of Jash Allen and Quinn Perry. Allen and Perry are former four- and three-star recruits, respectively. Davion Taylor, Carson Wells, Nu’umotu Falo and Alex Tchangam are the likely candidates to compete for the outside linebackers spots.

As for the defensive line, Mustafa Johnson is coming off an absolutely monster of a season. He led the team the team in sacks with 8.5 and finished with 73 total tackles. However, beyond Johnson there are a lot of question marks with youth and inexperience.

Two names that fit the part physically who could see the field are Jalen Sami and JuCo transfer Janaz Jordan. The 6-foot-6, 320-pound Sami had an impressive spring and is projected to start. Jordan, who checks in at 6-4 and 305, is expected to be a part of the rotation.

Key names in the secondary include cornerback Delrick Abrams Jr. and graduate transfer safety Mikial Onu. Abrams is likely the most talented cornerback of the group. Onu brings plenty of experience the safety group. Pima Community College product Aaron Maddox will at least find his way into the safety rotation after an increased usage on defense in 2018.

Fun fact: Abrams played the 2017 season for Independence Community College in Kansas which was the host school of Last Chance U on Netflix that season. JuCo transfer Jamar Montgomery also played for Independence CC in 2017 and 2018.

3 players to watch

Steven Montez, QB

Entering his senior season with a 24-game start streak, he is the de facto starting quarterback and leader of the team.

Laviska Shenault Jr., WR

Shenault led the Buffaloes in receptions, receiving yards and receiving touchdowns as a sophomore.

Nate Landman, LB

As a sophomore, he led the team in tackles. That feels like the floor for this developing linebacker.