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A Pair Of Takes: Know The Enemy, Colorado Buffaloes

July 16, 2021
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Marc Kulkin

The teams with the two best records in the PAC-12 conference did not get the chance to meet in 2020, and it had a ripple effect on who was selected to play in the conference championship game.  

Call it bad luck.  Call it the poor PAC-12.  Call it whatever you want.  But there were zero expectations for the Buffaloes going into 2020 when Karl Dorrel took over the program after Mel Tucker bailed to East Lansing's money grab and the Michigan St. job.  So when the Buffs jumped out to a 4-0 record, everyone's eyes were wide open, and the fact that they lost their final two games should not distract from the positives, including going to the Alamo Bowl.

The bottom line is this; Colorado had just as legitimate of a beef with the PAC-12 decision-makers as USC had with the final decision to select a 2-loss Oregon team in place of the Washington Husky team that COVID wiped out.  The correct decision should have been to put a 1-loss Colorado team in the spot and give the conference a real champion.  

Two things would have been accomplished; a game once previously canceled would be played, and from an optics perspective, the PAC-12 would have their two best teams representing the conference championship game.  A USC win against a 1-loss Colorado team would have given the PAC-12 their best chance for a NY-6 Bowl Game when calculating the strength of schedule.  But I digress.  Larry Scott and his ideals are history, and 2021 offers the two teams the chance to play during week-5.

This year's matchup in Boulder has all the makings of a trap game for the Trojans if they're caught looking ahead to the Utah game the following week back in Los Angeles.  The question is can Dorrell maintain the instant success the Buffs experienced on offense in 2020 and have it carry over into 2021 by the time the Trojans arrive?

By the time the two teams play, Karl Dorrell should have had enough time to settle in on a starting quarterback replacing last season's starter Sam Noyer, who, ironically, the Trojans could face a week earlier.--Noyer used the transfer portal in June and is now competing for the Oregon St. starting job.  Among the candidates looking to replace Noyer include (dual-threat) Brandon Lewis, who was called off the bench during the Alamo Bowl loss to Texas, and JT Shrout, who transferred to Boulder from the Tennessee Volunteers program.  Trojan fans always look forward to those dual-threat QB's, and what could possibly go wrong at altitude for an aggressive USC defense?

Regardless of who the Buff's coach is, Colorado's run-game always seems to find someone on their roster that no one else knows about and then turns that unknown into a household name.  In 2020, Jarek Broussard was that unknown guy.  In six games, he finished third nationally, averaging 149 yards per game, which helped him earn the PAC-12 Offensive Player of the Year Award.  Broussard also gets some help in 2021 when the Buffs 2019 leading rusher, Alex Fontenot, returns after missing last season.

Upfront, the Colorado running backs, and QB will depend on an offensive line that lost just one starter from last year and will be led by center Colby Pursell and offensive tackle Frank Fillip.  

Whoever Dorrell tabs as the winner out of the QB competition, they'll have plenty of options to throw the ball to, including returners at WR Dimitri Stanley, La'Vontae Shenault, and Jerry Rice's kid, Brenden, who showed off his pedigree when the ball found him last year.
Offensively in 2021, Dorrell said they should be able to open up what he considered a "vanilla offensive playbook in 2020," but with a more diverse playsheet comes more risk; Can the Buffs cut down on their turnovers?  In six games last year, they turned the ball over 11 times!

Like the Trojans, the Buffaloes made some offseason coaching changes too.  Colorado's changes were reassigning a few of the coaches with different roles and responsibilities.  In 2021, the defense will be coordinated by Chris Wilson, who was the defensive line coach in 2020 and is replacing the previous DC, Tyson Summers, who took an analyst job with the Florida Gators.  This will be the first time Wilson had directed a defense in almost a decade when he was the Mississippi St. defensive coordinator.

Like the offense, the Buffs return some key pieces on defense, and with a change in philosophy from Wilson, maybe last year's incremental improvement, they'll be able to take the next step forward. "You have to be multiple in this day and age...We're gonna have that versatility," Wilson says.--On a side note, in the off-chance that this preview finds Graham Harrell's desk, please take note of that last quote.  

If the Buffs can get back a healthy Nate Landman at linebacker, he'll have some help with the arrival of portal transfers Robert Barnes from Oklahoma and Jack Lamb from Notre Dame.  Colorado has some decent talent but it’s the depth of the talent or the lack thereof, that could be an issue in a full season if injuries become problematic.

Despite all of the good vibes that Dorrell has brought back to Boulder, the Buffs are still not considered a serious challenger for the south division race in 2021.  Perhaps it has something to do with the schedule's first month to open the season.  If Colorado can open PAC-12 play with a 3-0 record though, it will have meant they beat No. Colorado in a tune-up game before taking on Texas A&M in Denver and Minnesota at home in Boulder before playing ASU ahead of the Trojans' arrival.

No one expected much from Colorado last season, so it would be wise for USC not to fall into that trap themselves in 2021.

Josh An

Colorado is a very interesting team going into 2021. They surprised many people with a strong 2020 showing despite having to bring in a new regime in the COVID era. Karl Dorrell and his staff did a fantastic job with their resources, leading the Buffs to a 4-2 record. He was awarded the Pac-12 Coach of the Year award at the end of the season.

Offensively, the Buffs’ attack will be spearheaded by reigning Pac-12 OPOY Jarek Broussard. After suffering a knee injury in 2019, he bounced back hugely in 2020, rushing for 895 yards in just six games. And while their starting quarterback from last year, Sam Noyer, has taken his talents to Corvallis, the Buffs will have a competition between Tennessee transfer JT Shrout and Brendon Lewis. On the outside, Dimitri Stanley, La’Vontae Shenault, and Brenden Rice are some names to look out for.

The headliner on defense for the Buffs is insider linebacker Nate Landman, who was on his way to having another stellar season before suffering a leg injury against Utah. He is the leader of a unit that returns 9 starters and also led the Pac-12 in Tackles for Loss. The big loss will be Mustafa Johnson, the strong defensive lineman who went undrafted, but earned a training camp invite with the New York Jets. In the secondary, Mekhi Blackmon and Mark Perry offer stability in the back end.

This year’s game will be interesting and honestly, I’m not sure what to expect. The last time the Trojans went into Boulder, it took some late-game heroics from Slovis and Michael Pittman Jr. to pull out the victory. Can the Trojans go into enemy territory and deliver a strong performance?

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A Pair Of Takes: Know The Enemy, Colorado Buffaloes

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