Colorado State has not won the Mountain West Conference since 2002. That season ended a somewhat magical run for the Rams, dating back to 1994 under former coach Sonny Lubick. It was highlighted by quarterback Bradlee Van Pelt spiking the ball off a Colorado player’s head after a touchdown run. During that span, the Rams won six conference championships and played in seven bowl games. Prior to Lubick’s arrival in 1993, Colorado State was a bottom-feeder. They’d only been to two bowl games in their 100-year history and hadn’t won a conference title since 1955.
Since Lubick’s departure in 2007, the Rams have struggled to stay nationally relevant. They’ve been respectable, playing in six bowl games, but they’re on their third head coach. The stability that defined an era in Fort Collins remains elusive.
That’s not to say that things haven’t been interesting. Last season, Colorado State unveiled a snazzy new stadium. The $220 million facility is a shining example of a mid-major program consolidating its resources in order to put forth the best product it can. Alternatively, it’s a boondoggle the likes of which an institution of higher learning should never undertake. Depends upon whom you ask.
One thing is for certain: it’s the nicest stadium in the Mountain West. Colorado State should get to host the MWC championship game until someone else builds a better one. Let’s all admire it a little:
The Rams opened the building – recently renamed Canvas Stadium – last season with a 58-27 drubbing of Oregon State. Expectations were high going into the season, and they erupted after that game. Oregon State isn’t that good, of course, but they play in a Power-Five conference. It appeared as though the Rams had announced themselves as “for real.”
By season’s end though, the Rams had stumbled to a third-straight 7-6 finish and bowl loss.
The situation is not quite dire in Fort Collins, but the Rams quite literally cannot afford mediocrity. Now that they’ve created the $220 million monster, they need to feed it, or it will turn against them.
The Players (Offense)
With record-setting quarterback Nick Stevens gone, and incumbent Colin Hill lost to a knee injury, the Rams will look to Washington graduate transfer KJ Carta-Samuels. If that hyphenated last name sounds familiar to Colorado State fans, it’s because his older brother played QB at Wyoming from 2009-2010.
The younger Carta-Samuels brings something to the QB position that Rams fans haven’t seen in quite a while: mobility. In limited playing time during his four years in Seattle, Carta-Samuels flashed play-making ability with his legs that should remind Colorado State fans of the aforementioned Van Pelt. However, having never been asked to shoulder the load at U-Dub, it remains to be seen whether he can be “the guy” like Colorado State is hoping he will be.
In addition to Stevens, the Rams lost superstar receiver Michael Gallop – now with the Dallas Cowboys – 1,000-yard running back Dalyn Dawkins, and most of the offensive line. This group set multiple school records last season including averaging nearly 500 yards a game, but with so many new faces, it’s anyone’s guess whether they’ll be able to recapture even a fraction of that magic.
Carta-Samuels will look to returning wide-outs Bisi Johnson and Warren Jackson, both of whom will need to step up their contributions to the offense. Additionally, Tennessee transfer Preston Williams, one of the most sought-after recruits in the country four years ago, will look to fill the gaping hole left by Gallop.
Izzy Matthews will likely carry the load at running back, but it remains to be seen whether he can truly be a featured back. There is some additional experience in the backfield, but no one on the talent level of the departed Dawkins.
The Players (Defense)
As well as the offense played last season, the defense was often Colorado State’s undoing. They gave up 430 yards per game, and were fortunate to only give up more than 40 points three times. They’re rebuilding this unit with new players, coaches, and schemes. The Rams will switch to a 4-3 this season, and switching schemes at the college level can sometimes be jarring in the first year. It will take a Herculean effort to significantly improve this defense in one season, but several new defensive coordinators last season were able turn moribund defenses around last year, so the possibilities are, you know, possible.
One positive for Colorado State is that their leading tackler from a year ago, Josh Watson, is back. Watson is a true bad-ass who calls himself GRAVE DIGGER on Twitter and routinely lights opponents up. He’s the kind of player you watch instead of the ball when he’s on the field. The secondary will likely rely on Rice transfer VJ Banks at one of the corner spots. Beyond Watson and Banks, however, the defense is thin. A few guys return, but it remains to be seen whether they can elevate their level of play enough to help the Rams win.
Their saving grace could be recruiting. The Rams have recruited 52 three-star prospects in the last three years. If some of those young players can step into bigger roles this season, then 2018 will be far less foreboding than it looks right now.
Mike Bobo is a Georgia guy. Prior to accepting the job at Colorado State, he’d spent his entire life, save one season as the QB Coach at Jacksonville State, in Athens. He played quarterback at Georgia from 1993-97, spent two seasons as an assistant before going to J’Ville, then returned to Athens in 2001. He worked his way up to Offensive Coordinator in 2007, holding that position through the 2014 season before accepting the Colorado State job.
Bobo may have come to Fort Collins looking for a stepping stone, but with the uneven performance of his Rams the last three seasons, the chasm has widened. Bowl games are nice, and there are a few fan-bases in the MWC who would take Colorado State’s three-year run in a hot second, but fans, boosters, and Bobo’s boss have to be getting impatient with the lack of progress. Bobo knows this and knows his seat is getting warm. Forget stepping stones, Bobo might need a rescue chopper.
To that end, he cleaned house with his defensive staff. His new coordinator, John Jancek, another SEC guy, has spent the spring installing a 4-3 defense that will rely heavily on disguised coverage and exotic blitzes. This defense will look to make the big play, and they may well do it, but by extension, are more likely to give it up. The players, in an effort to speed up the process and mitigate the learning curve for freshmen and transfers who may have missed spring ball, have been practicing it on their own this summer and plan to continue up to the start of fall camp.
The theme for Colorado State in 2018 is uncertainty, and it will take Bobo’s best coaching job yet to produce results.
The Schedule (with Milquetoast Predictions!)
August 25 – vs. Hawaii – W
One of my favorite things about college football is that, while the NFL is on their third practice game, forcing fans to shell out thousands for exhibitions that only approximate real football, college teams are already playing conference games. I love starting the season with one that really matters. Granted, it’s Hawaii-CSU, but I’ll take what I can get.
These two squads met last season on the rock and Colorado State drubbed the ‘bows by 30 points. Hawaii is absolutely hemorrhaging right now. More on them later in the summer. Colorado State takes this one fairly easily.
August 31 – vs. Colorado (in Denver) – L
This rivalry has been pretty one-sided lately. Colorado State hasn’t beaten the Buffs since 2014, and that CU squad was a historically bad team. Since Van Pelt’s famous spike in 2002, Colorado State has only managed to beat Colorado four times, and the Buffs have not exactly been world-beaters in that time. Colorado Head Coach Mike MacIntyre knows that losing to Colorado State is likely a death knell for his job, so look for the Buffs to take this one.
September 8 – vs. Arkansas – L
When you build a fancy new stadium, you get SEC opponents to travel to you. It’s like Field of Dreams but with unpaid students instead of ghosts. Arkansas has been inconsistent lately and hilariously fired their coach on the field last season. They’re an SEC team though with SEC talent, so expect another tough game for the Rams.
September 15 – @Florida – L
Florida snatched Jim McElwain from Colorado State after the 2014 season. He will not be in attendance for this game. UF is also a program in search of stability, but the superior talent wins out again here.
September 22 – vs. Illinois State – W
The MWC needs to beat its FCS opponents. No more Howards.
October 6 – @San Jose State – W
Tough in-conference road game here. Wait a minute. This is San Jose State we’re talking about, so never mind. More on them later this summer, but if you want to see an example of a completely dysfunctional program in way over its head, look no further than San Jose. Colorado State adds to the Spartans’ misery. Look for a similar game to the 42-14 drubbing the Rams handed down in Fort Collins last season.
October 13 – vs. New Mexico – W
New Mexico is also in disarray, though not irreparably so. The Rams should be able to win this game. The Rams won a close one last season, but if the wheels are already falling off in Albuquerque by this time, this one could be much uglier.
If the season goes like this (remember: all predictions wrong or your money back), Ram fans might feel pretty good. They’ll be 4-3 and 3-0 in the conference. But their conference slate is back-loaded, with their final five games coming against decent-to-excellent teams, and the Rams, unfortunately, look to be outgunned.
October 26 – vs. Wyoming – L
A Friday night Border War at home. If Bobo loses this one, the heat on his backside will be absolutely searing. Wyoming, even without Josh Allen – who once punched a hole in a cow – is simply a better team. The Pokes won a knock-down-drag-out 16-13 fight last season, and if the Rams can’t get the ball moving, expect a similar result.
November 10 – @Nevada – L
Nevada is a team on the way up. More on them later this summer, but this has more to do with Colorado State heading the opposite way. Nevada came to FoCo last season, and the Rams squeaked out an entertaining 44-42 W, but a less explosive offense for Colorado State plus general improvement across the board in Reno leads to a Nevada win this time.
November 17 – vs. Utah State – L
Utah State is another team that should be improved from a year ago. More on them later this summer, but this is another game that, with so many question marks for Colorado State, looks like a terrible match-up. The Rams won a somewhat blase 27-14 game in Logan last season, but the Aggies will be a much different team this time around.
Total: 4-8 (3-5)
Last Word: Rocky Mountain Low, Colorado State
If the season does indeed go this way, Colorado State might very well go coach-hunting again. There are enough uncertainties surrounding the 2018 version of this team that it’s possible that things could swing the other way. Maybe some young guys step up. Maybe Carta-Samuels thrives under Bobo’s tutelage. It’s possible. However, few mid-major programs have the ability to just reload after taking heavy losses to graduation and the NFL. Most have to rebuild. Take heart, though, Ram fans: the 2019 season is only 14 months away.
Up Next: Fresno State!
The ‘Dogs look to repeat as Western Division champs in second-year Head Coach / miracle worker Jeff Tedford’s second season.