The year was 2016 and the Colorado Buffaloes were back. From the depths of college football they rose to college football’s national spotlight. It felt like the start of a new era, one that would see the Buffaloes contend for years to come. Now just three years removed from a Pac-12 South Division title, the 2019 Colorado Buffaloes football team finds itself in a completely new era, just not the one they may have expected.
2016 was a banner year for Colorado. A program known as one of the most consistent throughout college football history, the Buffaloes struggled throughout the 2000s and saw the program become a shade of its former self. Yet 2016 was a big step in the right direction. It was a year that proved Colorado had the means to contend with the best and that the passion is there to drive the team forward. However, after their successful 2016 season, Colorado has had back-to-back 5-7 seasons, leaving fans to wonder where the program stands.
Appropriately enough the 2019 Colorado Buffaloes football program is coming off a 2018 season that was really a tale of two seasons.
A TALE OF TWO SEASONS
As the final whistle blew in the Colorado Buffaloes’ loss to the Utah Utes on November 17, 2018, many got the sense that it was the end of an era. In particular, the Mike MacIntyre era. This was the coach who bought Colorado from the depths of the Pac-12 and saw them claim a Pac-12 South division title just two years prior. The coach who hugged his son as the Buffaloes conquered Lincoln, Nebraska a few months earlier. The coach who had the town buzzing after a 5-0 start.
Unfortunately, Colorado’s collapse was swift. MacIntyre’s Buffaloes, hobbled by injuries, lost seven straight to finish the season 5-7. Losses included blowing a 31-3 lead to the lowly Oregon State Beavers and blowouts dealt by Washington and Utah, the latter of which sealed MacIntyre’s fate, even with one game remaining. Quarterbacks coach Kurt Roper served as interim head coach in Colorado’s loss to California, making the team bowl-ineligible for the eighth time this decade.
Needing to instill a new mentality for the Buffaloes, Athletic Director Rick George wanted to find a coach who would mold a winning mindset into the players. The SEC prides itself on being hard-nosed and having a football-first attitude. The Buffs needed this. They needed the culture to shift in Colorado, back to their intimidating presence of old. And after conducting a thorough coaching search, one candidate emerged above the rest: Mel Tucker.
The defensive coordinator at Georgia in 2018, Mel Tucker fit the bill for Colorado Athletic Director Rick George.
“[Tucker] has great experience and a terrific pedigree; I like the way he coaches football, his toughness and accountability,” George said at Tucker’s introductory press conference on December 6, 2018.
THE MEL TUCKER ERA OF COLORADO FOOTBALL
Tucker brings to Colorado both college and NFL experience. Playing as a defensive back in the early 1990s for Wisconsin, Tucker’s early career saw him take on roles at Michigan State, Miami (OH), LSU and Ohio State, eventually becoming co-defensive coordinator for the Buckeyes in 2004. He made the jump to the NFL in 2005, eventually becoming the defensive coordinator for the Cleveland Browns (2008) and Jacksonville Jaguars (2009-2011). He also had a stint as interim head coach of the Jaguars in 2011 before resuming his defensive coordinator role in 2012.
Known for aggressive defenses and his ability to infuse energy into programs, Tucker couldn’t forward his success to the Chicago Bears, where he served as defensive coordinator for two seasons before being let go.
Tucker returned to the college game in 2015 with the heavy-hitting Alabama Crimson Tide before serving as Georgia’s defensive coordinator from 2016-2018.
Hired to see the Buffaloes return to their glory days, Tucker has been adamant about making Colorado realize its potential by respecting its greats. He’s mentioned Colorado legends Kordell Stewart, Rashaan Salaam, and Alfred Williams when talking about how the Buffaloes will become a dominant team, and he’s already got the talent to start the Buffaloes’ ascent to consistent relevance.
OFFENSIVE WEAPONS, DEFENSIVE QUESTION MARKS
Offensively, Colorado returns with firepower, led by preseason AP All-American Laviska Shenault, Jr. The team also returns quarterback Steven Montez as starter. Montez finished with a completion percentage of 64%, 2,825 passing yards, and a touchdown-to-interception ratio of 18:8 in 2018. His passer efficiency was 135.8, which was good for 7th in the Pac-12. With how 2018 ended, it is important that Montez shows the Buffs’ faithful that he is up to the task of getting Colorado to a bowl game after failing to secure a sixth win after a 5-0 start. Montez will look to lead the Buffaloes in new offensive coordinator Jay Johnson’s system, which will employ concepts from the spread, air-raid, and pro-style offenses. Opposing defenses should expect to see multiple looks from the Buffs’ offense, and this could lead to Montez making a name for himself among the Pac-12’s great quarterbacks.
The defense, under new defensive coordinator Tyson Summers, is led by junior defensive end Mustafa Johnson and junior linebacker Nate Landman. It will be a base 3-4 but may line up four defensive linemen at a time. Tucker has been known to run variations of the 3-4 and 4-3 defense in the past as a coordinator, and having different looks will help the Buffaloes possibly confuse opponents this season and break through in the Pac-12 south.
A TRICKY SCHEDULE
There is plenty of optimism heading into Tucker’s first year as head coach. The pieces are there to have a season not many outside of Boulder expect the Buffaloes to have. Most believe Tucker’s first year will be an uphill battle. In the preseason Pac-12 media poll, the Buffs were picked to finish last in the South. However, there is no clear-cut favorite and the Pac-12 South is open for anyone’s taking. Utah is the safe pick to win both the division and conference, and the Utes proves to be the Buffs toughest game in the Pac-12 South. They travel to Rice-Eccles Stadium on November 30.
The teams the Buffs will play from the Pac-12 North may prove more difficult than those in the South, as Stanford and Washington will come to Boulder on November 9 and 23, respectively, and the Buffs will have October road trips to hostile Eugene, Oregon and Pullman, Washington to play Oregon and Washington State.
The schedule doesn’t let up in non-conference play after The Rocky Mountain Showdown, either, as Colorado hosts Nebraska on September 7. For fans of classic college football rivalries, this is not a game to miss.
But before the Buffaloes shift their focus to the Cornhuskers, they must get past in-state rival Colorado State.
THE SEASON BEGINS
On Friday the 2019 Colorado Buffaloes football team descends upon Denver to meet in-state rival Colorado State in the Rocky Mountain Showdown. The Buffs lead the all-time series 66-22-2, and are looking for their 5th straight win in the series. It will be the last Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver (at least for the time being), thus providing additional bragging rights to the victor. The 2020 matchup is to be played in Fort Collins and the programs will not resume the rivalry until 2023 in Boulder.It is important for the morale of coaches, players, and fans alike for the team to prove they are a step ahead of the program 64 miles north.
There is a new enthusiasm about the Buffaloes entering 2019, and it’s hard not to see why. The 2019 Colorado Buffaloes football team is primed to be potent offensively, so long as Montez and Shenault remain healthy and a couple others step up to ease the burden. Mel Tucker and a new defensive coordinator will have the defense trending in the right direction and the head coach’s mindset is exactly what Colorado football is all about. Tough, punishing and confident. Colorado wouldn’t have it any other way.