It's that magical time of year everyone's been waiting for.
With less than two weeks to go before the Colorado State Rams kickoff their season in the Rocky Mountain Showdown against the rival Colorado Buffaloes; it's prediction time!
Yes, that special time when writers and radio pundits alike go out on a limb and take educated guesses about how the team they cover will fare in the coming season.
So, how will CSU do, you ask?
Of course, it's difficult to say for sure, but this being my beat for three years now, I'll take my best shot.
Offensively is where we all expected to see the biggest gains last year, and although they were slow to take effect, Jim McElwain's style finally started to take shape down the stretch of the season. The team won three of their final five games, averaging 188 yards on the ground in those victories, with a 100-yard rusher in each contest.
In fact, between Chris Nwoke and Donnell Alexander, the team enjoyed a 100-yard back in each of their final five games, as it became the most consistent phase of the team's offense. Expect much more of that this season, as the Rams sport the most experienced offensive line in the Mountain West, with four seniors starting, led by preseason All-MW pick Weston Richburg.
On Media Day, Richburg admitted he, as well as the rest of the offense, finally caught onto McElwain's offense at the end of last season. It's only built from there over this offseason.
“Much more confident,” Richburg said of this year's fall practices. “Everybody has a much better idea of what's expected. Everybody has a good idea of what practice is like, and during practice, what you're supposed to do each period. More specifically, in the offense, everybody knows their assignment. We're able to communicate a lot better together. And that goes through the whole team.”
When the offensive line works together as a cohesive unit, it only benefits the running backs, which will be a deep position for the Rams this year. Look for the team to run the ball first and foremost, setting up the pass. They could even be one of the best in the Mountain West at running the rock this fall.
Of course, much of the preseason attention has been put on CSU's quarterback competition, and while a starter has yet to be named, Garrett Grayson looks to be the man there. He started last season before breaking a clavicle, and he's worked all the way back, both physically and by improving his leadership abilities as well.
“I just tried to work on my leadership skills,” Grayson said of this offseason. “He (McElwain) harped on that all spring, summer, that's what he wanted us to do.”
Whoever the starter becomes will have plenty of talented receivers to throw to in Charles Lovett, Thomas Coffman, Joe Hansley and tight ends Kivon Cartwright and Crockett Gillmore. Plus, there are young receivers stepping up all the time, and Rashard Higgins may become a familiar name to Ram fans this season.
There's much the team can improve on, including it's 85th-best passing yards per game, 97th-best rushing yards per and 102nd-best scoring offense (21.2 PPG). Maybe most importantly, their 34 percent conversion rate on third downs must improve for the team to win more games this season.
On the defensive side of the ball, there's a talented group that can improve in its own ways as well.
The linebackers look to be the D's strongest, and deepest, position group. There's Shaq Barrett as the unit's leader, Max Morgan, Kevin Davis, Aaron Davis and Cory James. Only one of the Davis' will start, and either way, the linebackers will effect the game. James is a sack specialist, while Morgan is a solid run-stuffer and Barrett simply has a nose for the ball.
“I think we could possibly be the top of the Mountain West defensively if we just come out there and play every play 100 percent and do what the coaches say,” Barrett explained. “Because they put us in position to make plays. You just have to be the athlete and the playmaker to go out there and do it.”
Behind the linebackers, the Rams have a solid, if not stellar secondary. There's the senior Shaq Bell at cornerback, junior Bernard Blake opposite of him and Kevin Pierre-Louis with Trent Matthews at the safeties. The MW has quickly become a passing league – at least it's shaping up that way this year – and having experienced, talented men back there will only benefit Colorado State.
Up front is CSU's weakness on the defense, though they've added size to help stuff the run as much as possible.
Like with the offense, third downs are a priority, as they allowed a 48 percent conversion rate in McElwain's first season. That's way too high and has to come down from half of the time to around one third of the time.
Something else which would benefit the defense overall is creating turnovers.
“Yes, I feel like we can,” Matthews said on the topic. “We're working on little things, after practice, film study, before practice, bonding between practice. So I feel like it's more of a tenacious defense than we had last year.”
On special teams, well, the Rams could be much more special in all aspects.
Without further ado, let's get to the predictions, which again, will almost certainly be wrong by the time the season is over.
Game One – Rocky Mountain Showdown versus Colorado, September 1 (Win, 1-0)
Look, CSU will beat CU for two reasons: CU just went through arguably the worst season in their history and hired a new coach, while CSU is in their second year under McElwain and finally catching onto his style.
Beyond that though, Colorado State is much more prepared than Colorado at this point, they'll win, likely a close one.
Game Two – At Tulsa, September 7 (Loss, 1-1)
The Rams are terrible on the road, 2-14 the last three seasons combined. But it's not just that CSU plays bad on the road, Tulsa will be a very good team again this season after going 11-1 last year.
Game Three – Versus Cal Poly, September 14 (Win, 2-1)
Cal Poly went 9-3 last season in the Big Sky, but Colorado State will have just enough to beat them this year inside Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadium.
Game Four – At Alabama, September 21 (Loss, 2-2)
Even the most devoted Ram fan can't think CSU will win this one. But, I do believe it'll be much closer than the 42 point spread that's currently set. Like a three touchdown blowout, not six.
Game Five – Versus UTEP, September 28 (Win, 3-2)
The Rams last lost to UTEP in 2011 in San Antonio 31-17, but CSU will win this contest. The Miners haven't been over .500 since 2005; Colorado State must win this one at home.
Game Six – Versus San Jose State, October 12 (Win, 4-2)
CSU was smashed by San Jose State 40-20 last season, and the Rams will want some revenge. The Spartans lost their head coach to CU in Mike MacIntyre, and Colorado State will focus on winning as many home games as possible.
Game Seven – At Wyoming, October 19 (Loss, 4-3)
This may be one of the biggest rivalries for the Rams, but they hardly ever win in Laramie. Wyoming will win, even if it is a close – and likely cold – game.
Game Eight – At Hawai'i, October 26 (Win, 5-3)
Hawai'i will be a terrible team once again and the Rams will get a victory away from Colorado.
Game Nine – Versus Boise State, November 2 (Loss, 5-4)
The Broncos will win the Mountain West once again, and they'll beat the Rams. But, it won't be a 35-point blowout. It'll be a respectable game going into the fourth quarter.
Game 10 – Versus Nevada, November 9 (Win, 6-4)
Nevada is a strong program that seemingly always puts together a strong team. Still, Colorado State finds a way to win. This is a turning point kind of game.
Game 11 – At New Mexico, November 16 (Win, 7-4)
Again, the Rams discover they can be victorious on the road, by somehow stopping the run.
Game 12 – At Utah State, November 23 (Loss, 7-5)
Utah State will be one of the contenders for the Mountain West crown, and they'll need this late-season victory to stay in contention. It will be close, but a CSU loss nonetheless.
Game 13 – Versus Air Force, November 30 (Win, 8-5)
The Falcons are always one of the best running teams in college football, and if the Rams can stop the run, they'll win. It's a big if, given their weak front, but those linebackers will fill in the gaps and make the much- needed tackles.
“I have to be optimistic,” said Richburg of making a bowl this year. “This is my last time, my last go around. It's really it a fire within me to get my teammates on the same page. And there's a lot of guys in my same situation.”
One is Nwoke, who told me last week, “We've got to make it to this bowl game. Personally, I've never been to a bowl game since I've been here...Going to a bowl game and finishing off strong. Starting that new era of us consistently going to bowl games, to be eligible to go to these big-time bowl games. To make these conference championships. Start a legacy for CSU. I'd like to leave on that high note.”