With two blowout wins behind them, #4 Michigan seeks to sweep its non-conference slate when Colorado arrives in Ann Arbor on Saturday. The football has been dismal in Boulder for the past decade, but the Buffaloes are off to an eye-catching start in 2016 after routs of Colorado State (44-7) and Idaho State (56-7). Trevor Woods introduced you to this Colorado team yesterday, so now we turn to our friends in Colorado to provide more insight about these Buffaloes. Jack Barsch (@JackBarsch) is a contributor for The Ralphie Report (@RalphieReport), SB Nation’s Colorado site, and was kind enough to participate in a Q&A with us. We asked him to share his takeaways from Colorado’s first two wins, describe just how fast the Buffaloes’ tempo is, divulge how Wilton Speight can exploit Colorado’s strong secondary, and estimate the percentage chance the Buffs have to upset Michigan. Oh, and Jack provides his prediction, too.
So dive in and check out Jack’s excellent responses below!
Maize n Brew: For the past decade, Colorado has been seeking to find the person who will return them to college football relevancy. This is Mike MacIntyre's fourth season as Colorado's head coach, and, on the surface, it seems the first three were a serious struggle because the Buffs were 10-27 (2-25 Pac-12) in that span. What is current state of the Colorado program? What were Colorado's expectations for 2016? And is MacIntyre the right person for the job?
Jack Barsch: You asked three questions, but they really all lead to the same answer. Mike MacIntyre has rebuilt this program from nothing, and while fans may disagree with the time he’s taking to do it, they cannot deny that CU is much better off than they were four years ago. He has completely changed the culture of the program, as well as upgraded the talent level and coaching. CU football is looking up. However, the expectations this year are very clear. Bowl game or bust. Coach MacIntyre HAS to get this team to a bowl this year, and so far they look up to the challenge. In a down year for the Pac-12 (seemingly), it’s the perfect time for the Buffs to hit their stride.
MnB: Colorado raised some eyebrows in Week 1 when they eviscerated in-state rival Colorado State, 44-7. Then the Buffaloes took care of business against Idaho State, 56-7. There likely is not much to glean from a win over an FCS bottom-dweller, but what have been your three main takeaways from Colorado's performances the first two weeks?
JB: You say there isn’t much to gain, but the mere fact that the Buffs won both games early, handily, and with near-shutout performances says a lot. It is not so long ago that CU lost to Sacramento State and Montana State. CU looks like a P5 team playing lower-level teams, which has fans excited.
If you’re looking for specific takeaways, let’s start with the defense. It’s stingy as hell. Jim Leavitt has this unit dialed in and flying to the ball. Throwing on CU thus far has been a fool’s errand, with stud Chidobe Awuzie at CB and a pair of hard-hitting safeties in Tedric Thompson and Afolabi Laguda (the biggest surprise this year). The defensive line is the most stout unit in ten years, and the linebackers have decent depth. Offensively, the pace has been ratcheted up, which helps CU at a higher altitude, and Sefo Liufau looks to be the best he’s ever been. The receivers are physical on the outside, which helps them set up the quick routes as well as the outside blocking.
MnB: When I reviewed Colorado's statistical profile, one of the first things that jumped out is their tempo. The Buffaloes are tied for sixth in plays per game (88.5) and third in S&P+'s adjusted pace. Michigan has had some trouble in the past dealing with uptempo offenses and not being in the proper position prior to the snap. Are the Buffaloes a no-huddle blitzkrieg or do they switch up their speeds? And how has tempo benefited this offense?
JB: No-huddle blitzkrieg is a great way to describe them. The Buffs stop for no man, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see a few Wolverines “cramping” if they have to. The average time to snap has been very impressive, and it’s helped CU start fast, a previous problem for the Buffs. The players love playing at that tempo, and the offensive line appreciates blocking for only two seconds or less.
MnB: On the ground, Colorado has moved the football very effectively (fourth in S&P+'s Rushing Success Rate), but does not seem to have an explosive threat (124th in S&P+'s Rushing IsoPPP) as their longest run is only 21 yards. On the other side, Michigan's run defense is very stingy on a down-to-down basis (second in S&P+'s Rushing Success Rate), but surrenders the occasional big one (126th in S&P+'s Rushing IsoPPP). What will the Buffaloes try to do to run the ball with consistent success against Michigan? And do the Buffs have a home-run hitter?
JB: The explosiveness stat is telling that CU does not have a home-run hitter after Patrick Carr transferred this offseason. However, they have a bevy of little dynamos that will hit harder than they are hit, led by Phillip Lindsay. That leads to a lot of successful plays (as defined by Bill Connelly) on the ground and consistent chunks of yards. Michigan will be by far the most stout defensive line that CU will face all year, so it will be interesting to see how the OL deals with the Wolverines’ size. My guess is that CU will try to spread Michigan out laterally. The wide receivers on the edge are some of the best in the country at blocking, and that neutralizes some of the aggressiveness of Rashan Gary and co.
MnB: Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau has been impressive in his return from a Lisfranc injury. In two games, Liufau has completed 38-of-51 passes (74.5%) for 522 yards (10.2 YPA), three touchdowns, and no interceptions, and has the 13th-best quarterback rating in the country (179.89). How would you evaluate Liufau as a passer? Does he have the ability to pick apart a Michigan defense that was first in quarterback rating allowed in 2015 and, despite the absence of All-American corner Jourdan Lewis, is sixth in 2016? And who will be Liufau's most dangerous target?
JB: Sefo Liufau has been an amazing feel-good story for CU fans. After the Davis Webb debacle, Buff Nation was forced to put their trust in Liufau once more, and boy is he living up to expectations. He looks sharp and excited to play. But I don’t think he’ll pick apart this Michigan defense. Sefo is a great passer to the boundary, but he overlooks the middle of the field at times and struggles throwing to his left. This offense is made to give him some easy throws, and much like Michigan, we as fans have not seen an ounce of the playbook due to the quality of the opponents. Shay Fields is probably Sefo’s favorite target and the best receiver on the team, but it’s not a one-man show. Bryce Bobo is very physical on the outside and a great possession target, Devin Ross has speed for days in the slot, and Jay MacIntyre is shifty in the slot. Kabion Ento has been the mystery man of this corps, a junior college transfer with great size and athleticism.
MnB: Michigan quarterback Wilton Speight was just named the Big Ten Offensive Player of the Week after throwing for 312 yards, four touchdowns, and no picks against UCF. However, it appears he will have a much bigger challenge this Saturday. Colorado is first in opponent YPA (1.8) and second in quarterback rating allowed (55.32). What or who has made the Buffaloes' pass defense so strong? And does it have any vulnerabilities Speight can exploit?
JB: Mentioned before in this Q&A, but Chidobe Awuzie is an absolute stud, and I would put him up there with any cornerback in the country. If Jourdan Lewis ends up taking the field, it will be an absolute pleasure watching these two corners go at it. Awuzie can play nickel or boundary corner, hits like a linebacker, and has the instincts to disrupt passes consistently. He will most likely play all over the field on Saturday, so keeping a hold on #4 may be hard to do. It’s not just him. Tedric Thompson, Afolabi Laguda, and Ryan Moeller are all great safeties, especially at run support, with Moeller being the best in coverage. Ahkello Witherspoon and Isaiah Oliver will both see significant time at boundary corner spots as Chido moves to nickel, and both are long, physical corners with great athleticism. The best way for Speight to move the ball is to attack the middle with a TE. Good thing Michigan has a great one. The linebackers in this defense will struggle to cover the TE and the middle crossing routes. There will be very few breakdowns down the field, as this is a well-coached unit.
MnB: Michigan had some difficulty running against UCF, but that was mostly because the Knights loaded the box and dared Wilton Speight to beat them. Does Colorado have the playmakers in its front seven to stuff Michigan's runs? Or will the Buffaloes try to stack the box and trust their secondary to win their battles against Michigan's receivers?
JB: Most likely the latter. I would trust the corners 1 v 1 against Michigan’s receivers rather than trust the front seven against the Wolverines’ hogs. The defensive line is stout enough, led by run-stuffer Josh Tupou, but the linebackers will struggle to get off blocks. The safeties are great at run support, so I bet one of them will creep up to try to force some third and longs.
MnB: The Wolverines are a 20.5-point favorite over Colorado, but, on the Internet, I have felt that Buffalo fans have a newfound sense of confidence and belief. What percent odds on average would a Colorado fan give the Buffs to upset Michigan in Ann Arbor on Saturday? And what would a win over Michigan do for Colorado and its fans?
JB: I would put the Buffs at 5%, but that may be conservative. I don’t really want to think about what will happen if CU somehow pulls this one out. Man, if CU upsets a top-5 team, on the road, in the Big House, the Buffs will be 3-0 and have a fantastic resume. They should be ranked no lower than 20, and their confidence will be through the roof. If they beat Michigan, the expectations may rise to a South division title, given the weakness of their conference compatriots. That would be absolutely magical.
MnB: Prediction time. What happens on Saturday? Who wins? What is the final score?
JB: I think Michigan has the horses to run away from just about anybody in the country, CU being no exception. Michigan’s defense will stuff the Buffs more often than not, and CU’s defense will probably do the same, at least early on. After a slow first half, the Fightin’ Harbaughs put CU away in earnest, with the score being 27-10.
Or Sefo connects on a 60-yard Hail Mary as time expires to win.
Aaaah, you just couldn’t help yourself there, could you, Jack?
So Jack gives Colorado a five-percent chance to upset Michigan and predicts U-M will pull away with 17-point win. What do you think?! Do you agree with Jack’s analysis and prediction? Where is he mistaken? Please leave your thoughts in the comments below.
And I must thank Jack for taking the time to answer our questions and sharing his expertise on all things Colorado football. Make sure to follow him at @JackBarsch.