Feature

The 5280 Football Preview

Our rip-roarin’, QB-battlin’, coach-firin’, trash-talkin’ look at the upcoming season on Colorado’s most-storied gridirons

August 2010

This article was a finalist for the 2011 City and Regional Magazine Award in the lifestyle/leisure interests category. 

 

If sports are reality TV at its finest, then we have one helluva football season (49 new episodes!) to look forward to here in Colorado. Both college and pro games ramp up in less than five weeks, and the plotlines are juicy. There’s a true freshman taking the snaps in Fort Collins, a coach on the hot seat in Boulder, and towering expectations down in the Springs. Oh, and did you hear that a guy named Tim Tebow is suiting up for the Broncos? • We know you’re already salivating at the thought of tailgate food, twitching in anticipation of Saturdays and Sundays spent on the couch, remote firmly in hand, and gearing up to bask in all the glory your team is sure to garner. Let’s face it though: The thing you crave most is smashmouth gridiron action, where brutal hits elicit ooohs from the crowd, a little trickeration moves everyone to the edges of their seats, and a perfectly executed play-action pass quickly reminds you that this is the sport all other sports aspire to be. Here, we preview the teams you want to know about and give you the lowdown on the season’s most compelling storylines—both on and off the field.

The Second Coming

Can Tim Tebow return the Broncos to their previous glory?
By Will Leitch

Look at Tim Tebow. Look at all of his 6-foot-3-inch, 245-pound All-American frame, his cropped hair tousled just so, his Roman nose, his eyes. Yes, those eyes, the ones that so famously sit atop the eye black emblazoned with scripture. Look at Tim Tebow, arguably the best college football player of all time, the man who now wears number 15 for the Broncos (which just happens to be the fastest-selling rookie NFL jersey ever), and ask yourself this: What does this guy know that we don’t?

Because, you see, if you are to believe most anyone who has ever coached, scouted, or played professional football…Tim Tebow’s career is over. His spiral is too wobbly, his release point too skewed, his delivery too slow. He’s too much a product, the critics say, of Urban Meyer’s University of Florida spread offense to be anything more than the world’s most famous clipboard holder. What you can get away with against the University of South Carolina, they argue, will get you murdered by the Baltimore Ravens. That jump-pass thing Tebow used in Gainesville? That’s an excellent way to get your spleen shot out your left nostril in the National Football League. Tebow’s NFL obituary, it appears, has already been written.

At least, that’s the conventional wisdom. The verdict on Tebow had been processed and reprocessed endlessly even before Tebow left the relative safety of the Swamp. Once he graduated, and then actually worked out for professional scouts, the roars grew louder. This time, even Tebow heard it: The adjustment of his mechanics appeared desperate, eleventh hour. Tebow not only looked human; he looked lost. He looked, from the outside, like a man whose time had passed.

Tebow has heard it all before. “Overall, I have probably faced a bit of criticism in my career, going back to high school,” he told me in June. The demands on Tebow’s time are such that he called me for a six-minute chat squeezed in after a spring practice. “Each year was a different obstacle,” he continues. “But, yeah: The scrutiny is more intense, much more broad-based, than in the past.”

Tebow surely remembers every slight, imagined or otherwise, better than any of us could, but it’s still difficult to remember a time when he faced even a fraction of the scrutiny he is facing now. He was the Florida high school Player of the Year (twice!). He was named “The Chosen One” by ESPN before he ever played a down in college. He won the Heisman Trophy (as a sophomore!). He won two NCAA national championships. He spent summers doing missionary work in the Philippines. He says he’s a virgin! Tim Tebow has lived a lifetime in his 23 years. His biography has already been written.

Except there’s a twist. By the time the NFL draft rolled around this year, it had become the Tebow Tale, and the story was morphing from a feel-good, made-for-Hollywood script into a tragedy. Would he be a fourth-round pick? A tight end? An H-back? Would the Chosen One be humiliated for the first time in his life?

Enter broncos head coach Josh McDaniels, who never met a windmill he couldn’t, or wouldn’t, tilt at—and then knock over. McDaniels took this “project” with the Broncos’ second pick, 25th overall. And just like that, arguably the biggest story in all of pro sports ended up on our Mile High doorsteps.

Of course it was McDaniels. The NFL is a league of coaches terrified of losing their jobs, afraid of angry owners, screaming fans, and the media calling for the hatchet every time a fourth-down conversion attempt fails. We do not yet know if McDaniels will be a successful NFL head coach, but we do know he is not one of those types of coaches. He is his own man, for better or (so far) for worse. The man might drive you crazy. The man might have no idea what he’s doing. But he is doing it his way. McDaniels, the 34-year-old coaching prodigy who has that same preternatural confidence as his new protégé, has a plan.

If McDaniels and Tebow can execute the plan—which has Tebow learning more traditional throwing mechanics, in addition to learning McDaniels’ notoriously complicated offense—then the two will be hailed as geniuses, men who altered the history of both the Broncos franchise and, perhaps, the NFL, by proving that a nonprototypical quarterback can win on Sunday. Even in the conservative NFL, Tebow’s success could open up the floodgates to other teams looking at draft prospects who run the spread in college, and who, even today, wouldn’t have a prayer of playing in the NFL. If they don’t succeed, they will likely become two more names on the list of the league’s disposable heroes. And the problem, right now, is that Tebow is being set up to fail. He’s already one of the biggest storylines of the upcoming NFL season. He’s in the middle of a juicy quarterback controversy, no matter what his coach says. He’s been dubbed the Mile High Messiah, for crying out loud. Lesser expectations have overwhelmed quarterbacks who could throw the ball a heck of a lot quicker and straighter than Tebow.

Tim Tebow isn’t just carrying the weight of his own legend, though; he’s also carrying the weight of an entire franchise, and an entire city. It is more pressure than any athlete should have to bear, let alone one facing legitimate questions about his ability to play at the highest level. Yet his facial expression never changes. He looks like the exact same hero, the exact same winner, he was at Florida. What are we missing here? What is he missing here?

“You have to believe in yourself, in everything, or you have nothing,” Tebow says. “Nothing is certain. You have to be a realist and realize nothing is certain. But I feel like I know what I’m doing, and I just want to get better.”

And so, back to that question: What does this guy know that we don’t? Having been thrown into this impossible situation, having turned everything that has made him him upside down and inside out, he looks…peaceful. Secure. Happy. There he is, already a fixture of the community, tossing passes at Invesco Field at Mile High with kids as part of the Broncos Bunch Kids Club, looking, dare we say, Elway-esque? There he is, signing autographs, handling rude questions with aplomb, taking the field like everything he’s done in his life was nothing more than preparation to become quarterback for the Broncos. This looks like where he was meant to be all along.

“Football is just a platform for me,” he says, alluding to his very public faith. “The games are a bonus. But I also recognize that to keep that platform, I have to perform. I think Denver fans will see how willing I am to work hard to make sure I keep it.” He pauses. “I think I can make that work.”

And there it is, plainly stated, appropriately humble and yet supremely confident. What, or where, does this come from? Does it come from the fact that he has always been told he was a golden boy—the Golden Boy—and he can’t understand a universe in which he isn’t the best? Or does it come from within, from his God, from an inner confidence that only he understands?

An American icon, in the prime of his life, conqueror of all that he has ever surveyed, is now the Christian being thrown into the lion’s den. He has been handed the future of the Broncos. It’s all on his shoulders. It’s a big moment in Denver. Does Tim Tebow look nervous to you? He doesn’t look nervous to me.

Too Much Drama, Too Little Football

Storyline Since their 13–3 playoff run in 2005, the Broncos have gone 32–32, the epitome of mediocrity. They have not, however, been boring. Unfortunately, most of the franchise’s drama has occurred away from the gridiron. As 2010 dawns, the Broncos have been undeniably remade in head coach Josh McDaniels’ image, a cast of scrappy, team-oriented achievers who live and breathe football. Still, in the NFL, chemistry enhances talent but seldom trumps it, and the question this year is whether the Broncos have enough of both to start winning games again.

Our guess: a big, fat, wishy-washy maybe. We know Elvis Dumervil will continue terrorizing quarterbacks. We know Brian Dawkins will hit and lead, and that Knowshon Moreno will make people miss. We know it’s likely that Kyle Orton will show teasing flashes of greatness and overwhelm them with just a few too many ill-timed throws and curious decisions.

And we know the entire football nation will be scrutinizing Tim Tebow and his efforts to become Superman—er, an NFL quarterback. Given his rawness, Donkey faithful probably shouldn’t expect Tebow to leap tall defenders in many games this season. Instead, we’re likely looking at another year of promise mixed with struggles in an improving AFC West. The truth is, a record hovering somewhere between 7–9 and 9–7 seems likely. Strangely, that could be a sign of progress in Broncoland—as long as the action stays between the sidelines.

Hot Seat The Broncos haven’t exactly showered Orton with votes of confidence. If he struggles at all, fans and the media will be clamoring for Tebow or Brady Quinn to step behind center.

Key games If the Broncos can survive the gauntlet of Indy, Tennessee, Baltimore, and the Jets in weeks three through six, the rest of the season should stack up fairly well.

Players to watch How well the receivers perform may dictate the QB race, and third-year wideout Eddie Royal will have to lead this collection of promising rookies and veteran journeymen. —Luc Hatlestad

2010 Schedule (all times local)

  • Sept. 12: Broncos vs. Jaguars away 11 a.m.
  • Sept. 19: Broncos vs. Seahawks home 2:05 p.m.
  • Sept. 26: Broncos vs. Colts home 2:15 p.m.
  • Oct. 3: Broncos vs. Titans away 11 a.m.
  • Oct. 10: Broncos vs. Ravens away 11 a.m.
  • Oct. 17: Broncos vs. Jets home 2:05 p.m.
  • Oct. 24: Broncos vs. Raiders home 2:15 p.m.
  • Oct. 31: Broncos vs. 49ers neutral site (London) 11 a.m. 
  • Nov. 14: Broncos vs. Chiefs home 2:05 p.m.
  • Nov. 22: Broncos vs. Chargers away 6:30 p.m.
  • Nov. 28: Broncos vs. Rams home 2:15 p.m.
  • Dec. 5: Broncos vs. Chiefs away 11 a.m.
  • Dec. 12: Broncos vs. Cardinals away 2:15 p.m.
  • Dec. 19: Broncos vs. Raiders away 2:15 p.m.
  • Dec. 26: Broncos vs. Texans home 2:05 p.m.
  • Jan. 2: Broncos vs. Chargers home 2:15 p.m.

QB Conundrum

Who will be the Broncos' field general this season?—LBK

Kyle Orton

Height: 6’ 4”
Weight: 225
Pro year: Sixth
NFL games played/started: 49/48

Strengths
Above-average arm, level head, years of NFL experience

Weaknesses
Completing the deep ball, throwing with touch

Previous Season
In his first season for head coach Josh McDaniels, Orton started off hot and put up solid personal stats (21 touchdowns, 3,802 yards), but the Broncos lost eight of their last 10 games and missed the playoffs.

What McDaniels is Saying
“He is our starter. There is no question.”

What the Experts are Saying:
“If Kyle Orton keeps Denver in contention, he will likely keep his job all season with Tebow playing in special situations.” —ESPN.com blogger Bill Williamson

Brady Quinn

Height: 6’ 3”
Weight: 235
Pro year: fourth
NFL games played/started: 14/12

Strengths
Solid mechanics, strong work ethic, experience at Notre Dame (where he played for Charlie Weis—a former Patriots coach like McDaniels)

Weaknesses:
Sub-par accuracy, mediocre pocket presence, sometimes collapses under pressure

Previous Season
Quinn played in 10 games for the Browns in ’09 but came away with only two wins. He completed 53 percent of his passes, tossed eight TDs, and threw seven picks.

What McDaniels is Saying
“Brady’s a player who fits a lot of the qualities and characteristics we look for in our quarterbacks.”

What the Experts are Saying
“Quinn obviously has the advantage over Tebow to be the starter to start the year because of his NFL experience. However, if Quinn doesn’t perform…you could see Tim Tebow as the starting QB for the Denver Broncos sometime in 2010.” —Xtrapointfootball.com writer Bob Beardon

Tim Tebow

Height: 6’ 3”
Weight: 245
Pro year: rookie
NFL games played/started: 0/0

Strengths
Natural leadership abilities, strong arm, mobile, durable, highly competitive, proven winner

Weaknesses
Footwork, unorthodox mechanics, experience reading complex defenses

Previous Season
Tebow took his undefeated Florida Gators to the SEC championship game, where they were upended by the Alabama Crimson Tide, the eventual NCAA national champions.

What McDaniels is Saying
“The football traits he has is the stuff you die for.”

What the Experts are Saying
“I know he’s not a starting quarterback in the NFL this year. However, I’m betting on that kid, that he’s going to be a starting quarterback in the league either two years or three years from now.” —NFL Network draft expert Mike Mayock

Warming Up

The insider’s guide to Broncos training camp.

You might not think you need a handbook to navigate a pre-season practice, but you’d be wrong. Catching a few plays before the season begins is a great way to spend a summer day; however, there are rules at training camp. The team’s security staff—Fred Fleming, director of special services, is especially prickly—prowl the sidelines to ensure everyone is reading from the same playbook. And make no mistake, they’ll call you out in front of God, the head coach, and Tim Tebow himself if you’re breaking the law. Here, a few tips that will make your outing more enjoyable. —LBK

  1. Leave the cell phone at home.
    The Donkeys don’t want anyone broadcasting details from training camp in real time. So no tweeting, Facebooking, or texting while you’re inside the ticketed area.
  2. Point-and-shoot cameras are OK.
    Video cameras are not. Fans are welcome to use their point-and-shoot models during practices, but break out the 200mm zoom at your own risk.
  3. Prepare to stand.
    For safety reasons, the Broncos would rather fans stand if they’re going to be watching the action. If you need to sit, you’ll have to move away from the field. No lawn chairs.
  4. Keep an eye on the kids.
    The Broncos welcome your youngsters, but you’ll want to make sure they’re watching the action with you, not running around with friends. An out-of-control wideout can wreak havoc on an unsuspecting eight-year-old.
  5. Check the website before you leave for Dove Valley.
    The head coach can decide on a whim to cancel practice—and he often does. Denverbroncos.com always has the latest updates on training camp practice schedules.
  6. Plan for the sun.
    The main practice fields are exposed to the elements. There are very few shade trees under which you can take cover. Bring sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and water.
  7. Hang around for post-practice autographs.
    After full-squad practices (see the website for which days are NOT full squad) the Broncos make a few players available for autographs. They’ll only be out there for about 15 minutes, so don’t hang in the back if you really want that John Hancock.

Training Camp Details

Location: Denver Broncos Headquarters—Dove Valley, 13655 Broncos Parkway, 
Englewood, 303-649-9000, Denverbroncos.com

Dates: Training camp typically begins the last Friday of July and runs through the third week of August.

Times: On one-practice days, the team works out from about 2:30 to 4:30 p.m. On two-practice days, the team works from 8:45 to 10:30 a.m., and again from about 5:30 to 7:30 p.m. Gates open one hour before practice. Times are subject to change; visit the Broncos’ website for up-to-date information.

Hindsight

No matter which QB the Broncos ultimately choose, he’ll be handing the pigskin off to running back Knowshon Moreno. The 23-year-old back isn’t choosey about who gets him the ball; he simply wants to improve his game after a solid rookie year in 2009. Here, Moreno talks about his introduction to the League and what he took away from his first season as a Bronco. —LBK

At rookie camp, the biggest adjustment was getting used to the air here. Football is football, and you’re going to learn and get better, but the air here—that altitude is something else.

The one moment you always remember is the first time you come out of the tunnel. You’re coming out with all the smoke, you’re with everyone, they’re all running. The first time is special.

You’re going to make mistakes—that comes with the territory—but you gotta get them out of your mind. That’s the only way to move on. Otherwise that one mistake you made is going to ruin the whole day.

Yeah, I got hazed a little. The other players are always messing with you. Messing with your locker. Messing with you at practice. Making you pay for dinner. Kyle Orton is pretty ba d; he’s a big prankster.

Being recognized in public has never been a big issue for me. I’m just a regular person doing regular things. I don’t get recognized any more here than I did at the University of Georgia. Every once in a while I get noticed and I think, “How did they know?” I mean, I always have a helmet on.

I bought a house out here. That was my big purchase. I’ve been trying to get the backyard done, trying to keep up with that. There’s a lot of things that go into owning a home, but it’s good to have my own spot. It has a nice view. I love it out here. It’s just real laid-back.

When you come in, you see hard workers and who has their stuff together and you gravitate toward those people. Correll Buckhalter and LaMont Jordan—when he was still here—those two guys I stayed around and tried to mimic.

I think I did a good job of getting better each week. Trying not to take steps back. Trying not to do things right this week and then next week have everything go downhill.

I need to work on pass protection and reading defenses. The safeties tell you a lot about where pressure is going to come from. I need to get back to seeing that and noticing it faster. That just comes from experience.

Running backs get hit all the time. You can never say you remember your hardest hit. Sometimes the ones that look hard are nothing, and it’s often the ones that look like regular tackles that can be the worst.

I’ve got a contract with Reebok. I get some shoes, a couple here and there. Reebok has some cool stuff. But it’s not like you sit at home surrounded by a thousand pairs.

The crowds at the University of South Carolina were really loud. Auburn was loud. And the Georgia–Florida game is out of control. [The NFL] is nothing like college. I don’t think it’s as loud as in college. Or maybe I’ve gotten used to it and don’t hear it anymore.

These new guys coming in, they know they need to be on top of their game. But I’d tell them they need to have a thick skin—the players are going to be coming at you.

Coach McDaniels can be intimidating. He’s a great coach. He’s real smart. He knows what he’s talking about. Some people are just more intimidating than other people, and it’s not just that he’s the head coach. There’s something about him that makes you go, “OK, I’ll do whatever you say.”

In 2010, I just want to win. I want to help the team win. As long as we’re winning, I’m happy. All the individual goals will come if the team is winning.

Flag Football

How NFL officials look at the field of play.

There are seven officials on the field during an NFL game: the referee, the line judge, the umpire, the head linesman, the field judge, the side judge, and the back judge. During any given play, each judge has specific “keys” that he must home in on; some things you, as a fan, probably never even notice—unless, of course, a yellow flag goes a-flying. With the help of Tom Fincken, Denver resident and longtime NFL side judge with three Super Bowls to his credit, we break down one of the more difficult formations (no running back, four wide receivers lined up on one side) for even the most experienced crew to get right. So, in the interest of lowering your blood pressure—and saving those officials from your (potentially unwarranted) wrath—we present the Empty Backfield. —Daliah Singer

Click on image for large version

Hey Zebra!

Former NFL side judge Tom Fincken explains the game like you’ve never heard it.

  • Officials work their way up the ladder—from peewee to high school games—until they’re ready to apply to call college games. NFL refs must have 10 years of college-officiating experience.
  • NFL crews officiate four preseason and 15 regular-season games each year. They might see the same team twice in one year, but usually only after a five-week grace period.
  • After each game, officials are graded on their performance. Top marks could mean a Super Bowl spot.
  • For Sunday games, officials arrive on Saturday for a meeting where they watch training tapes, ensuring everyone knows what should and shouldn’t be called. This is also a chance for officials to re-familiarize themselves with the team.
  • By knowing a team’s players and play-calling tendencies, an official can foresee potential plays, making it easier to make the right call. That’s one reason why officials meet with coaches 90 minutes prior to a game. These meetings give officials an opportunity to speak with coaches about who the team captains are, which hand the starting quarterback throws with, and unusual plays they might see.
  • “So much of officiating is being in the best position to see things correctly,” Fincken says. A good rule of thumb for deep judges is to stay 10 yards in front of the players to open the line of vision. You never want to be in chase mode.
  • Everyone knows Saturday games are about sport and Sunday games are about entertainment. Which is why NFL officials only call relevant penalties, meaning ones that affect a play. “People don’t come to see our yellow flags every play,” Fincken says. NFL officials will talk to athletes on the field, letting them know they could have been called for a foul had the play come to their side of the field.
  • When officials make mistakes, it’s because they either weren’t in the best position to make the call, or, as Fincken says, they “violated philosophy.” Which means the official didn’t call the game how the NFL instructed him to. “The competition committee makes the rules. We call it like they tell us to call it,” he says. “When we make mistakes, we feel as bad as anybody.” —DS

Support Staff

Every team has them—the unsung heroes who make a sports program function. —DS

United States Air Force Academy

Matt McGettigan, 45
Director of Football Speed, Strength, and Conditioning | Seasons: 23 (fourth at USAFA)

Scoreboard:

  • 180 Players McGettigan trains each year
  • 8 Hours players train per week
  • 6 Number of meals players should eat each day

The Job McGettigan gets his guys in shape through conditioning, strength training, speed development, and nutrition and sleep education.

Working It Out McGettigan ensures the players can move and change direction swiftly by focusing on linear and lateral speed. The athletes spend two practices a week doing sprinting, hurdle jumps, and lower-body lifting. Their other two training sessions concentrate on lateral exercises like side-to-side shuffles and upper-body training. “It isn’t just about lifting. It’s about developing a complete athlete,” he says.

Highlights McGettigan has stuck with this job because he thrives on competition. “I like seeing guys come in as young men and work hard, dedicate themselves, and really watching them develop,” he says.

Hurdles: The biggest challenge McGettigan faces is ensuring that players reach their potential. It’s hard, he says, “When you feel you can’t get through to a guy, when you see a guy that has potential that didn’t fulfill it.”

University of Colorado at Boulder

Alan Cass, 69 Announcer
Casey Cass, 40 Spotter | Seasons: 10 together

Scoreboard:

  • 3 Hours before a game the Casses arrive to prepare
  • 400+ Football games Alan has announced
  • 53,750 Folsom Field capacity

The Job For more than 25 years, Alan has announced football games inside Folsom Field, calling plays and making commercial announcements. “I try to be as even-handed as I can,” Alan says. “You don’t want to be known as a hometown type.” Alan’s right-hand man, his son Casey, focuses mainly on the defense. Before the snap, he informs Alan about who’s in the offensive backfield and whether there’s been a quarterback switch. But during the actual play, Casey watches each tackle, pointing out the defensive player’s number on a roster for Alan to read. “I become his eyes on the field,” Casey says.

Fun Facts The father-son duo also teamed up to call games for the Broncos, where Alan conceived the “IN-COM-PLETE” chant.

Highlights Both agree the bonding time is the best part of their job. Plus, as Alan says, “We generally have the best seat in the house.”

Colorado State University

Jeff Dotson, 43 Video Coordinator | Seasons: 14

Scoreboard:

  • 2 Angles each play is shot from
  • 12 Terabytes of footage on the server
  • 1,579 Plays Dotson’s team captured during 2009 spring ball

The Job Dotson supervises the filming of every practice and home and away games. He uploads footage onto a laptop, intercutting end zone and sideline shots to create a comprehensive picture of how each play goes down.

Data Overload The program Dotson uses allows labels to be applied to each play (think “third down and seven”) so coaches can view specific footage. The best part? Coaches can view trends, like which plays a team runs the most.

On the Clock It used to take up to four hours after a match to have final-edit tape. Now, everything’s done within 30 minutes.

Highlights “It is pretty cool that I watch football for a living,” Dotson says of the job perks. But, it’s also nice to know that “I did my part to help us succeed.”

Hurdles The challenging part of his job is the repetitiveness—and the weather. Wind and rain can blow cameras over or cause major damage. “When you’re counting on Mother Nature to behave, that’s always interesting,” he says.

Denver Broncos

Chris Valenti, 36 Equipment Manager | Seasons: 14

Scoreboard:

  • 13 Loads of laundry done per day in-season
  • 720 Footballs the team receives at the beginning of each season
  • 12,000 Pounds of equipment taken to every game

The Job Valenti and his team are responsible for everything the players wear or use, from jerseys and socks to pads and jock straps. They also arrange the locker room and deal with issues on the sidelines by, for example, repairing torn jerseys with shoelaces. On top of that, they do all the laundry.

Rule book Athletes must be dressed properly to avoid fines—which start at $5,000. Although, as Valenti says, many subscribe to a “you look good, you play good” credo. He makes sure the right shoelaces (they must match the shoes’ tongue color) and socks (half white/half color) are packed to comply with league rules.

Player habits Ed McCaffrey, a former wide receiver for the Broncos, “would cut everything out he could,” going so far as to cut off decorative layers of his uniform like striping in pants, says Valenti. “He thought it made him faster.”

USAFA Falcons

Tough Battles Ahead

Storyline With three consecutive winning seasons, the Air Force Academy can easily say it boasts the state’s most successful collegiate football program right now. But hanging onto that title this season is going to be a little more difficult.

Last year saw the Falcons (8–5) win their first bowl game in nearly a decade (a 47–20 stunner over a 10–3 University of Houston team), place seven cadets on the first- or second-team all-Mountain West Conference squad (Colorado State University had two), and have such an all-around successful season that third-year head coach Troy Calhoun was mentioned as a candidate for the same job at the University of Tennessee.

The 2010 team, though, begins the season without 13 of its starters from last season, as well as perhaps the most difficult schedule in school history—something Calhoun isn’t shy about mentioning. But leave it to the coach and former cadet to put the upcoming season in perspective: “We’re not ones to rest on what we’ve done in the past,” says Calhoun, a former Air Force quarterback.

Strength of Schedule Half of Air Force’s 12 opponents played in bowl games last season, including assured pre-season top 10 Texas Christian University. Air Force plays last year’s No. 12, BYU, at home before traveling to play the University of Oklahoma as part of a grueling 12-games-in-12-weeks schedule. “This might be the most difficult schedule a service academy has played in 50 years,” Calhoun says.

Weak Side The team lost its entire offensive line to graduation, meaning the run-first Falcons might need to put the “air” back in Air Force if they’re going to battle the big boys.

Players to watch First-team all-Mountain West defensive back Reggie Rembert returns, as does junior cornerback Anthony Wright Jr., who ranked seventh in the nation last season with seven interceptions. —Robert Sanchez

2010 Schedule (all times local)

  • Sept. 4: AFA vs. Northwestern State home noon
  • Sept. 11: AFA vs. BYU home 2 p.m.
  • Sept. 18: AFA vs. Oklahoma away 1: 30 p.m.
  • Sept. 25: AFA vs. Wyoming away noon
  • Oct. 2: AFA vs. Navy home 12: 30 p.m.
  • Oct. 9: AFA vs. Colorado State home noon
  • Oct. 16: AFA vs. San Diego State away 6 p.m.
  • Oct. 23: AFA vs. TCU away 6 p.m.
  • Oct. 30: AFA vs. Utah home 5: 30 p.m.
  • Nov. 6: AFA vs. Army away 10 a.m.
  • Nov. 13: AFA vs. New Mexico home 4 p.m.
  • Nov. 18: AFA vs. UNLV away 8 p.m.

CU Golden Buffaloes

Far From Perfect

Storyline During a spring barnstorming tour across the state, University of Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins held up two fingers an inch apart and was quoted as saying, “Trust me; we’re that far away.” He meant from winning, but after a dismally disappointing 3–9 showing in 2009, the truth is, the Buffaloes are also “that far away” from becoming genuine doormats.

The good news is the Buffs are returning 16 of 22 starters this season; the bad news is, this is the squad that had the third-worst scoring offense in the Big 12 and the second-worst scoring defense. The team’s tailback depth is thin after the departure of two key members of the 2009 squad, but leading passer Tyler Hansen and top receiver Scotty McKnight are both back, as is all-Big 12 offensive lineman Nate Solder.

CU’s schedule is unkind but not impossible, with difficult nonconference games at Cal-Berkeley and at home against high-scoring Hawaii and perennial Southeastern Conference contender Georgia. In an effort to grab some winning juju, the Buffaloes plan to wear throwback uniforms from their 1990 national championship team for all six home games. CU fans—and coach Hawk—can only hope they’re dressed for success.

Hot Seat With a 16–33 record entering his fifth season at the helm, it’s do or die time for Hawkins. Anything short of a bowl bid probably means he’s done in Boulder.

Players to watch With no blue-chip recruits coming in, the Buffs’ fortunes lie with the offensive production of QB Hansen, wide receiver McKnight, and running back Rodney Stewart.

Key Game The CSU opener returns to Invesco Field this year and should set the stage for the season, but consecutive ensuing matchups against Cal, Hawaii, and Georgia could be momentum builders—or killers. —LH

2010 Schedule (all times local)

  • Sept. 4: CU vs. CSU neutral site (Denver) noon
  • Sept. 11: CU vs. California away 1:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 18: CU vs. Hawaii home 1:30 p.m.
  • Oct. 2: CU vs. Georgia home 2:30 p.m.
  • Oct. 9: CU vs. Missouri away TBA
  • Oct. 16: CU vs. Baylor home TBA
  • Oct. 23: CU vs. Texas Tech home TBA
  • Oct. 30: CU vs. Oklahoma away TBA
  • Nov. 6: CU vs. Kansas away TBA
  • Nov. 13: CU vs. Iowa St. home TBA
  • Nov. 20: CU vs. Kansas St. home TBA
  • Nov. 26: CU vs. Nebraska away 1:30 p.m.

CSU Rams

Back on Track?

Storyline Head coach Steve Fairchild knew when he took the job at Colorado State University that pulling the football team out of the Mountain West basement would take a Herculean effort—and more than a handful of years. After two diametrical seasons (they went 7–6 with a bowl win in ’08 and finished 3–9 in ’09) as the Rams’ coach, Fairchild is cautiously optimistic about the upcoming battles of 2010. “I like the feel we have around the program now,” he says. “And that atmosphere is spreading through the entire university—everyone has a good feeling.” Of course, the team is going to need more than a happy vibe on campus to win games. Fairchild is hopeful that with 10 returning defensive starters, experience at linebacker, and a deep roster of running backs, he can bring winning ways back to his alma mater. “We weren’t as successful as we wanted to be last year,” Fairchild says. “Our defense got banged up. We needed to coach better. This year we’re going to be young but talented. I’m excited about it.”

The upside The ’09 recruiting class was above average, but the ’10 class is the highest-rated group for CSU in more than a decade.

The downside Although Fairchild waxes poetic about the talent level of his offensive line and his two potential quarterbacks, he admits they are all young and inexperienced. In fact, Pete Thomas, the front-runner for the QB position, is a true freshman.

Player to watch CSU has an enviably deep backfield with running backs Leonard Mason, John Mosure, and Raymond Carter. But redshirt freshman Chris Nwoke instigated some violent collisions in spring ball; he might be a break-out player in the Mountain West.

Key matchup CSU will don its pumpkin and alfalfa throwbacks for Ag Day against Idaho, a team it should’ve beaten last year. —LBK

2010 Schedule (all times local)

  • Sept. 4: CSU vs. CU neutral site (Denver) noon
  • Sept. 11: CSU vs. Nevada away 8:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 18: CSU vs. Miami (Ohio) away 1:30 p.m.
  • Sept. 25: CSU vs. Idaho home 2 p.m.
  • Oct. 2: CSU vs. TCU home noon
  • Oct. 9: CSU vs. Air Force away noon
  • Oct. 16: CSU vs. UNLV home noon
  • Oct. 23: CSU vs. Utah away 4 p.m.
  • Oct. 30: CSU vs. New Mexico home 4 p.m.
  • Nov. 6: CSU vs. San Diego St. away 8 p.m.
  • Nov. 13: CSU vs. BYU home noon
  • Nov. 20: CSU vs. Wyoming away noon

The Colorado Cup

Why isn't there a bragging-rights trophy among Colorado's three largest college football programs?

In 1958 the Air Force Academy, Colorado State University, and the University of Colorado at Boulder football teams played one another in a series of games that unofficially determined the state's collegiate champion. There wasn't a trophy for the effort, though in hindsight, there should have been. It was the last time all three programs scheduled one another in the same year.

Among the three schools, each has at least one version of intrastate bragging rights: CU and CSU have the annual Rocky Mountain Showdown; Air Force and CSU have the Ram-Falcon Trophy. But what about CU and Air Force? If history is a barometer, fans shouldn't expect a rematch any time soon.

The Falcons and the Buffs last squared off in October 1974, after which the programs agreed—without officially stipulating it—to never play again. A year earlier—before the fall of Saigon and the end of the Vietnam War—the on-field rivalry spilled into a cultural battle between the traditionally liberal Boulder-based school and the military-bound academy cadets. After the 1973 game in Boulder—which CU won 38 to 17—Air Force players claimed they were sworn at and that eggs were thrown at Academy officials.

Although it's debatable as to who ended the matchup—CU officials say Air Force wanted to stop the series—the team avoiding the game these days appears to be Colorado. Nearly a decade ago, former AFA coach Fisher DeBerry wanted to renew the rivalry, but then-CU head coach Gary Barnett half-jokingly said his team would only play if Air Force dumped its quirky, run-heavy offensive scheme. CU officials now say they've tried to work out a game with the service academy, but difficult scheduling has never allowed a matchup.

For his part, fourth-year Air Force coach Troy Calhoun says he "would love" a game with Colorado, but "that's not up to me." David Plati, CU's director of sports information, says he's unsure when a game would happen, mostly because CU prefers a "national schedule" and the series with CSU already takes up one of the school's nonconference games. If Air Force were to play CU again, Plati says, it would have to happen when CSU isn't on the schedule—which would be in 2021, at the earliest. By then, 63 years will have passed since Colorado had a true state champion. —RS

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