Note: We originally published this Buffs preview on June 6th, but Sam Noyer’s unexpected decision to enter the transfer portal on June 7th sent our Pac-12 beat writer Dane Miller back to his keyboard for a rewrite.
Posted on June 8, 2021
Each preview is comprised of nine sections: Overview, Best-Case Scenario, Worst-Case Scenario, What Should Happen, What Must Happen, Greatest Strength, Biggest Concern, Deciding Factors, and Schedule Analysis.
Nothing is set in stone, however, as rosters and depth charts continue to evolve over the summer. And in the end, preseason prognostications often prove to be no better than good guesses at best.
Discounted and overlooked, the Buffs proved the doubters wrong in 2020.
Despite making the Alamo Bowl and finishing second in the South, most of the media continue to disrespect Colorado football heading into the 2021 campaign.
But the departure of Sam Noyer to the transfer portal was an unexpected development that arguably alters the trajectory of the Buffs’ upcoming season.
Though Jarek Broussard and Nate Landman return to Boulder for 2020 Pac-12 Coach of the Year Karl Dorrell’s second season in the Rocky Mountains, the leadership role under center shifts to Brendon Lewis or Tennessee transfer J.T. Shrout.
Lewis played in just a single game last season, while Shrout has attempted fewer than 70 passes in his career. Barring rapid development, the lack of experience at quarterback could be exploited by opponents week in and week out.
Still, transfers on the defensive side of the ball should help boost CU’s chances for another winning season under promoted coordinator Chris Wilson, with linebacker Jack Lamb from Norte Dame, safety Robert Barnes from Oklahoma, and safety Atanza Vongor from TCU expected to contribute.
Limiting turnovers figures to be the key to improving last season’s 4-2 record, but the spotlight is on Dorrell to replace the senior quarterback that led the Buffs to the Alamo Bowl in his first season at the helm.
Landman returns from his offseason surgery stronger than ever, guiding the Buffaloes to a third-place finish in the South.
Ohio State offensive tackle transfer Max Wray boosts a line that continues to open holes for Broussard to exploit, while giving Lewis or Shrout enough time to scramble and find open receivers.
Running backs Alex Fontenot and Ashaad Clayton spell Broussard when needed, and generate buzz for splitting carries with what may be the best running back in the Division.
The consistent run game eases the pressure of the quarterback, resulting in fewer turnovers and increased time of possession.
Though the leadership Noyer brought to the table is missed, Lewis performs well enough to secure the job over Shrout, and propels CU to several upsets resulting in a second-straight bowl appearance.
Worst Case Scenario
Last year’s injury to Landman lingers and is too much to overcome. Lewis or Shrout struggle against quality defenses, and Lamb isn’t able to fill the void in Landman’s production.
And while the defensive transfers meet expectations, the offense turns the ball over too often to win games.
Fontenot and Clayton deal with recurring setbacks all year, and Broussard is over-burdened with the work load.
After a 1-4 start to the season, the tide begins to turn with the matchup against Arizona in Boulder. But it’s not enough, and CU finishes the year with just four wins.
What Should Happen
Lewis or Shrout lead a run-heavy offense geared toward wearing down opponents over 60 minutes.
The threat on the ground opens the door for big shots over the top, with Dimitri Stanley and La’Vontae Shenault leading the way. The return of tight end Brady Russell from injury should only add to that deadly receiving arsenal.
While not the flashiest system, the efficiency in the red zone from last season carries over, and the turnovers from the signal caller are decreased due to better decision-making in passing situations.
Landman maintains his productivity, fighting through any lingering issues from his Achilles tear. Barnes and Vongor contribute from day one, while Isaiah Lewis and Carson Wells continue to play key roles.
At the end of the day, the Buffs prove they have the talent and culture to beat anyone they face on a given Saturday.
What Must Happen
Cutting down on the 11 turnovers committed in just six games is arguably the most important factor heading into next season.
Pure grit on the defensive side of the ball limited the impact of some of those mistakes last year, but relying on a strong linebacker corps to bail out the offense isn’t an ideal solution.
Though Landman, Lamb, and Wells are more than capable of shutting opponents down, the seven interceptions can’t be repeated.
And with two inexperienced quarterbacks battling for the starting job, the efficiency of the run game looms even larger.
It remains to be seen just how much of the playbook Lewis or Shrout are able to execute, and keeping the game plan simple might be Dorrell’s only choice early in the year.
As such, staying healthy in the backfield by maintaining a consistent rotation might turn out to be the difference between a winning season and a losing campaign.
The culture Dorrell implemented in his first season redefined Colorado football.
The lead-by-example mindset of Noyer and Landman fit well with the NFL background the first-year head coach brought to the table.
There’s nothing flashy about it: no me-first mentality. Rather, it embodies sacrifice by laying your body on the line for the success of your teammates.
Combined with the shiftiness of Broussard and the speed in the receiving corps, everything seemed to click in Year One.
It remains to be seen whether that culture was a flash in the pan or something that will carry on over the next few seasons—especially with the loss of Noyer to the transfer portal.
But the confidence and chip on the shoulder mentality Dorrell’s teams play with should bode well in 2021, assuming the new starting quarterback embodies that identity.
The lack of depth at running back is arguably Concern Number One heading into the season.
Broussard might be the best back in the Pac-12, but he needs to be limited to ensure durability over a long season.
Fontenot and Clayton have the skillsets to be consistent second options. In that sense, the production of Fontenot might be the X-Factor to CU’s success.
But the junior missed all of last year with a hip injury, generating concerns over the staying power of the second and third strings in the Boulder backfield.
Lewis played well against the Texas second and third strings in the Alamo Bowl, but his experience against Conference opponents is scarce.
CU may be forced to put Lewis or Shrout in situations for which they may not be ready.
The production from the transfers on both sides of the ball could be the difference between another bowl appearance and a losing season.
Dorrell and his staff secured commitments from several Power Five prospects, and a handful of them are expected to contribute from the get go.
Barnes, Wray, Vongo, and Lamb should each see the field and play important roles as the year progresses.
If the group adjusts to the new system and coaching staff, it could catapult the program into the postseason.
At the same time, that might not matter if Lewis and Shrout struggle under center. Quarterback play is what makes-or-breaks teams, and mistakes due to inexperience could have a domino effect on the entire season.
Colorado’s nonconference slate includes a battle with Texas A&M and a showdown with Minnesota.
Defeating the Aggies might be too much to ask, but handling the Gophers is within reason. Splitting the two games might be what CU needs to wind up in another bowl game.
Conference play begins with tests against USC and ASU. Though anything can happen, each of those contests figures to end in a loss.
Winnable games against Arizona, California, Oregon State, and UCLA follow, with a tough matchup at Oregon sandwiched in between.
The season ends with games against Washington and Utah.
If everything goes to plan, the Buffs could end the year bowl eligible at 6-6 and accept an invitation to the New Mexico Bowl, LA Bowl, or the Redbox Bowl in the Bay Area.
Up next: Utah Utes
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