Welcome back to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the 2019 UCLA Bruins football season! We are taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examining their strengths and weaknesses, and making a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
It’s time to take a look at UCLA’s ninth opponent: the Colorado Buffaloes.
UCLA went to Colorado for its fourth game of the season last year and it was like looking at two programs going in opposite directions. In the aftermath, UCLA would lose to move to 0-4 on the season, while the Buffaloes would win to move to 4-0 on the season. Yet at the end of the year, UCLA looked like it was the program on the upswing.
Colorado won one more game, but then lost seven straight games to end the year and finish with a 5-7 record. That collapse was enough for Colorado to end the tenure of Mike MacIntyre as head coach. Somehow, MacIntyre was the only Pac-12 coach fired last offseason! How about that, Southern Cal? Anyway, Colorado has now turned to Georgia defensive coordinator Mel Tucker to take over the program and show he can do a good job when he doesn’t have a talent advantage. That should be fun!
I don’t know why it feels like Steven Montez has been around forever here, but the Colorado quarterback is only entering his third year of starting for the Buffaloes. I’ve never thought of Montez as one of the better quarterbacks in the conference, but he’s been solid the past few years, including last year when he threw for 2849 yards and 19 touchdowns. He also picked up 238 yards and 4 touchdowns on the ground, which was helpful considering Colorado’s rushing attack was pretty poor in general last year.
At the very least, Montez will continue to get the opportunity to throw the football in the general direction of one of the best receivers in college football. Laviska Shenault Jr. was a dark horse candidate early in the season last year, accumulating 708 receiving yards on 51 catches through the first 5 games. Unfortunately, injuries hampered the rest of his season - he only played in 4 more games and put up only 303 yards in those games - but when healthy, he truly was the engine that drove the Buffaloes offense. Combined with K.D. Dixon, who put up 636 yards himself, Montez will have enough targets in the passing game to make defenders think twice, provided they stay healthy. If Shenault or Dixon go down, Colorado’s thin depth at receiver could be tested and in a hurry.
Colorado lost all three of their top running backs, but when that group combines to form the country’s 109th ranked rushing offense (via S&P+), it’s hard to consider it a big loss. But that does mean it’s really hard to gauge who is going to carry the load in 2019. Alex Fontenot has the most returning experience, but Colorado reporters believe the Buffaloes will be going with more of a committee approach to the running back position. On top of all that, the offensive line last year was a disaster with multiple bodies seeing significant playing time. Perhaps that translates to more experience and success in 2019, but when only one player manages to start all 12 games, you end up with some problems.
Colorado’s defense really did try to carry the load last year. They were excellent against the run but, more often than not, they would struggle with preventing teams from converting through the air. The run defense ranked 31st compared to the 77th ranking of the passing defense. But now most of the major contributors from that defense are gone and new coordinator Tyson Summers is going to have to essentially rebuild the defense.
The good news is that Colorado has some level of returning stars to build around. For example, Mustafa Johnson put up 15.5 tackles for loss to go along with 7.5 sacks and 16.5 run stuffs last year, which would easily lead the way for UCLA. But the other major contributors along the line are gone. So, Tucker and Summers have turned to an influx of JUCO transfers to act as a stop-gap while the next wave develops.
The same goes for the linebacker corps, where Colorado has a rock in Nate Landman, who had 15 tackles for loss, 4 sacks, and 24.5 run stuffs. Another influx of JUCO transfers should help this group stay afloat in 2019 before reinforcements arrive in 2020.
Then, we get to the secondary where things are a little different. Yes, there is a good bedrock player in Davion Taylor, but there isn’t a wave of JUCOs on the way like there are in the front seven. Instead, Colorado is banking on a young group, which got experience last year, getting better, which isn’t the worst idea in the world.
We’re really starting to get to the part of the schedule where I feel way more confident about picking UCLA to win these games and, with this one, it’s easy to see why. It’s a home game against a team with a first-year head coach. While the Buffaloes have a veteran quarterback and a bonafide star in Shenault, there’s enough weaknesses here that a Year 2 Chip Kelly team could and should take care of business. So that’s what I’ll go with.
UCLA wins 38-24.