Welcome to Bruins Nation’s opponent preview series for the UCLA Bruins 2018 football season! Each week we will be taking a look at an upcoming opponent this year, examine their strengths and weaknesses, and make a bold prediction regarding the outcome.
This week, we take a look at UCLA’s Week 5 opponent: the Colorado Buffaloes.
You know, I like Colorado. Our friends over at Ralphie Report are fun to interact with throughout the football and basketball season. So it hurts to have to do this, but Colorado...was not good last year. If you were a casual observer of college football, that might not come as a shock to you, but in 2016 Colorado had a breakout season, racing out to 10 wins and winning the Pac 12 South. It was a huge success story, so to backslide back to 5-7 in coach Mike MacIntyre’s 5th year wasn’t just disappointing, but cause for alarm. The 10 win season may have saved MacIntyre’s job, but it may have created a worse situation for Colorado, as they seem to have chained themselves to a coach who may have a ceiling of .500 football.
The wheels really fell off for Colorado last year. The offense, breaking in a new QB in Steven Montez, fell back to 70th in Offensive S&P+, which was a drop from 47th the year prior but at least understandable. The defense, however, really fell off a cliff; former defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt left to take the same job at Oregon, and the defense fell from 12th in Defensive S&P+ in 2016 to 98th in 2017. That’s...not good, and really explains so much of Colorado’s problems, as the defense just couldn’t stop teams on a consistent-enough basis to help out Colorado’s average offense.
The good news for Colorado: Steven Montez is back, and he did well in what was almost a knock-off situation to UCLA’s; the Colorado rushing attack was not great (94th in rushing S&P+) so he consistently had to bail out the offense. Montez averaged 6.7 yards per pass attempt (which includes sacks) and had a 61% completion percentage, so at least at the QB position, the Buffaloes are fine.
The problem is everywhere else.
Colorado lost their lead back in Phillip Lindsay, who was a consistent workhorse and great safety valve in the passing game, and their top 3 receivers are all gone. That’s a ton of production that Colorado is going to have to replace with unproven commodities (though Virginia Tech transfer Travon McMillian looks to provide at least some level of solid play at the RB position). Along the offensive line, the Buffaloes are now without the services of all-conference left tackle Jeromy Irwin, and there should be a good amount of youth among the two-deep (gee, where have I heard that before).
The biggest change, however, is at offensive coordinator, where former coordinator Brian Lindgren left Colorado to take the same job at....wait, Oregon State? That’s....not a good sign. Colorado is now turning to a co-coordinator situation, which means the offensive gameplan shouldn’t change much, but probably won’t have much of a chance to rise higher than expected.
When you have a year like Colorado did last year on defense, it’s usually a combination of multiple factors. Loss of top-end talent, a coaching change, injuries to key contributors, that sort of thing. To some extent, that’s what happened here - Jim Leavitt was replaced by D.J. Eliot, and top-end talent at CB in Chidobe Awuzie and Akhello Witherspoon left in the draft. But that third part, injuries to key contributors, never happened. More than anything, Colorado’s tactics changed, and for the worse.
Under Leavitt, Colorado’s defense compensated for a talent disadvantage by being aggressive and trying to get the opposing offense off the field quickly. The Buffaloes flew to the ball and played shutdown defense through the air, turning opponents one-dimensional. Under Eliot, the Colorado defense more accurately reflected the stylings of Tom Bradley, as they shifted into a bend-don’t-break mentality. The problem is that Colorado just doesn’t have the talent to make that work - really, only top programs like your Alabamas or Ohio States can really consider that strategy. So things fell apart, and they don’t project to be much better this year.
Colorado lost a ton of their havoc production from last year, which is important for BDB teams, as taking advantage of opponent mistakes is what that style of defense is meant to thrive on. Both safeties in Evan Worthington and Nick Fisher are back, along with returning starters at inside linebacker and a few defensive linemen, but any improvement Colorado makes will be due to new contributors stepping up, which may happen but I’m not confident about it.
If you’re a UCLA fan and you read through this, you’re probably feeling pretty confident about the Bruins’ chances of winning this game, and I’m not going to dissuade you from that feeling. Coming off a bye week, this feels like a game that the Bruins should be extremely prepared for, especially considering who the new head coach is. And the Bruins are catching a relatively young Buffaloes team early while they still figure things out, which has the makings of a solid day for the Bruins.
UCLA wins 35-17.