Air Force has lost 14 of its last 17 football games, dating to November 2012. Colorado has lost 29 out of its last 31 outside the state since 2008.
Colorado State, after a 6-26 conference record from 2009 through 2012, did show signs of new life last year, finishing 8-6 with a New Mexico Bowl victory against Washington State. Yet the Rams face a tougher schedule this fall and are three-point underdogs for their opener Friday night in Denver against CU.
From a distance, you might assume the state's major-college football programs are looking at another sad season in 2014. But the news is not all that bleak. In each case, the glass seems more half-full, not half-empty, and we'll know soon whether the optimism is justified. CSU and CU will find out plenty in their rivalry game (7 p.m., Friday, FOX Sports 1), while Air Force travels to Wyoming and CSU to Boise State on Sept. 6. So with that, let's take a closer look at all three, along with predictions.
• Colorado State: When the Rams made their late-season surge last year, they had one of the nation's hottest runners in Kapri Bibbs and a seasoned offensive line. But Bibbs jumped to the NFL, much of that line graduated, and senior quarterback Garrett Grayson is the team's top returning runner. Grayson also can throw, and his leadership should help the offense find its way.
Head coach Jim McElwain has the makings of a solid defense, with perhaps the Mountain West Conference's best group of linebackers and an experienced secondary. If that defense and Grayson are enough to survive Colorado, the momentum could carry CSU to another bowl game. But if the Rams start 0-1, they might have to rely on another strong finish.
Prediction: CSU will have ups and downs, but its closing stretch of Hawaii, New Mexico and Air Force could turn 3-6 into 6-6.
• Colorado: With a league schedule that includes Oregon, UCLA, Southern Cal, Washington and Arizona State, and after going 1-8 for two straight years in the Pac-12, it's hard to imagine a major turnaround for the Buffaloes. But coach Mike MacIntyre made the right move last year going with freshman quarterback Sefo Liufau, which should pay off now with Liufau capable of big moments. CU also has some decent receivers and the makings of a sound running game, plus a young but faster defense that has been upgraded at nearly every position.
No, the Buffs aren't ready to stand up to the Pac-12's best. But the schedule offers hope, with potentially winnable home games against Arizona State, Oregon State, Washington and Utah, plus a trip to California, which has slipped below CU.
Prediction: The early schedule is soft. If they can topple CSU, the Buffs have a real shot at 6-6 or even 7-5.
• Air Force: The Falcons have nowhere to go but up after the 2-10 disaster last fall that included a variety of injuries and major distractions. But the mood has stabilized, and head coach Troy Calhoun has three experienced quarterbacks plus good skill-position talent. At QB, senior Kale Pearson, sophomore Nate Romine and junior Karson Roberts have varying strengths, and they've pushed each other from spring into August. Pearson, who blew out a knee in the 2013 opener, gets the first shot Saturday against lowly Nicholls State, but with a short leash.
The season will hinge more on the AFA defense, which was absolutely awful in 2013, giving up 41 points or more in eight of the losses. The question is whether some positive staff changes and attitude adjustments will be enough to make the Falcons noticeably better.
Prediction: It's hard to envision 6-6 and a bowl game, though that Sept. 6 game at Wyoming could be pivotal. The late schedule is tough, so Air Force has to win early. My guess is no better than 5-7, but I think the Falcons would settle for that if they could defeat Navy and Army to regain the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy, their most realistic goal.
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