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End Zone

My purpose here this week is simple: It's time to prognosticate about what to expect in the 2009 football season from Colorado's three major-college programs.

As different as the circumstances are at Air Force, Colorado and Colorado State, one distinct thread connects them all. They have to temper their hopes with realism. Their fans shouldn't include the word "championship" in their vocabulary.

That's because Air Force and CSU, despite going to bowl games in 2008, still have to deal with the power structure of the Mountain West Conference. And breaking through the MWC's top tier of Texas Christian, Utah and Brigham Young — all ranked between 15th and 20th in the preseason Associated Press rankings — is asking too much of the Falcons and Rams.

Meanwhile, up at Boulder, you won't hear anyone boldly planning on Colorado making it to the Big 12 championship game, even if the North Division might be much softer than in recent seasons. Head coach Dan Hawkins, entering his fourth season with a 13-24 record, probably has to lead the Buffaloes to some kind of bowl or he could be gone by December.

In a conference that includes the likes of Texas, Oklahoma, Texas Tech and Oklahoma State, CU begins the season as no more than a Big 12 afterthought.

So what's the "realistic" outlook at each school?

Air Force (9-4): Granted, these Falcons could become better than the 8-4 team of last year and even the 9-3 squad of 2007, both of which lost in the Armed Services Bowl. But they still might not have the record to show for it. Some major "ifs" will influence Air Force's season, starting with whether sophomore quarterback Tim Jefferson can build on the promise he showed last fall as the MWC's Freshman of the Year. He'll have sophomore Asher Clark, who'll start at tailback but also share some quarterback functions, to keep defenses honest. But unless the Falcons can find some quality receivers, plus a tight end, and jell quickly up front, stronger opponents will be able to outnumber the option and disrupt obvious passing situations.

Air Force's defense has a chance to be excellent, led by strong safety Chris Thomas, linebackers Ken Lamendola and Andre Morris, and senior lineman Ben Garland. But the two-deep includes as many as 10 sophomores and freshmen, so depth could be a concern.

Playing at BYU and Utah won't be easy, and neither will going to Minnesota on Sept. 12 for the season's first big test. October is the key month, with four games against 2008 bowl teams (Navy, TCU, Utah and Colorado State). A fast start could create some big surprises, but the prediction here is that Air Force's best hope this year will be to regain the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy for the first time since 2002, and then win a bowl — which Air Force hasn't done since 2000.

Next year, though, could be something special.

Colorado (7-6): Yes, the Buffs have a chance to capitalize on the weaker division. But they cannot expect to improve that much with a severe shortage of experienced receivers, an offensive line that needs time to develop and a defense that's devoid of all-league candidates. Having two quarterbacks, Cody Hawkins and Tyler Hansen, should be a plus, and if sophomore tailback Darrell Scott can show the potential that made him a national recruiting jewel, that'll help more.

Bottom line, Colorado has to handle CSU, and then avoid a stumble Sept. 11 at Toledo, or the storm clouds will begin to gather quickly. At least CU has two of its pivotal games at home, Kansas on Oct. 17 and Missouri on Oct. 31. Win both, and Dan Hawkins might last a while.

Colorado State (7-6): After leaping from 3-9 to 7-6 and defeating Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl to cap head coach Steve Fairchild's first year, the Rams will lean heavily on a new quarterback (senior Grant Stucker), inexperienced runners and a mostly new defense. CSU does have a senior-laden offensive line, some proven receivers and a soft finishing schedule after facing BYU, Utah and TCU in a grueling four-week stretch between late September and mid-October. So don't be surprised to see the Rams make it to a lesser bowl again.

routon@csindy.com

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