Just three weeks ago, the University of Colorado football program looked on the verge of taking noticeable, encouraging, forward steps toward respectability in the Pacific 12 Conference.
Nobody was talking about division titles or even having a realistic chance yet against the likes of Oregon, Southern Cal and Stanford. But they were talking about progress, enough to avoid being embarrassed so badly by those Pac-12 powerhouses, possibly enough to have a shot at 6-6 and a low-end bowl game.
That's how the Buffaloes looked as September arrived. Today, that bubble has fully deflated, and CU has collapsed into a near-cataclysmic mess.
The three opening losses, with still two more likely nightmares before this month ends, have exposed Colorado in ways nobody predicted. We're not talking about a dearth of talent. We're talking about a dearth of coaching. Jon Embree's second year as head coach already has unraveled — to the point where even many loyal CU supporters fully believe athletic director Mike Bohn should intervene, now, and make a change.
They're not calling for Embree's head because the Buffs fell apart in the second half and lost to Colorado State, as a 14-3 lead turned into a 22-17 defeat. (CSU since has lost two straight.) And it's not even because of the shocking 30-28 upset home loss to Sacramento State, which followed CU taking a 14-0 lead and instantly qualified as one of the team's worst moments in a generation. (Sacramento State had fallen to New Mexico State a week earlier, 49-19.)
The bottom fell out last Saturday as Fresno State laid a 69-14 shellacking on Colorado. For the record, CU gave up 35 points in the first quarter, trailed 55-7 at halftime, and was behind 69-7 until scoring a late touchdown. The defense gave up plays of 97 and 94 yards — in the first quarter. The offense had only four first downs at halftime and handed Fresno State two touchdowns on interceptions.
That was Fresno State, which fired longtime coach Pat Hill after going 4-9 last year and now is rallying around rookie head man Tim DeRuyter, the former Air Force linebacker and assistant. In other words, Fresno is considered to be rebuilding — and its third game of that process was a 55-point blowout of Colorado.
But the most damning point of all was that, at Fresno, many of CU's players apparently quit trying, which usually leads to coaching changes faster than anything. Firing Embree in September, though, isn't the answer. He never has been a head coach before (not even a coordinator), and he's a former CU player with full support from his former head coach, Bill McCartney. Embree hasn't had a legitimate chance to prove himself.
Still, it's hard to imagine Embree being able to survive the season if Colorado continues to endure such awful beatings against teams in similar situations. Amazingly, four of the Buffs' five September opponents (CSU, Fresno, Washington State and UCLA) have first-year head coaches, and the fifth was Sacramento State, seemingly a perfect scenario for a fast start by Colorado.
Now, people are talking about 0-12. This week CU goes to Washington State, where coach Mike Leach never has been known as merciful (remember when his Texas Tech teams regularly scored in the 60s and 70s). Next is a home game against UCLA, where Jim Mora already is off to a 3-0 start, including a win over Nebraska, after replacing Rick Neuheisel.
So what's the answer? Embree has to do something if he wants another shot in 2013. He created this staff, so he has to start fixing it, even now. It's apparent that defensive coordinator Greg Brown doesn't have the answers, though the 54-year-old Denver native has spent much time at CU (including the early 1990s under McCartney) as a position coach. On a staff lacking coordinator experience, Embree could turn over the defense to Brian Cabral, the longtime CU staffer who was interim head coach at the end of 2010 after Dan Hawkins' departure.
Something has to happen, because 69-14 road losses inevitably will mean many more empty seats and anguish at Boulder.
Clearly, Jon Embree's future is on the line. And if he doesn't do anything soon, there won't be another chance.