Throughout the 2007 football season, Air Force and Colorado must have felt like they were on a wild roller-coaster ride. The highs were so encouraging, but the lows were heart-wrenching. And their bowl games left a sour taste for the Falcons and Buffaloes.
Air Force (9-4) gunned down two perennial bowl teams, Utah and Texas Christian, endured doses of reality against Brigham Young and Navy, handed Notre Dame an embarrassing rout but couldn't hold off California in the Armed Forces Bowl.
Colorado (6-7) shocked Oklahoma and romped with surprising ease at Texas Tech, but disintegrated against Missouri, Kansas and Kansas State. Beating Nebraska was nice on the day after Thanksgiving, but losing to Alabama stung badly in the Independence Bowl.
So what should the state's top two programs (Colorado State has to take a backseat until new head coach Steve Fairchild shows progress) expect this fall? Actually, even with steady improvement, it's likely to be more of the same ups and downs.
They've switched storylines from a year ago, for starters. Now it's CU with a seasoned quarterback, Cody Hawkins, and plenty of returning front-liners on both sides of the ball. Air Force's coaches, meanwhile, are replacing many gaping holes while trying to decide whether (or, to be exactly correct, how soon) to put a promising freshman in charge of the offense instead of upperclassmen Shea Smith and Eric Herbort, who have waited their turn and have assumed nothing.
Colorado, meanwhile, could have its best game-breaker in years with the arrival of highly recruited freshman tailback Darrell Scott, who instantly should mean as much to CU as just-graduated Chad Hall did to Air Force last season.
Neither team has to deal with the burden of unrealistic forecasts. Air Force is projected well down in the Mountain West Conference, while Colorado faces the same troublesome obstacles and is picked in the bottom half of the Big 12 North.
Let's take a closer look at three games each that should determine how far the Falcons and Buffs can progress this fall.
Air Force: Wyoming at Laramie on Sept. 6; Navy invading Falcon Stadium on Oct. 4; then New Mexico here for a Thursday night TV game on Oct. 23.
Colorado: West Virginia, coming to Boulder on Sept. 18; Texas, at Folsom Field on Oct. 4; and Kansas State, visiting on Oct. 18.
AFA head coach Troy Calhoun and his impressive, energetic staff pushed the Falcons to a fast start in 2007, building on a crucial, hard-earned win in their first road game, at Utah. This time the first trip is to Wyoming, where the more experienced Cowboys will want redemption for last year when they could have won at Air Force until a late defensive touchdown gave the Falcons a 20-12 victory.
With a win at Wyoming, Air Force could create another snowball effect in September. Lose that game, and it'll be much tougher to build as much momentum before Navy comes in with the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy on the line. As for New Mexico, the Lobos delivered a bitter 34-31 loss last year at Albuquerque, and will be capable of doing the same here if the Falcons haven't found their groove.
CU's early Thursday date with West Virginia, with ESPN televising, provides a chance for third-year head coach Dan Hawkins and the Buffs to make noise on the national stage against a team that won a BCS bowl last January. Last year, facing similar early opportunities, Colorado's warts and weaknesses (particularly the lack of team speed) showed in losses to Arizona State and Florida State.
The bottom line for the Buffs, however, will be whether they can hang with the Big 12's elite, especially against those playing at Boulder Texas and Kansas State.
In the end, it comes down to a single question for both programs. Colorado's is simple: Will Scott be good enough as a freshman to elevate the entire program? Air Force's is more complex: How long will it take to find the right quarterback and jell on defense?
From this vantage point, unless major injuries intervene, CU and AFA could encounter much different paths to similar outcomes, 8-4 or 7-5, by winning at least two of those three pivotal games. That would put both teams back in bowl games, which would set them up well for potential breakthroughs in 2009.
Bronco talk: After that convincing 23-13 win against Dallas, are the Denver Broncos a playoff team? Or should they realize that the Cowboys were uninspired, knowing they had nothing to gain this early before a season that could end in the Super Bowl?
Denver's fans have to feel hopeful, especially with the offense. Quarterback Jay Cutler is ready for the regular season now and so is receiver Brandon Marshall. If Cutler stays this sharp (he completed his first 12 passes against the Dallas first-team defense) and swift rookie Eddie Royal can continue looking like a veteran when coverages and blitzes become tougher to spot, that will give the uncertain ground game and offensive line a chance to develop.
Defensively, it's much harder to know for sure just yet, but everyone just looks more comfortable than a year ago, starting of course with the linebackers but including the entire front seven. Having two inside 'backers as solid as Niko Koutouvides and Nate Webster, along with Boss Bailey and D.J. Williams on the outside, should give the defense more stability (especially against the run) and big-play potential.
We'll hold off a little longer before predicting how far the Broncos can go in 2008. But it's safe to say they shouldn't be 7-9 again.
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