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CU: Pac-12's worst, or not? 

End Zone

Look around at the various projections of what to expect in the Pacific 12 Conference this football season, and one point immediately comes clear.

Colorado gets no respect. Almost every source out there picks the Buffaloes to make their Pac-12 debut as the unquestioned worst team in the South Division. Sports Illustrated goes further, pegging the Buffs to go 0-9 in league play, including a home loss to Washington State, the assumed North Division cellar-dweller.

Yet there has been no bracing for the worst in Boulder. New head coach Jon Embree and his staff, including some of Colorado's most recognizable names from its 1990 national title team (All-American runner Eric Bieniemy, defensive end Kanavis McGhee and quarterback Darian Hagan), by all accounts have pushed the Buffs much harder than previous head coach Dan Hawkins and his assistants ever did.

Embree has made no outrageous predictions. He's actually been realistic, such as last month in Los Angeles at the league's media day.

"Obviously we haven't been a good team," Embree said stoically, "or I wouldn't be here."

Hard to argue, especially after the worst memories from last year — like blowing a 45-17 fourth-quarter lead at Kansas and losing 52-45, which caused Hawkins' dismissal with three games remaining. Home victories followed against Iowa State and Kansas State, pulling the Buffs within one win of bowl-eligible. They finished 5-7 after one last clunker, 45-17 at Nebraska.

Still, does that translate into the dregs of the Pac-12 in 2011? Not necessarily.

This isn't to say CU will reach a bowl, which would require seven wins in a 13-game season (because of the opening trip to Hawaii; teams going to Honolulu get an extra game to make up the cost).

But Hawkins didn't leave the cupboard entirely bare. Senior quarterback Tyler Hansen, now the unquestioned starter, is capable of making a decent offense better. Receivers like Paul Richardson and Toney Clemons, along with promising freshmen, are legitimate threats, and returning tailback Rodney Stewart has experience against top defenses. Factor in an acceptable line, and the offense should not be overmatched.

Defensively, the Buffs should be described as suspect. They lack experience, especially in the secondary, and that will spell trouble against Oregon, Stanford, Southern Cal and Washington. Those games (especially Oregon and USC at home) should tell CU what it needs to become a Pac-12 contender.

But the other league games don't look so ominous. UCLA has struggled lately, and head coach Rick Neuheisel (remember?) faces a make-or-break year. That one is winnable, even in California. Arizona and Washington State must visit Folsom Field. Arizona State and Utah might be tough road games, but they aren't impossible.

Embree's formula is simple: He immediately wants to be strong at home, and consistently competitive away from the Flatirons. That second part might take a little longer, but as Embree has said on several occasions, "Good teams win on the road."

We just don't know how fast the Buffs can come around. They'll probably win, and lose, some games they shouldn't. But the nonconference schedule won't help, starting with Hawaii (a tough place to play), a home game against California, the rivalry battle against improved Colorado State and a trip to Ohio State.

So, if Colorado could survive that first month at 2-2, if Hansen can lead the way and if the defense can grow up fast, this team could finish in the 5-8 or 6-7 range. If those "ifs" go the wrong way, it could be 3-10.

But something tells me the emphasis on discipline, a senior leader at quarterback and other talented playmakers might add up to some surprises. And a lot more respect for CU, come November.

Prologue postmortem: The competition was excellent and the TV coverage superb Monday for the start of the USA Pro Cycling Challenge, but the crowds were short of many expectations. Organizers talked about as many as 75,000 spectators for the prologue, and estimates afterward reached that vicinity. But in my view, the number from start to finish couldn't have totaled more than 10,000 to 15,000.

The weekend of buildup events proved highly successful, but having the prologue on Monday afternoon clearly didn't bring out the masses, especially around the finish line downtown. Perhaps a Sunday start next time?

routon@csindy.com

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