It feels like it has been more than eight months, but the wait is almost over Ram fans. Sunday is the beginning of McElwain's second year leading Colorado State, and he looks to start it off right with a win over in-state rival Colorado. It is the 85th installment in the series in which Colorado leads. Colorado State has a chance to narrow the margin against a Colorado team that experienced quite the tumultuous offseason.
Former coach Jon Embree was fired after a dismal 1-11 season, athletic director Mike Bohn was fired for his shortcomings in fundraising, quarterback Jordan Webb was arrested, and several players transferred away from the program. Mike MacIntyre was brought in to bring the football team back to prominence, and a win over the Rams would be a good start on that path.
So what will it take for either coach Mac to come away with the victory?
Keys to victory
Protect the quarterback
Colorado's offensive line is perhaps the weakest unit on the team. But for Colorado to win this game, they need to provide protection for Connor Wood. The Buffs have a running back that can tote the rock in Christian Powell, but if the line cannot provide Wood enough time to get throws off and threaten the CSU defense vertically, the Rams will key on the running game and shut it down.
Stop CSU's run game
Much of Colorado State's game plan will revolve around establishing a successful run game, and they have the players to do so. Chris Nwoke and Donnell Alexander are two running backs that have proved they can run the ball for the Rams. Nwoke ran it for over a thousand two years ago, while Alexander led the team in rushing last year. Also added to the group is transfer Kapri Bibbs. Bibbs has yet to play a down in division-one football, but he was a star running back coming out of high school and has received much praise from the coaching staff.
Stopping this trio of running backs is going to rest mostly on the performance of the Buffs defensive line. The Colorado linebacking corps is young and won't be able to keep up with the constant rotation Rams' running backs. The defensive lineman need to suck up blockers at the line of scrimmage and allow the linebackers to clean up. If they can do that, that will put pressure on whoever the Rams start at quarterback. We likely will not know the starter until game time, but if it is Garrett Grayson, he has yet to prove he can put a team on his back and win a game.
Offensive player to watch
I wanted to put Paul Richardson here due to his return from an ACL injury in 2012, but Wood is going to play a huge role in how Sunday's game unfolds. Much of his production last year came in junk time at the end of blowout loses, so it is still questionable whether he can play effectively at the helm. He will have a lot of help from a pretty talented receiving corps lead by Richardson. Both Nelson Spruce and Tyler McCulloch performed well against the Rams last year, combining for 118 yards and two touchdowns. If Wood can play efficiently and prevent turnovers, it will take a lot of pressure of the Colorado run game and give the Buffs a good chance to win.
Defensive player to watch
Uzo-Diribe is a player. He had two sacks against the Rams last year and is likely the best player on the Buffs this year. He will need to have a big performance to help Colorado stop the Rams' running game and pressure the quarterback.
Keys to victory
Contain CU receivers
There is no question Colorado has playmakers at the receiving position. They are led by Paul Richardson who was a Biletnikoff watch list receiver before injuring his knee in last season. Coach McElwain has praised Richardson's speed and how important it is for Colorado State to keep him "corralled". But the Rams' defensive backs must be cognizant of Colorado's other receiving threats.
Nelson Spruce and Tyler McCulloch did a good job slipping into the cracks of the Colorado State defense last season, resulting in two touchdowns. If the Rams are too focused on Richardson, Spruce and McCulloch can make them pay again this season. If the defensive backs can do as coach McElwain insists and corral Richardson and company, that will put a tremendous amount of pressure on a lackluster offensive line to produce in the running game.
Find a deep threat
Unlike Colorado, the Rams do not have a deep threat like Richardson. With several receivers retuning from last year, and the infusion of some talented new freshmen, the Rams hope to fill that gap. One player looking to step up and be that guy, is true freshman Rashard Higgins. Higgins surprised a lot of people by earning one of the top receiver spots out of fall camp over other veterans. Higgins is a fantastic athlete and has the size to play against cornerbacks unlike smaller receivers Charles Lovett and Joe Hansley.
Another possible candidate is redshirt freshman Jordon Vaden. Vaden was expected to take the top receiver spot out of camp, but was ousted by Higgins. He should still contribute in this game as he has speed and can go up to get the ball, but he needs to prove his hands have improved since the spring game. If one of these two players, or another receiver, can step up and be that deep threat for the Rams, it will alleviate a lot of the pressure on the run game and give Colorado State's offense some teeth.
Offensive player to watch
In last year's game, Gillmore failed to register a catch. There is no question he had a down year, but it is still surprising he was unable to come up with a single catch last season. This year he retained the number one tight end position despite his lack of production and could be an x-factor for the Rams' offense in Sunday's game. Colorado's linebackers are not physical enough to match up with Gillmore, and with the addition of Higgins, Vaden, and other receivers outside, it should draw the attention away from him. After a down year in 2012, he has a good match up to start the 2013 season off correctly.
Defensive player to watch
James had a coming out party in this game last year. He tallied three sacks, four tackles for loss, and a forced fumble in his first ever collegiate game. He played a huge part in the Rams' victory, and you can be sure Colorado will be ready for him this year. This spot could go to stalwart senior Shaq Barrett, but when James is on his "A" game coming off the opposite edge, it makes the Colorado State defense much more dangerous. If he can provide the kind of pressure he did last year, it will help every unit on the Rams' defense.
Prediction: Colorado State 31 Colorado 20
Colorado may have a new coach with a resume of turning programs around, but he does not have the talent in place yet to do that with the Buffs. The Colorado offensive line will not be able to get a push against a revamped Rams' defensive line and will struggle protecting against Barrett and James. Defensively, the lack of depth at linebacker will leave them vulnerable in the run game and open the field for Crockett Gillmore and Kivon Cartwright. Rams beat Colorado back-to-back for the first time since 1999-2000.