There's a lot of newness surrounding the Colorado State program as they head into the second year of the Jim McElwain era. The university is in the process of hiring contractors to build a new on-campus stadium, the team just unveiled brand new Under Armour uniforms, and the fan base has a whole new set of expectations.
But what Ram fans really want isn't new at all.
More than anything, they want a return to the golden age of Sonny Lubick, when Colorado State consistently challenged for conference titles and top-25 rankings, and there are those who seem to think that a repeat of those glory days isn't far away. In fact, a current Denver Post poll asks readers whether they expected the Rams in a bowl game in 2013, with 52 percent responding affirmatively.
There are signs to justify the optimism. While the Rams only compiled four wins in McElwain's first season (after three consecutive 3-9 seasons under Steve Fairchild), they won three of their last five, averaging over 29 points and nearly 189 rushing yards per game.
They return eight starters on offense, which features the two-headed running attack of Chris Nwoke and Donnell Alexander as well an an experienced line and tight end group. Six starters come back on defense, including the entire linebacking corps, which features Colorado State's best player in senior LB/DE Shaquil Barret and 2012 freshman All-American LB Cory James.
The Rams have a manageable 13-game schedule with the exception of a Sept. 21 trip to Tuscaloosa to face McElwain's former Alabama team he coached, and a Nov. 2 home matchup against Boise State. Reports from spring football and fall camps are positive, with McElwain consistently praising his team's offseason practice, conditioning and attitude.
It could be easy to get carried away, but there are more than a couple of reasons for Colorado State fans to exercise caution when looking forward to the season. Yes, there was improvement last year, but the Rams' four wins came against some of the worst teams in college football in Colorado, Hawaii, UNLV and New Mexico (ranked No. 115, 113, 118 and 100 respectively in USA Today's 2012 re-ranking).
It's also true that Colorado State returns a bevy of starters, but the Rams lost players at key positions, including LT Joe Caprioglio, DE Lanston Tanyi, CB Momo Thomas and P Pete Kontodiakos. And while 2013 Rams are an experienced bunch, they haven't exactly been world-beaters in the past.
The most important position battle on the team has yet to be settled, with junior Garrett Grayson and sophomore Conner Smith competing for the starting quarterback job, and just maybe Nick Stevens. The receiver group will rely heavily on freshmen. The defensive line is counting on junior college transfers, and the secondary, while athletic and bursting with potential, is still young.
There are seven to eight winnable games on the schedule, but the team faces some major concerns, most notably at quarterback and defensive line. The best-case scenario is eight wins and a second-place finish behind Boise State in the Mountain Division, but a 6-7 record is more likely, with Colorado State just missing out on their first bowl berth since 2008.
In Lubick's second year at the helm in 1994, the Rams posted went 10-2 record, including a Holiday Bowl appearance against Michigan. McElwain will be hard-pressed to make such a leap, but that's not to say he's doing a bad job or that he's not the right man for it. He inherited a mess in Fort Collins, and the program seems headed in the right direction, but the Rams might need one more year to break through.