USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
There's a little bit of Alabama in Colorado State, a taste of Tide passed along from Nick Saban to Jim McElwain, his former offensive coordinator and the Rams' third-year coach. A little bit – but every bit counts.
It's in the program's mindset, that here's-how-we-roll mentality that defines the Rams' effort on each side of the ball. The offense is vintage Alabama, for starters, albeit with a twist: CSU passes as well as it runs.
But it's seen most in the process. Alabama's process is defined in how Saban is always leaning forward, staying a quarter in the present, three-quarters in the future and never – not ever, not even after a Kick Six – sticking on the past. It's Saban, after all, who gave himself 48 hours to enjoy a national championship before getting back to work; another Saban disciple, Florida State's Jimbo Fisher, was simply imitating his mentor.
McElwain is cut from the same cloth. He was planning for 2013 in 2012; he was thinking about 2014 and beyond when leading the Rams through an eight-win 2013, the program's most satisfying finish in more than a decade.
So if – or when – CSU slips down a win or two in 2014, remember a crucial fact: McElwain might not be happy, he might be peeved, he might feel his team left a win or two on the field … but it'd just be part of the process.
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
This isn't the season CSU reverses course and reaches bowl play, though I see that time coming at some point in the near future. One looming issue is this schedule, which starts with a bang in September and features road trips against conference foes on CSU's relative level – New Mexico, Hawaii and Wyoming, to name three. What's the bottom line? Fewer than six wins, more than three, and reason to think that CSU will work out the kinks in advance of 2014.
In a nutshell: Colorado State pieced together eight wins the hard way, notching no win streak longer than two games and dropping five games by 14 points or less: Colorado, Tulsa, San Jose State, Boise State and Utah State. The latter two losses removed CSU from the Mountain Division race, with the crown eventually going to the Aggies, but it's hard to quibble with the results of McElwain's second season – as noted, CSU hadn't won more than seven games in a season since 2002. Amazingly, it took this proud program more than a decade to regain some sense of momentum after winning eight or more games seven times from 1994-2002. After feasting on some inferior competition during the regular season, CSU earned some validation with a wacky New Mexico Bowl win against Washington State.
High point: Topping the Cougars. CSU didn't necessarily need the win, since a bowl bid alone was impressive, but it did help the team head into the offseason on a high note. As shown against UTEP, Wyoming, New Mexico and others, this offense was extremely impressive when hitting on all cylinders.
Low point: The narrow defeats during the regular season. Colorado hurts, of course, since that always hurts. The Rams also threw one away against Tulsa, giving up the final 13 points in a 30-27 defeat. CSU would've won by 21 had the two teams met in November.
Tidbit: Colorado State was one of the six teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision to finish in the top 30 nationally in rushing (27th) and passing (30th) yards per game, joining Baylor (13th and fifth), Florida State (28th and 14th), Indiana (30th and 17th), Marshall (24th and 20th) and Oregon (ninth and 21st). That's a pretty good group.
Tidbit (500 wins edition): CSU enters 2014 with a career record of 493-554-33, needing only another seven-win season to become the 86th FBS program with 500 victories. Also within striking distance: Connecticut and Florida State have 499 wins, Texas State and Toledo have 498 wins and Akron and Kansas State match CSU with 493. Six Mountain West Conference programs have hit the 500-win mark: Fresno State (579), Hawaii (536), Nevada (522), Utah State (516), San Diego State (509) and Wyoming (504).
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
College offensive linemen of the 1990s
1. Orlando Pace, Ohio State
2. Will Shields, Nebraska
3. Jonathan Ogden, UCLA
4. Tony Boselli, USC
5. Aaron Taylor, Notre Dame
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: Converted safety Jasen Oden could be the answer in the backfield for CSU, which must replace both Kapri Bibbs – the nation's most unheralded skill player last fall – and would-be junior Donnell Alexander, who left the program in April. Oden fared well following the position change, vaulting ahead of redshirt freshman Bryce Peters and setting himself up for substantial touches as a junior – perhaps not to the surprise of McElwain and this staff, which leaned heavily on Oden as a spot defensive starter and key reserve in 2012 and 2013. As expected, however, CSU did add a JUCO transfer after spring drills: Treyous Jarrells will throw his hat in the ring, as will a quartet of incoming freshmen, so this competition seems far from over as the Rams roll through summer conditioning.
The Rams' passing attack is superb. One year after outdueling Conner Smith for the starting role, senior quarterback Garrett Grayson (3,696 yards and 23 touchdowns) enters 2014 as one of the elite quarterbacks in the Mountain West, a rapidly developing all-conference talent who has grown exponentially since coming under McElwain's careful tutelage. There's substantial reason for wall-to-wall optimism: Grayson is a second-year starter, not to mention a senior, so he's ready to take another step; he's more experienced in McElwain's system; he has a wealth of options at receiver and tight end; and – this perhaps most of all – Grayson has earned the right to no longer look over his shoulder, worried that one or two missteps could lead to a quick-trigger change. I expect Grayson to battle Cody Fajardo for second-team all-conference honors. (Guess which quarterback lands first.)
I love what the Rams bring to the table at the receiving skill positions. One year after playing second fiddle to Crockett Gilmore – a very, very close second fiddle – senior Kivon Cartwright (27 receptions for 462 yards) takes over as the league's most impressive tight end; the addition of JUCO transfers Steven Walker and Christian Montes will allow CSU to continue trotting out multiple-tight end sets. The Rams' receivers won't miss a beat: Rashard Higgins (68 for 837) is an all-league challenger as a sophomore, if not one of the conference's best; junior Joe Hansley (52 for 613) is sneakily productive, always under the radar; senior Charles Lovett (26 for 392) can stretch the field; sophomore Jordan Vaden (22 for 255) came on strong late last season; and the staff is high on lanky redshirt freshmen Xavier Williams, Elroy Masters and Sammie Long.
Defense: The Rams' three-man front breaks in three brand-new starters, though CSU has faith in the ability of last year's reserves – many of whom earned substantial snaps – to step up the two-deep ladder and contribute at an adequate clip. The starting cast, all juniors, has already been identified: Ryan Jackson (29 tackles) will replace Curtis Wilson at tackle, Joe Kawulok steps in for Eli Edwards on the outside and LaRyan King replaces Calvin Tonga on the nose. While all three are experienced – one could say CSU essentially started six linemen last fall, due to the constant shuffling in the rotation – I do wonder how ably King can hold down the fort in the middle; if need be, CSU can get a little bigger by using 310-pound junior Justin Hansen. The issue for me isn't the starting trio, which should produce at a reasonably similar rate to last season. The concern is depth, since CSU will need to develop a second tier to match the numbers in last year's rotation.
Losing Shaquil Barrett is a tough blow: CSU is high on junior Steven Michel, who has augmented a solid year as a backup with a nice offseason, but it'll be difficult – if not impossible – to duplicate Barrett's ability to harass quarterbacks on passing downs. Elsewhere, however, the Rams' linebacker corps is elite. Look for a good portion of the pass-rush slack to be picked up by junior Cory James (60 tackles, 8.0 sacks), a proven edge rusher coming off the strong side. When on his game, James is one of the elite outside linebackers in the conference. It's even better along the interior, where seniors Max Morgan (134 tackles) and Aaron Davis (120 tackles, 7.0 for loss) form an effectively productive pairing along the inside of this 3-4 base set. There's a drop-off to the second tier of the depth chart, but it's not so dramatic as to pinpoint depth as a concern.
The secondary's familiar cast of starters and contributors must improve if Colorado State hopes to vault into one of the top two spots in the Mountain Division. It's simple: CSU has the bodies, experience and potential for depth; another season spent chasing short routes, creating lanes over the middle and allowing big plays downfield is simply unacceptable – and if not addressed, would keep CSU from matching last season's win total. You'll see more depth at cornerback, for example, where returning starters Bernard Blake (59 tackles) and DeAndre Elliott are joined by sophomore Tyree Simmons and former JUCO transfer Saladin McCullough II. The Rams also return safeties Kevin Pierre-Louis (70 tackles) and Trent Matthews (69 tackles, 4 interceptions), but both are far too prone to lapses along the back end. More help is on the way from the recent signing class – including JUCO transfer Preston Hodges – but the Rams must sew up this pass-defense deficiency with largely the same starters and reserves as a season ago.
Special teams: Jared Roberts is the best kicker in the Mountain West and one of the best nationally. He'll hang around the mix for the Lou Groza. Punter Hayden Hunt averaged a healthy 41.9 yards per punt, though sometimes at the cost of reliable coverage – the Rams need to do a better job corralling returners. But CSU's own return game is solid, particularly on punts, and could take a step forward on kickoffs if one of several true and redshirt freshmen prove up to the task.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Offensive line: The Rams' reworked backfield will run behind a vastly less experienced offensive front: CSU returns only 33 career starts, the third-fewest in the Mountain West, with the lion's share of this experience coming in the body of senior left tackle Ty Sambrailo – a reigning second-team all-conference pick, perhaps the best protector in the Mountain West and a wonderful foundational piece for the entire line. But despite tinges of optimism, the offense as a whole must prepare for a decline in production from the five-man front; this was to be expected, thanks to the general dearth of experience and lack of cohesiveness during spring drills. The steepest decline should come at center, where redshirt freshman Jake Bennett simply can't double Weston Richburg's leadership and headiness in the middle. As such, don't be surprised if CSU shifts one of senior Mason Myers and sophomore Fred Zerblis inside from guard, where each held down starting roles during the spring – Myers on the left side, Zerblis on the right. It's a tidier situation on the edges, where the Rams can bookend the line with Sambrailo and one of three options: JUCO transfer Jordan Finley, senior Mason Hathaway and sophomore Nick Callender.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Colorado: Beating the rival Buffaloes in the opener should ensure at least a .500 mark at midseason, because CSU will top UC Davis on Sept. 13 and do no worse than split the pair of Tulsa and Nevada. But a loss to Colorado could snowball, as we've seen in the past, particularly with Boise State and Boston College coming before the end of September. I do think CSU gets back into the postseason, but sitting at 3-3 at the halfway mark could mean a step beyond my six- or seven-win projection – since the Rams' last five games come against Wyoming, San Jose State, Hawaii, New Mexico and Air Force.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: A meaty first-half schedule, some issues on both lines and the concerns along the back end of the defense won't prevent Colorado State from reaching another bowl game, though I do hesitate to project this team to match last season's eight-win total. It's possible, just not probable: CSU should win six or seven games, but getting to eight would entail a clean sweep of the should-win games – you know, the matchups where the Rams seem to hold an on-paper advantage. I really like the direction of the program and certain aspects of this year's team, but I'm not sure if the Rams have what it takes to make another move forward in the win column.
I think that's fine, if viewed as part of the process. Remember that McElwain is still adding depth and talent to the roster; CSU is far stronger today than in 2012, obviously, but I could see certain positions in need of another influx of talent – offensive line, defensive line and the secondary, for example. The staff has already had a profound impact on this team's clear strengths: Grayson is a very strong starter, the receiver corps is loaded, and the linebacker corps among the best in the MWC, if still searching for a second edge rusher to join James. Basically, CSU has more than enough assets to charge back into the postseason – though too many slight concerns to be viewed as anything more than a slight challenger to Boise State and Utah State in the Mountain Division.
My biggest concerns are both lines, offense and defense, and the secondary. The offensive line is going to need time to round into form, particularly along the interior; Sambrailo is an effective protector, meaning Grayson should stay clean, but those new starters hold the key to the Rams' run-game effectiveness. I'm not so much worried about the starters along the defensive line as the backups – because CSU loses that six-player rotation so crucial a season ago. And then the secondary … look: Blake, Elliott and the safeties simply must play with more consistency. All told, CSU is strong enough to deal losses to most of the Mountain West, meaning this is a bowl team, but I don't think the Rams match last year's win total.
Dream season: Colorado State goes 9-3, though two of these defeats come to Boise State and Utah State. In the opener: CSU 48, Colorado 14.
Nightmare season: The Rams fall back to 4-8, notching wins against UC Davis, Hawaii, New Mexico and Air Force.
Who's No. 72? This football program's first career win came against a school which counts among its many alumni an NFL linebacker who made 8.5 sacks in 2013.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014