The last ride under Embree got off to a horrific start. First the Buffaloes lost a tight 22-17 contest to in-state rival Colorado State. That setback wasn't great considering the Rams finished 4-8. However the next week was the real low of the campaign as the Buffaloes dropped a 30-28 decision to FCS squad Sacramento State. After a 69-14 embarrassment against Fresno State, Colorado did win its first game of the season with a 35-34 comeback win against Washington State. Unfortunately it would be the only win of the season for the Buffaloes, who then lost eight straight games, by an average of 34.6 points, to finish the season. The poor effort sent Embree packing and Colorado once again looking for answers.
OFFENSE: The hope is that Mike MacIntyre is the answer to what has been one of the worst stretches in program history. MacIntyre should certainly bring excitement as he installs the Pistol formation he ran at San Jose State a year ago when the Spartans were ranked sixth nationally in passing offense.
The front-runner to get the keys to MacIntyre's offense in year one is Connor Wood. The junior was one of three players to get time under center for the Buffaloes last year and was the most successful once nine-game starter Jordan Webb went down for the season with a torn ACL. Now that his main competition, Nick Hirschman, has transferred, the job is entirely his.
Wood threw for just 265 yards last year, while completing an even 50 percent of his pass attempts. He also had a single touchdown pass to four interceptions so there is obviously room for improvement.
Luckily for Wood, he will be able to throw to Paul Richardson after no quarterback was able to in 2012. The junior wideout missed the entire season last year after having surgery on his knee. In 2011, Richardson was one of the best offensive threats on the field for the Buffaloes, as he caught 39 passes for 555 yards and five touchdowns. Richardson's yards and touchdown totals would have ranked first on the team in 2012.
"It was a humbling experience not being able to compete with my teammates," Richardson said of sitting on the sidelines last season. "You can't help but wonder and think about what I could be doing to help them."
Nelson Spruce (43 rec, 447 yards, 3 TDs) and Tyler McCulloch (34 rec, 436 yards, 2 TDs) return as well to create a rather impressive receiving unit.
Christian Powell was a revelation for the Buffalos in the backfield. After taking over as the starting running back in the second week, Powell rushed for 691 yards and seven touchdowns. His 691 yards were good enough for the second- most by a freshman in program history. Tony Jones (320 yards, 3 TDs) and Donta Abron (256 yards, 2 TDs) will also see time.
The offensive line from 2012 remains largely intact, or at least filled with players that have starting experience. Both tackles Jack Harris and Stephane Nembot and guards Alex Lewis and Daniel Munyer return, but will need to adjust to MacIntyre's more pass-heavy offense.
DEFENSE: A team doesn't go 1-11 just because of bad offense. Colorado can certainly attest to that as the Buffaloes were one of the worst units in the country in just about any defensive category there is. That included total defense (488.5 ypg) where they ranked 121 out of 124 teams. However, what is most telling is that the three teams below Colorado (Arizona, Baylor and Louisiana Tech) each ranked in the top 10 nationally in total offense. Colorado ranked 119th.
Obviously MacIntyre will need to get this side in order as well. To do so he has brought in Kent Baer as defensive coordinator. Baer was the linebackers coach and defensive coordinator for MacIntyre with the Spartans and also has made stops at the DC post at Utah State, Idaho, California, Arizona State, Stanford, Notre Dame and Washington.
The one and only building block that Baer really has is defensive linemen Chidera Uzo-Diribe. The 6-foot-3, 250-pound bruiser finished with seven sacks and 10.5 tackles for loss last season. The rest of the team managed just 12.0 sacks.
Derrick Webb led the team in tackles (66) last season but wasn't an appreciably dominant defender. Still Webb will be called to lead a largely unproven linebacking corps where players like Woodson Greer, Paul Vigo and even freshman Addison Gillam will get looks.
The secondary has the most starting experience returning but is also a group that managed just three total interceptions a year ago. Cornerbacks Kenneth Crawley and Greg Henderson will be joined by senior safety Terrel Smith as the returning starters. Smith had 63 tackles a year ago. Marques Mosley and Jered Bell are the only players back to have collected an interception.
SPECIAL TEAMS: This might be the strength of the team this season with both starters in the kicking game back and solid options at the return slots. Will Oliver only had eight field goal attempts last season but nailed six of those. Darragh O'Neill is a good punter, who averaged 43.5 yards per boot.
Mosley was extremely dangerous as a kick returner as he picked up 549 yards off kickoffs including a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the season finale against Utah.
OUTLOOK: MacIntyre has some experience taking a buried team back from the dead. In his three years at San Jose State, MacIntyre took a team that went 2-10 the year before he arrived to a 10-2 record and a national ranking last season.
"When you go into a program that has been losing you have to have some culture change and change is tough sometimes," MacIntyre said. "It wasn't too long ago Colorado was one of the top-15 programs in the country year in, year out. We need to get back there."
The road to that destination begins on August 31 when Colorado once again takes on in-state rival Colorado State. Matchups with FCS foe Central Arkansas and then Fresno State at home finish off the non-conference slate. The Buffaloes will be tested plenty in the early Pac-12 schedule (at Oregon State, Oregon, at Arizona State, Arizona) before November even starts. The Buffaloes play three of five games in that month on the road, including trips to UCLA and Washington.
Even though MacIntyre was able to turn San Jose State around, the Spartans still went 1-12 in his first season. In the first go around in Boulder there might not be a ton of difference. However, with how historically bad the Buffaloes were last season, he can't do much worse. Scraping together two or even three wins would be seen as improvement.