It is not uncommon for a new head coach to require several years to see success when changing over schemes, but the former Alabama offensive coordinator managed to turn it around in Fort Collins in year two, as the Rams put up an 8-6 mark and celebrated regular-season success with an exciting 48-45 win versus Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl.
Finishing third in the Mountain Division of the Mountain West Conference, with a mark of 5-3, Colorado State rebounded from a less-than-stellar opening to the 2013 campaign and road that turnaround all the way to the postseason. The team began with back-to-back defeats against Colorado and Tulsa and was just 1-3 after four games, with the lone win coming against Cal Poly at home.
However, the fact that CSU was not completely disgraced by top-ranked Alabama (31-6) was a moral victory in itself. Perhaps McElwain's familiarity with the Crimson Tide, with whom he won a pair of national championships as an assistant, had a lot to do with holding the elite program to a mere 66 rushing yards, the fewest by the program in several years.
Despite the setback, McElwain and the Rams gained confidence from the performance and went on to win five of their next seven outings. The two defeats during that stretch came against San Jose State and Boise State, two teams that had postseason written all over them.
The squad did take a significant hit in a 13-0 shutout versus Utah State on the road in November, but it should be noted that the Aggies were one of the stingiest defenses in the country. Seven days later, the Rams rebounded in fine fashion with a 58-13 whipping of Air Force at home, making them bowl eligible for the first time since 2008.
"I can't say enough about how our defense played," McElwain noted. "That was a pretty dominating performance."
But as well as the defense played, it was the offense that made headlines as running back Kapri Bibbs, who finished the season with a staggering 31 rushing touchdowns, had three versus the Falcons which meant he was the first player in FBS history to have at least seven games with three or more rushing touchdowns in a single campaign.
Quarterback Garrett Grayson set the single-season passing mark for the Rams, throwing for 3,696 yards, giving Colorado State a 3,000-yard passer and a 1,500-yard rusher in the same season for the first time in program history.
OFFENSE: The scoring offense for the Rams was off the charts last season, averaging 36.2 ppg to rank third in the Mountain West and 22nd nationally. Making those numbers even more remarkable is the fact that the team scored a combined six points in two games against Alabama and Utah State, which means the unit was hitting on all cylinders during every other game on the schedule.
Unfortunately, life now moves forward without Bibbs, who eventually finished with 1,741 yards on 281 carries. Of the returning players, no one from last season, outside of Grayson, ran for more than 61 yards the entire year and that has to be a concern for coach McElwain.
Early indications have Jasen Oden filling the void left by Bibbs, a converted defender who played in all 14 games last season and finished with 39 total tackles. McElwain might be reaching a bit with his choice for running back right now, but he really doesn't have any other options when you consider redshirt freshman Bryce Peters is the backup for the time being.
The good news for the Rams came on Aug. 4 when it was announced that Dee Hart was being added to the roster. Having already graduated from Alabama, Hart has two seasons of eligibility remaining and is eligible to play immediately for CSU, which could be the answer for the running back position.
"Yes sir, I'm a pretty good running back, and I've always been confident in myself," says Hart. "The guys I'm surrounded with here, we've been helping each other. I know the offense pretty well; J.O. (Jasen Oden) and Bryce (Peters), they've been helping me. It has been great coming out here and getting acclimated."
While the development of Hart, who is aiming to earn his masters degree, might be slow going at the start, the Rams are still keenly aware of what they have in Grayson after the signal caller converted 62.1 percent of his pass attempts for 23 touchdowns a year ago. Bringing back his top two targets and five of the top six receivers overall doesn't hurt either.
Now in his second year Rashard Higgins, a candidate for the Biletnikoff Award, was tops on the team with 68 receptions for 837 yards and tied for the team lead with six touchdowns, matching the number put up by Kivon Cartwright who did his damage on a mere 27 receptions that he stretched for 17.1 yards per grab. Throw in Joe Hansley (52 receptions) and Grayson, who has been named to the Johnny Unitas Golden Arm Award and Davey O'Brien watch lists, will have more than enough weapons at his disposal.
DEFENSE: Obviously McElwain is an offensive guru who is inclined to run up the score, as opposed to keeping contests moderately close on the scoreboard. There were only a handful of games in 2013 when the Rams were able to keep opponents to fewer than three touchdowns, which is something that needs to be addressed if Colorado State is going to continue moving in a positive direction.
The bad news early on is the fact that not a single returning starter will be hunkering down in the trenches. Add to that the loss of linebacker Shaquil Barrett who ranked third on the unit in total tackles with 80 and was first in both tackles for loss (20.5) and sacks (12.0), and the unit is having to fill in some key spots.
Juniors Joe Kawulok, Terry Jackson and LaRyan King will try to anchor a revamped defensive line in front of standout linebackers Max Morgan and Aaron Davis. Morgan was first on the team and ranked among the nation's best with 134 tackles, while Davis pitched in with 120 stops of his own, seven of those coming behind the line of scrimmage. Fellow linebacker Cory James didn't have nearly as many tackles (60) as his counterparts, but in his defense, he did number 12 TFL and eight sacks to finish second on the team in both categories.
SPECIAL TEAMS: On a team that put the ball in the end zone on a regular basis, typically a kicker would not be a major focal point, but that's not the case with Jared Roberts. The most accurate field goal kicker in school history with 88.2 percent success, Roberts was named to the preseason All-MWC First Team after hitting on 21 of his 24 field goal tries and knocking through a perfect 58-of-58 on PATs as a junior a year ago.
Roberts, who was a semifinalist for the Lou Groza Award and is on the watch list for the trophy again in 2014, set a single-season scoring record for kickers at CSU with 121 points, the third-highest total in the nation a year ago.
Hayden Hunt will reprise his role as punter and while the Rams hope that they don't need to call on him too often this season, it is good to know that he does bring experience to the position. Hunt had a solid average of 41.9 yards per kick, but he landed just 14 of his 68 kicks inside the 20-yard line and had two blocked, so there is some work to be done in those areas for sure.
OUTLOOK: As is tradition these days, the Rams are set to kick off the new season against rival Colorado in the Rocky Mountain Showdown in Denver near the end of August. The team needs to set itself up for a successful start with a strong showing in that contest because the following week begins Mountain West Conference play against none other than Boise State, on the road no less.
A series of non-conference bouts follow (UC Davis, Boston College and Tulsa) before settling in for the second half of the campaign versus familiar foes. On the positive side, four of the final six games on the schedule find the Rams at home in Fort Collins, while the finale has the team clashing with Air Force on the road, still a game that CSU should win.
McElwain won't find a replacement for Bibbs anytime soon, but as long as he can get Grayson back up to speed and the defense plays a bit tighter, there's no reason to think this team can't finish in the top half of the division.