SunDevilSource: It has been probably the best start to a Colorado season in the last decade. Was this expected and what are the main enabling factors?
Adam Munsterteiger: While Colorado was definitely expected to be better, not many people outside of the Champions Center (the Buffaloes' new facility) expected this team to be a legit contender for the Pac-12 South title like they currently are. Staff upgrades the last two years - bringing in Jim Leavitt as the new defensive coordinator in 2015 and the hiring of Darrin Chiaverini as co-offensive coordinator and receivers coach this past off-season - have helped a lot. But the biggest factor in the Buffs' improvement this fall has been experience. The 412 combined starts on Colorado's roster entering the 2016 season were the most in school history. Mike MacIntyre came in and resurrected this program the right way, and his first important task was fixing the attrition issue. For far too long there seemed to be a revolving door with players transferring out at the first sign of adversity. MacIntyre kept the players in the program and his staff developed them over time. 10 of the 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball are upperclassmen. And offensively the new up-tempo pace at altitude has helped the Buffs become a really tough team to play at home. It might be a small sample size, but Colorado has outscored its first three opponents in the state this season, 147-20.
SunDevilSource: So who really is the starting quarterback for Colorado right now, and what are the primary differences between Sefo Liufau and Steven Montez as far as strengths and weaknesses. Also, has Montez's strong play been a surprise?
Munsterteiger: The biggest differences between Liufau and Montez is experience. Liufau is a three-year captain, he has started for the majority of the past four seasons, and partly because of his incredible toughness, the team naturally follows him. When Montez is a senior, he will be substantially better than Liufau is as a senior. But right now Liufau, when he is 100 percent recovered from the ankle sprain he suffered at Michigan in week three, gives this team its best chance to achieve its lofty goals. He sees things at the line of scrimmage that Montez, a redshirt freshman, simply can't because he just doesn't have the experience. Montez has made some incredible plays because of his physical gifts, but against USC last Saturday, many times he got impatient and left the pocket with open receivers downfield. Liufau was healthy enough to be the back-up last weekend and I would personally be surprised if he does not start against the Sun Devils on Saturday evening.
Montez definitely surprised some folks with his play against Oregon and Oregon State, and his future is very bright. Montez is a product of El Paso and I truly believe had he grown up in Houston or Dallas, he would have been a blue-chip prospect with a long list of offers. Frankly, given where Colorado's program was when he committed, the Buffs got a little lucky there.
SunDevilSource: There are some very good skill players on this Buffaloes roster. What does Colorado want to do in order to successfully play to their personnel strengths on offense?
Munsterteiger: They want to go up-tempo and use the altitude to their advantage. Certainly the key there is gaining yards on first and second down to avoid third-down-and-long. That was the biggest issue they faced against the Trojans in Los Angeles last week. Slot receiver Devin Ross was having a fantastic start to his junior season but teams have started to game plan against him, and he hasn't been as big a factor the last two weeks.
And while Colorado does not have a true homerun threat at running back, the Buffs have been fairly consistent on the ground and currently rank in the top half of the conference in rushing offense. Junior Phillip Lindsay and former walk-on Kyle Evans are both good at picking up three-to-seven yard chunks. The Buffs' offensive line is coming off its worst performance of the season and will certainly need to show up on Saturday night in order for Colorado to handle the Sun Devils' aggressive defense.
SunDevilSource: We're in the second year of Jim Leavitt's tenure as defensive coordinator. We've seen Leavitt run a lot of odd front, 3-4 defense and also some base nickel. What's the hallmark of this defense and the strengths considering Colorado has significantly improved its pass defense the last couple years?
Munsterteiger: After every practice, Leavitt jogs from the practice fields and heads up to his office. He is a film junkie and he is very creative, so the Buffs' defense and its plan of attack changes a lot based on the opponent. Colorado's pass rush has been good at times this season, but it has not been as consistent as they would like it to be. Junior outside linebacker Derek McCartney going down with a torn ACL didn't help in this area. The fact the Buffaloes have two senior cover corners in Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon is a very simple answer to your question about how Colorado's pass defense has significantly improve. Sophomore cornerback Isaiah Oliver, a Brophy Prep product, is also very talented.
SunDevilSource: Who are the key defensive players to know and why, including standouts, and areas of potential concern or non-strengths?
Munsterteiger: Awuzie is the top pro prospect on Colorado's team. While he has uncharacteristically missed some tackles in recent games, Awuzie is still one to key in on Saturday night if you are an Arizona State fan. He wears No. 4 and will play both at cornerback and in the nickel back role. His versatility and playmaking ability has allowed Leavitt to make some calls as defensive coordinator the last couple years that he otherwise wouldn't have been able to make. Senior Josh Tupou, who returned to Boulder after a year-long suspension, does not make a lot of tackles himself but he is the key to the Buffaloes' defensive front. He is a space-eating 325-pounder that mans the nose tackle role on Colorado's three-man defensive line. Tupou has been playing at an all-conference level this season, as has senior inside linebacker Kenneth Olugbode, who leads the team in tackles by a fairly wide margin. Jordan Carrell and Samson Kafovalu are the other starting defensive linemen and they both seasoned seniors.
In terms of concerns or non-strengths, the Buffs have been susceptible on the edge on running plays at times this year. Also, while they had tackled pretty well through the first five games, USC running back Justin Davis broke a lot of arm tackles against Colorado before getting hurt last Saturday. Knowing how skilled and physical Arizona State's running backs are, that has to be a concern going into this week's game.
SunDevilSource: What do you expect Colorado will try to accomplish against freshman quarterback Dillon Sterling-Cole and the ASU offense if he gets the start?
Munsterteiger: Again, knowing how talented the Sun Devils' running backs are, I would imagine Colorado will put a lot of bodies close to the line of scrimmage and dare Sterling-Cole to try to challenge the Buffs' cover corners. Also, on passing downs, Leavitt will certainly try to be creative in dialing up blitzes that will try to rattle the freshman quarterback.
SunDevilSource: What type of game are you expecting and what's your prediction?
Munsterteiger: Arizona State has absolutely owned Colorado since the Buffaloes joined the Pac-12. And the Sun Devils are 5-1 and ranked (at least in the Coaches Poll) so there should be literally zero cockiness displayed by Colorado entering this game. That said, given how well the Buffs have played in their home state so far this season, and given the Sun Devils' quarterback situation, I see this being a statement game for Colorado. Arizona State's pass defense has struggled and no matter who starts behind center for the Buffs, Colorado should have a lot of success through the air Saturday night. I've predicted a final score of Colorado 41, Arizona State 17. I welcome all of your readers to call me names and if the Sun Devils win, or keep it really close, feed me some crow. Since the Buffs joined the Pac-12 in 2011, this is only the second blowout victory I have predicted for them.