A November To Remember

While the skies over Folsom were crystal clear Friday, the future of CU's football program is more than partly cloudy. Under Gary Barnett, Colorado has been coached to play its best regular season football in November. Somehow, this year's team, dominated by seniors, saved its worst for last. Is it time to shake up the status quo?

This season marks the worst Colorado has played in November under Gary Barnett. The Buffs managed a 1-2 record — beating Missouri and losing to Iowa State and Nebraska — matching the record they had in November in 1999 and 2000. But in those seasons, Colorado played Nebraska tough, nearly pulling off the victory before a last-minute defeat.

Not so Friday. The 30-3 loss to the Cornhuskers at Folsom was an embarrassment. Played before a national audience on ABC, the Buffaloes embarrassed themselves, embarrassed the CU fans in the stands and across the country, and embarrassed the program, one that happened to be hosting its biggest contingent of recruits of the fall.

Afterwards, a chagrinned head coach Gary Barnett had no explanation. "For whatever reason — I can't give you one … we just didn't respond to the challenge of this game. We put on a very poor performance in a very critical situation."

There was a palpable sense through the Dal Ward Center afterwards that many in the Colorado program wouldn't mind if Iowa State beat Kansas Saturday and earned the trip to the Big 12 Championship game. An Iowa State loss would, for the second year in a row, get Colorado in through the back door. Whoever heads to Houston to face the Longhorns Dec. 3 is probably in for a massacre. The psyche of this Colorado program may not be able to recover from another beat down by Texas on national television.

Then again, the program has gotten used to losing big in big games. Friday's loss was only one in a growing string of blowout losses dating back to 2002. Eleven times, the Buffs have lost by 20 points or more over the past four seasons. In the same span, Colorado is 4 and 12 vs. ranked teams.

Those numbers are not an aberration, not even a trend. They've become the norm. Colorado doesn't win big games against big-time opponents, they lose them, often by three touchdowns or more.

Meanwhile, Friday's game breathed life into a Cornhusker team that seemed on the verge of imploding. (And will Nebraska fans ever let CU forget about the foolish display a handful in the CU student section put on by throwing objects onto the field?)

It was heartbreaking to watch this class of 20 Colorado seniors have to go out on such a sour note. The group is filled with first-class young men, not too mention a handful of football players who will play on Sundays. As the players left the field for the final time, they endured the jeers and taunts and obscene gestures of a group of about 50 Cornhusker fans gathered at the northeast exit, leaning over the railing and yelling full voice.

Speaking of Yelling
Nebraska fans weren't the only ones yelling. The KOA Radio post-game show, and the Internet message boards were lit up with CU fans "yelling" about the state of the program following the 30-3 embarrassment. You can bet CU athletic director Mike Bohn would be sleeping much easier tonight if Colorado hadn't laid that egg.

Now, what's Bohn to do? Bohn and Barnett have been in negotiations for extending Barnett's contract, one that currently ends in July 2007. Bohn and many in his department had built up a lot of good will among Colorado fans since he took over the cash-strapped department in April. He's worked tirelessly spreading a positive image of Colorado and shown an ability to be innovative along the way.

But this loss has the possibility of undermining good marketing strategies that paint a brighter future. In the shadow of Friday night's scoreboard, it's very difficult to see anything but more of the same in CU's future. That is, unless some significant changes are undertaken.

Then again, Colorado doesn't have the kind of financial backing to lure a big-time head coach, if Bohn decided to go in that direction. And brining in an up-and-comer is always a gamble. It often takes two or three years minimum to build momentum after a college football coaching change. Can CU afford to wait that long?

A change in offensive philosophy may be a quicker fix.

West Coast Conundrum
If you want X and O reasons for CU's infatuation with mediocrity, here's something to chew on.

Colorado's best seasons — by far — under Barnett have been 2001 and 2002. What those Colorado teams had that all his other CU teams haven't since 1999 is a strong running game. Those teams ran decisively between the tackles, which set up the play action, or — in 2002 — the deep ball.

The past three seasons, by and large, CU hasn't run the ball with authority. If Barnett doesn't re-commit to that kind of offense — one that seeks to dictate rather than respond — there's no reason to believe the Buffs' offense will get any more consistent than it was this season.

Remember, Barnett and offensive coordinator Shawn Watson have talked all season about how Joel Klatt — in his third year in the scheme — is ideal as a quarterback/manager for what CU tries to do on offense. What's going to happen next year? Or the next? Or the next? When CU will be breaking in new quarterbacks.

It takes quarterbacks a long time to get good in the cerebral West Coast offense. Is the study-heavy offense really suited to the college game, where practice time is strictly limited and student-athletes are already dealing with a college class load? Is Watson's way of thinking about offense better suited for the pro game?

And What About Recruiting?
Yes, what about recruiting? Now with the so-called scandal all but over (word is, Barnett's football camp will be cleared of mishandling money in the coming weeks via state audit), the words "Colorado recruiting" no longer bring sordid images to mind.

But recruiting became the redheaded stepchild of Colorado football during the past three years. Barnett has routinely downplayed its importance in building a good football team during that span — or at least tried to make people feel guilty for wondering why the Buffaloes were no longer competing effectively for high school prospects that other BCS conferences were competing for.

It's one thing to poke fun at the star ranking system used by Scout.com and its competitors. But when you go through two, almost three, recruiting cycles where the majority of players you're going after and getting are choosing between Colorado and Mountain West or other mid-major conference programs, something has changed.

Uncovering a diamond or two that no one else caught every cycle is the mark of a good staff. Thinking you can build a successful program with players that no Big 12 team outside Lawrence or Ames thinks they can starts to feel like arrogance.

To be fair, fallout from the so-called scandal put Barnett and his staff at a distinct disadvantage in 2003 and 2004. And when Barnett himself said on Signing Day 2005 that the Buffs were trying to "close the gap" between itself and the likes of Texas and Oklahoma, he was admitting that CU needs to recruit more talented football players.

Bohn seems to understand the importance of recruiting high-caliber athletes in order to be a legitimate contender for the Big 12 title, and a BCS bowl berth. Unfortunately, losing 30-3 to archrival Nebraska on national television doesn't help that effort.

Perhaps, despite it being the worst in several seasons, this IS a November to remember. One to look at and learn from and remember not to repeat. Perhaps Friday's loss will serve as a wake-up call.

It's becoming as clear as Friday's sunny sky that keeping the status quo will only reap more and more of the same.

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