Don't Count Buffs Out of the North Race

We're not even through the month of September and it's already been a year full of surprises for the Colorado Buffaloes. With Colorado winless and preparing to open conference play (at Missouri on Saturday), can we expect more surprises? Like, could an 0-4 Buffaloes team contend for the top spot in the Big 12 North? After Saturday's near victory in Georgia, the answer is yes.

Among the surprises...

August: Brian White is the odds on favorite to start at quarterback, with James Cox the odd man out and Bernard Jackson set to play in certain odd situations.
September: Cox emerges to earn starting spot in Game 1. Then Jackson trots onto the field in Game 2, while White quits the team shortly after.

August: The defense should be good, but the interior defensive line is a big concern.
September: The defense has been good and the interior defensive line — led by sophomores George Hypolite and Brandon Nicolas — have been one of its strengths.

August: Hugh Charles is the man at tailback.
September: Charles is the missing man during the first two games as coaches went more with Byron Ellis. Now, however, it appears Charles is once again in charge.

August: The tight ends will be a big part of the offense, and Tyson DeVree will have a breakout season.
September: Prior to the game in Georgia, the tight ends had 5 catches between them and DeVree just one. Then, Riar Geer found himself a staple of Saturday's game plan and answered the call with 7 receptions, most by any Buffalo this season.

August: Mason Crosby will show off his big leg and wow fans wherever the Buffs play.
September: The preseason All-American, until Saturday, had been relegated mostly to the bench because the CU offense couldn't get past midfield and give him a chance to contribute.

August: Montana State = Easy Win. At Georgia = Wince.
September: The Buffs dropped the opener to the Bobcats, then went to Athens and played better on the road vs. a top 25 team than they have in at least two and a half seasons.

What's it all mean?

What we've been witnessing is the growing pains of a team with new coaches who are teaching new ways of doing things, not to mention new offensive and defensive schemes. On offense, particularly, the growing has been painful.

However, after Saturday's game at Georgia, it's become apparent we may be in for some more surprises. These Buffs may yet play their way to a winning season.

In fact, here are five reasons the 0-4 Buffs will be in the hunt to win the Big 12 North despite going 0-fer in non-conference play.

Quarterback Play is Improving: The single biggest factor in CU's first three losses has been inexperience at the quarterback position. That's not a knock on any individual player. It's just that CU had to field a quarterback this year who hadn't had the time to get to a competent level in the new CU offense.

Now with the ball decidedly in Bernard Jackson's hands, quarterback play should continue to improve. Look at how much better Jackson was from the CSU game — his first action under center — to the Arizona State game. And look at the leap he took from the Arizona State game to the Georgia game. Against the Bulldogs, we saw a player who was finally starting to get comfortable with the mental aspect of the game, which allowed his physical abilities to begin to shine.

Jackson's not the second-coming of Kordell Stewart. But expect his play to continue to get brighter.

You Don't Run on the Buffaloes: The Buffs are giving up just 64 rushing yards per game. And despite giving up the late touchdown to the Dawgs, the CU defense has stiffened in the red zone on several occasions this season, sending the opposing offense to the bench without points. The big test, however, will be to see if the CU pass defense can improve. Most of the Big 12 teams these days, make their living with the passing game.

Road Showing: It's been a long time since a Colorado team went on the road into a tough venue and put up as good a fight as they did Saturday. CU had not beaten a ranked opponent in their house since an early-season win at UCLA in 2002. Recently, embarrassing blowouts on the road against good teams was the norm. But despite the loss, it looked like a different Buffalo team in Athens. It looked as though they expected to win. That mentality will go a long way in neutralizing home-field advantage when the Buffs are away from Folsom in the next two months.

Mistakes are Fixable: Dan Hawkins has been saying for four weeks now that the Buffs have been "close" to winning, but mistakes have gotten in the way. No where was that more evident than Saturday vs. Georgia. But the good news is that the mistakes — costly penalties, a dropped pass here or there, a mental lapse in assignment, a fumble — are correctable. Taking care of details is something that continues to be emphasized every practice. It's beginning to sink in.

The Schedule: Missouri and Nebraska have to be considered the frontrunners in the North right now. Missouri probably has the toughest conference schedule of any of the North teams, as they play at Texas Tech, Texas A&M and Nebraska, and host Oklahoma. Nebraska travels to Texas A&M and gets South power Texas in Lincoln. Colorado has tough travel dates at Missouri, OU and to Cornhusker Land.

By the end of the season, I think we'll see that neither the Tigers nor the Cornhuskers are yet at the level where the rest of the league are obvious also-rans. Despite what looks like improvement in Columbia and Lincoln, the North is still a fairly even division.

Big 12 North Standings

Missouri, 4-0 overall, 0-0 conference
Missouri 47, Murray State 7
Missouri 34, Ole Miss 7
Missouri 27, at New Mexico 17
Missouri 31, Ohio 6

Kansas, 3-1, 0-0
Kansas 49, Northwestern State 18
Kansas 21, Louisiana-Monroe 19
At Toledo 37, Kansas 31
Kansas 13, South Florida 7

Kansas St., 3-1, 0-0
Kansas State 24, Illinois State 23
Kansas State 45, Florida Atlantic 0
Kansas State 23, Marshall 7
Louisville 24, Kansas State 6

Nebraska, 3-1, 0-0
Nebraska 49, Louisiana Tech 10
Nebraska 56, Nicholls State 7
At USC 28, Nebraska 10
Nebraska 56, Troy 0

Colorado, 0-4, 0-0
Montana State 19, Colorado 10
Colorado State 14, Colorado 10
Arizona State 21, Colorado 3
At Georgia 14, Colorado 13

Iowa State, 2-2, 0-1
Iowa State 45, Toledo 43
At Iowa 27, Iowa State 17
Iowa State 16, UNLV 10
At Texas 37, Iowa State 14

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