UCLA and Colorado have played some close games the last couple years, but the Buffaloes are more experienced now and obviously riding some nice momentum. What has changed in the program that has allowed it to take the next step?
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 is the experience you mentioned. 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. Ten of the 11 starters on the defensive side of the ball are upperclassmen and, offensively, the new up-tempo pace at altitude has helped Colorado become a really tough team to play in Boulder.
Sefo Liufau struggled throwing the ball in the previous game against Stanford, completing less than 50 percent of his pass attempts for just 135 yards. How has he been affected by missing a couple games earlier this season and how pivotal is he to the offense's success?
In his first game back starting after the ankle injury, Liufau was actually super efficient. He accounted for over 300 yards of offense and did not turn the ball over in Colorado's 40-16 win over Arizona State. But, yeah, Liufau was definitely off at Stanford for some reason. The fact the Cardinal got back their two most talented defensive backs from injury probably had more to do with his struggles than rust did. Liufau is definitely pivotal to the offense's success. When he is on his game, he is really a conductor out there. While his consistency has left something to be desired throughout his college career, particularly with his short to intermediate throws, Liufau has developed into a consistent running threat. And as a third-year captain, he brings a lot of intangibles to the table, including the ability to get everyone on offense on the same page.
The Bruins allowed well over 300 rushing yards in their loss to Utah but had been very good leading up to that game. How would you assess Colorado's rushing attack and the other weapons around Liufau?
Knowing how good UCLA's secondary is, and given how hot junior tailback Phillip Lindsay has been for Colorado recently, I would definitely expect the Buffs to try to establish their rushing attack early on Thursday night. Lindsay gained a total of 350 yards and scored three touchdowns on just 38 rushing attempts against Arizona State and Stanford. Colorado's offensive line has performed pretty well this season, but it struggled at times against the two most talented front lines it faced in games at Michigan and USC. So if Eddie Vanderdoes plays Thursday for UCLA, and with Takkarist McKinley having a stellar season, the Bruins' defensive line could present some issues. Colorado has three talented receivers in Shay Fields, Bryce Bobo and Devin Ross. They almost seem to take turns in having breakout games. All three have between 488 and 563 receiving yards through eight games.
Colorado ranks second only to Washington in scoring defense in the Pac-12 Conference. In what areas has that unit improved most and who are some players to keep an eye on Thursday?
The strength of Colorado's defense is its cover corners, seniors Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon. Being able to put them on an island and play man-to-man coverage allows Leavitt to be more aggressive with his calls. In terms of the area in which the Buffaloes' defense improved the most, it is definitely stopping the run. Colorado ranks fourth in the Pac-12 in run defense right now, after ranking 10th in the category a season ago. One of the reasons the Buffs have improved in this area so much is because of senior Josh Tupou's presence. He returned to Boulder after a year-long suspension. Tupou is a space-eating 325-pounder that mans the nose tackle role on Colorado's three-man defensive line. He 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.
What type of game are you expecting and what is your score prediction?
Despite the injuries and lack of momentum, UCLA still has a lot of talent on its roster and of course has a puncher's chance coming out to Boulder. But with Josh Rosen likely sidelined and given how well the Buffaloes have played in their home state this season, I think the most likely outcome in a double-digit win by Colorado. The Buffs outscored their first four foes in games played in the state of Colorado this season, 187-36. For Thursday's game, I'll say Colorado 31, UCLA 14. This is only the third time I've predicted the Buffs to blow out a conference opponent since they joined the Pac-12, the other times being earlier this season against Oregon State and Arizona State. If my prediction ends up being off substantially, I'll accept a heaping helping of crow.