The Pac-12: where the Buffaloes now roam

When the University of Colorado announced last year that they were leaving the Big 12 for the Pac-12, there wasn’t a lot of fanfare. Colorado hasn’t been a top program of late and as a result has been on the wrong end of the spectrum for a number of years. The media also speculated about how many of the teams the Buffaloes left behind would be joining them in the conference.

The answer, as we all know, is none. At least, not yet. Talks about former Big 12 conference mate Texas A&M potentially defecting to the SEC continue, and they could have a domino effect that sees the Big 12 collapse and the Pac-12 step in to pick up more teams. For now, though, Colorado’s the only Big 12 team to head west.

That leaves the Buffaloes in a transition year in the truest sense of the word. You would be hard-pressed to find a team that has changed so much of their program in one year; including conference, schedule, coaching staff and more. However, what brings the most optimism for many Colorado fans is not the new conference or just the fact that they have a new coaching staff. No, what those fans are most excited about is that these new coaches have an old connection to the school.

Jon Embree was most recently the tight ends coach for the Washington Redskins. Now the head coach, he and new offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy have never held the positions they do now, but both are prominent alumni of the University of Colorado. That’s not where their connections to the past end. Embree and Bieniemy are looking to bring back the smash-mouth offence that most associate with the glory days of the university’s football program.

David A. Gerhardt is a contributor to SB Nation’s Colorado blog The Ralphie Report. He said the new coaching staff’s connection to the school provides benefits beyond just nostalgia.

“The coaches are Buffaloes too,” Gerhardt said. “That means something. They aren’t going to let this team be mediocre. They won’t let this team take plays off. They won’t let these players not give it their all. They did that as players, and they are instilling that in the kids that are here now. We can all feel this and it’s why we’re on tap to set a school record in season ticket sales.”

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Chip Patterson of CBS’s Eye on College Football agrees that Embree can bring a lot to the Colorado program.

“Colorado is still several years from anything close to ‘the glory days,'” Patterson said. “But with first-year head coach Jon Embree, there is at least a reason for hope. Unproven, but certainly passionate, Embree has the potential to re-establish a sense of pride that seemed to be lost under Gary Barnett and never was fully recovered with Dan Hawkins.”

While there is reason for optimism around Boulder, both Gerhardt and Patterson do not expect miracles early on from the new staff. One reason for skepticism is the difficult schedule the Buffaloes will face in the Pac-12.

“The Colorado schedule is absolutely brutal,” Patterson said. “The greatest challenge for Embree’s staff will be to balance a focus on the immediate future and the big picture. They can’t get down on themselves for a lack of success in year one, but the element of surprise could give them an opportunity to build some excitement with a signature upset.”

“We face a whale of a schedule,” Gerhardt said. “13 straight weeks without a bye; five teams that won 10-plus games last season; playing Ohio State in the Horseshoe; 5 of the top QBs in the national Heisman candidates; at least one Heisman candidate that isn’t a QB (LaMichael James), and only five home games.”

Patterson said there are advantages to facing unfamiliar squads, though, particularly with new coaching schemes no one’s seen on film.

“If there is any upside with the new staff, it’s that the playing field has been leveled from a preparation standpoint,” he said. “Colorado’s Pac-12 opponents have no idea exactly what to expect from Embree’s version of the Buffaloes, so at least they could have the element of surprise early.”

Many people look at the jump from the Big 12 to the Pac-12 as a huge leap in terms of talent. However, if you look at the polls (even accounting for USC’s sanctions not allowing them to be included), the Big 12 has more teams in the preseason coaches top 25 this season. There are still many reasons for Colorado to make the jump, though.

“The positives are numerous, but the biggest ones are these: significantly more TV dollars, the Big-12 will crumble apart at some point within the next decade, playing where most of our alumni reside, yearly access to the fertile recruiting grounds of California and Arizona and a myriad of others,” Gerhardt said.

“Yes, we’ll miss playing Nebraska every season, but hopefully we’ll be seeing them in the Rose Bowl before too long. We actually might be having more success recruiting Texas now that we aren’t playing there, which was one of our concerns that might no longer be an issue. Really, if you look at it, there are no negatives. This move was the right one for us and we are reaping the benefits already.”

Utah was the other team to join the Pac-12 this season, and Patterson said renewing a historic rivalry with the Utes could help the Buffaloes’ return to prominence.

“I think the rebirth of the Colorado-Utah rivalry will be a good thing for the program moving forward,” he said. “Between 1903 and 1962, the teams played each other 57 times, and now the game has been scheduled for Black Friday. It is clear that there is a theme of pride within the program. Reigniting this old rivalry is just another advantage of the move to the Pac-12.”

The news hasn’t been all about optimism lately, though. Colorado lost two cornerbacks to the NFL this offseason and the man keyed to step in, sophomore Jered Bell, recently went down with a season-ending knee injury. It is one more obstacle for the new coaching staff as they prepare for their first season, one which was never going to be easy. However, Patterson said that doesn’t mean the Buffaloes are doomed to long-term extinction.

“Immediately, the Buffs will likely finish near the bottom of the conference, but if Embree is given a couple of years to change the culture around Colorado football and bring in a couple recruiting classes that fit his style, then they have a real chance to build some momentum and restore pride in the program.”

Gerhardt, and other Colorado fans, see a bright future ahead under the new staff.

“I think Jon Embree will be here for a long, long time.”

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