This has not been the start to the season – or the Mike Bobo Era – that Colorado State fans were hoping for. Through five games, whether it’s been a glut of turnovers, penalties or uninspired play calling, these Rams have made a bad habit of blowing off all the toes on both feet. Sitting at 2-3 and facing a season-defining tilt this weekend, more of the same isn’t going to cut it. Yet more of the same is almost a certainty, at least for now.
Here’s why: On and off the field, CSU is trying to establish an identity as a Power Five-type program. The administration has done an excellent job of upgrading everything from facilities – including a fantastic new place to play home games in 2017 – to expectations. They’ve gone out twice now within the last five years and hired a head football coach away from a program within the mighty Southeastern Conference. This fits fans’ expectations perfectly because there are a whole lot of Ram supporters who are actively campaigning to get CSU invited into a Power Five conference like the Big 12. After all, as an agricultural school, Colorado State is actually larger than either Iowa State or Kansas State, and they’re both in the big leagues. So why not Colorado State?
It makes sense on some level, sure. Then again, perhaps the focus of fans, players and coaches alike should be on winning the conference they’re actually in, rather than pining to be someplace else … or even more importantly, trying to be something they’re not. Doing so has led to the dysfunction that has plagued this season so far.
When you bring in an offensive coordinator from an SEC school (and unlike former head coach Jim McElwain, Bobo was not “well traveled;” he’s spent all but one year of his adult life as a Georgia player or assistant coach), it stands to reason that you’re going to get a team modeled after that SEC program. And that’s the mistake. SEC teams thrive by recruiting blue chip high school athletes. Most of them just line up and play straight ahead, old school, no frills football. The team with the better players wins. That’s never going to work at Colorado State because CSU will never be a place that lands a glut of top-ranked prospects. Talent alone will not win big games in the Fort.
Ironically, if CSU – and Bobo – want a program to emulate, they should look across the sidelines on Saturday at Hughes Stadium. Boise State, not Georgia, should be CSU’s role model.
In baseball terms, before you can become a big leaguer, you need to master Triple-A. CSU has not won the Mountain West conference title since 2002. Meanwhile, Boise State continues to rule the roost. There’s no debate that the Broncos are the best football program in the Mountain West Conference. (Boise State outperformed CSU in the other marquee sport, men’s basketball, last season as well.) If any MW school has a legitimate claim that it should be next in line to be granted membership in a Power Five conference, it’s Boise State.
Complain all you want about BSU’s market size or academics or whatnot; the bottom line is Boise State is, at this moment, head and shoulders above the rest of the MW expansion candidates, with only conference turncoat BYU as competition west of the Mississippi River.
The reason Boise State has been so successful is that Boise State knows who they are and what they have to do to win on a consistent basis. For instance, when the Broncos lost their highly successful head coach, Chris Petersen, to the University of Washington two years ago, they didn’t look to the Southeastern Conference for a replacement. Instead, they brought back their own former assistant Bryan Harsin, and all he did in his first season was take the Broncos to the Fiesta Bowl … and win it.
Think success in college football is all about recruiting? Think again. When Rivals.com compiled their final recruiting rankings for the Class of 2010 (college seniors in 2014) Georgia came in at No. 15. Boise State came in at No. 82. (Colorado State was No. 58.) Which team played in – and won – a New Year’s Day bowl game last season? That would be the Broncos. And for good measure, in the opening game of the 2011 season, Boise State beat Georgia by two touchdowns … in Georgia! On offense, Boise State isn’t vanilla. They’re Neapolitan. When was the last time you saw CSU (or Georgia) run the ‘ol Statue of Liberty play?
For schools outside the top ten, it’s about what you do with the talent you bring to campus, not how many five star guys you can line up on Saturday. It’s about establishing an identity and a level of consistency. Do what you do better than the other guy. That’s how you have a chance to beat teams with more pure talent on their roster (Air Force being a prime example). For Colorado State to take the proverbial “next step” they will have to defeat more than a few teams that have more pure talent.
The CSU school administration has made all the right moves in the past five years, from the new indoor practice facility to the hiring of McElwain and Larry Eustachy to the launching of the new on-campus football stadium. Had Oregon offensive coordinator Scott Frost not ducked out at the last minute, he would have been the perfect hire for CSU considering his vast resume. Now that Bobo has the job, it’s up to him to adjust his way of thinking and doing things. The vanilla “line up and go right at ‘em,” easy-for-opponents-to-prepare-for offense isn’t going to cut it. CSU cannot just line up and win because of a talent edge. Some imagination in game planning, some implementation of schemes that aren’t standard fare in the SEC will be mandatory.
That’s exactly what’s made Boise State successful. It’s the right plan for Colorado State to follow, too. Before CSU and Rams fans can legitimately talk about becoming a Power Five conference candidate, they need to rule the Mountain West. That means they need to be better than Boise State on and off the field.