Colorado is picked to finish last in the Pac-12 South, a prediction second-year coach Jon Embree didn't dispute. But Embree said winning two of the final three games last season is something to build on.
Jon Embree didn’t try to put up a fight. Didn’t attempt to pull out the no-respect card.
Instead, when Pac-12 media voted the Colorado Buffaloes last in the South Division last month, Embree shrugged and said he had no quarrel.
“We haven’t done anything,” said Embree, entering his second year as Colorado’s coach. “We won two games in the conference last year and we graduated a lot of guys. So I understand that.”
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Indeed, on paper the Buffs seem to have all the makings of a last-place team — and the conference’s only team that seems a stretch to contend for a bowl game.
Colorado was 3-10 last season overall and 2-7 in Pac-12 play, where it was outscored 354-162, by far the most points allowed and the fewest points scored of anyone in the Pac-12 (Washington’s much-maligned defense, by contrast, allowed 290 points in its nine conference games).
And as Embree noted, there is little proven talent returning as the Buffs welcome back just 10 position starters — four on offense and six on defense.
Given the team’s record, some might figure a lack of returners to be a good thing.
But among the starters lost were tailback Rodney Stewart (854 rushing yards in 2011) and quarterback Tyler Hansen. In fact, Colorado’s 28 seniors last year were the most for the school since 1987.
Now Colorado has just eight seniors — its fewest since 1995 and, according to the school, fewer than anyone in the country other than Indiana, with seven.
Embree, though, also notes that Colorado played 15 freshmen last season and ended the year on something of a high, winning at Utah to knock the Utes out of a berth in the Pac-12 Conference title game.
“I understand (the predictions), but yeah, I am optimistic,” he said. “I feel like us winning a couple of games at the end last year, two of the last three (the other was over Arizona), gives ourselves a chance to build on that momentum.”
Embree also said he views what Steve Sarkisian has accomplished with Washington as a template for what the Buffs hope to get done.
Colorado, on the surface, wasn’t quite the mess the 2008 Huskies were when Embree took over following the 2010 season, Dan Hawkins’ last in Colorado.
But they weren’t much better. Hawkins, who previously coached at Boise State, went 19-39 in Boulder before being fired and won just four of his last 21 conference games.
Embree hopes the wins at the end of last season indicate that the team’s belief in itself is beginning to turn.
“I look at what has happened up at Washington, how Sark came in there and what it was like, and going into his second year they had to win the last three to get to a bowl game, and they do it,” Embree said. “Once his players kind of believed that they could win, they started doing it.
“I know he was telling them, ‘Hey guys, we can do this, we can do this.’ But until they experience it, there is still that question in the back of their mind: ‘Well, how do we do it? We haven’t done it.’ So we need to have some success and need to try to find a way to get to a bowl game just like UW did in Year 2 to keep building momentum.”
One of the keys will be finding a quarterback. Heading into the second week of camp, Colorado still had three vying for the job — sophomore returnee Nick Hirschman, sophomore Connor Wood (a transfer from Texas) and junior Jordan Webb (a transfer from Kansas). Embree says he might use a platoon system.
Colorado could have a decent offensive line, with four returners who have previous starting experience, led by left tackle David Bakhtiari, picked by many preseason publications as a potential first-team all-conference selection.
Colorado appeared to suffer a big blow in the spring when star receiver Paul Richardson suffered an ACL injury. Richardson, though, is reportedly making a fast recovery and holding out hope he could be ready this season.
Among Colorado’s defensive returnees is outside linebacker Jon Major, who also has all-conference potential.
Another rebuilding year, though, won’t surprise anyone.
“Our program,” Embree said, “is at a place where we just have to keep moving forward.”
Bob Condotta: 206-515-5699 or firstname.lastname@example.org. On Twitter @bcondotta.