by Bruce Marshall, Goldsheet.com Editor

When college football rivalries are the topic, Colorado State vs. Wyoming usually doesn’t get mentioned alongside more-prominent hate matchups such as Auburn-Alabama, Ohio State-Michigan, Florida-Georgia, or even Army-Navy. West of the Mississippi, however, few rivalries stir the soul as much as the Rockies border war between the Rams and Cowboys. Indeed, it might surprise many from outside the region that CSU views its annual grudge match vs. Wyo in far-more serious terms than it does the annual meeting vs. in-state Colorado.

Which is why the alarm bells began to ring loudly in Fort Collins after the Rams were drilled by the nearby Cowboys 44-0 in the 2010 edition of the battle for the Bronze Boot at the conclusion of the regular season. That a modest Wyo side could dominate so thoroughly in a rivalry game shocked most regional observers. Moreover, it got CSU backers to seriously question the direction of the program under alum Steve Fairchild, now entering a crucial fourth year on the job this fall.

In retrospect, several Mountain West insiders believe Fairchild might have unwittingly set the bar too high during a pleasantly surprising maiden voyage as head coach in 2008, when the Rams, flying far beneath the radar at the end of the Sonny Lubick era, made an unexpected run into the postseason and upset favored Fresno State in the New Mexico Bowl by a 40-35 count. Three straight wins that followed at the beginning of the 2009 campaign were further convincing CSU supporters that they had indeed found a proper successor to Lubick, under whom the program reached some uncommon heights in the previous 15 years. But it has all gone pear-shaped since for Fairchild and the Rams, who lost 18 of their next 21 games and enter 2011 as an afterthought in the Mountain West race. And off a pair of desultory 3-9 campaigns, the pressure is suddenly on Fairchild to forge a quick turnaround or else face the consequences.

To be fair, Fairchild’s rebuilding efforts figured to take three or four years to resonate, although the unexpected success of 2008 has boomeranged somewhat on the coach, with more than a handful of boosters now suspecting the talent left behind from the Lubick regime as the main reason Fairchild’s first team was able to overachieve. More objective analysts, however, point to a program in transition, and the fact Fairchild had to find a new starting QB for each of his first three campaigns. At least the latter doesn’t appear to be the case this fall.

That’s because 6'5 soph QB Pete Thomas, a San Diego-area product, assumed command of the Ram offense a year ago and appears poised to rewrite the CSU record book before his career in Fort Collins is complete. While enduring expected growing pains as a frosh, Thomas still completed 64.7% of his passes for 2662 yards and 11 TDs in his debut, not too shabby. With another year of seasoning, Thomas also ought to turn around his negative 11/13 TDP/pick ratio. Unfortunately for Fairchild, that QB piece, though important, isn’t going to be enough to finish the offensive puzzle unless significant improvement is realized along an offensive line that neither protected Thomas and other CSU QBs a year ago when they endured 44 sacks, ranking a lowly 118th in the nation, nor provided much room for Ram RBs, as a 103rd rushing ranking confirms. Those shortcomings contributed to an anemic 16.5 ppg and a 114th-ranking in national scoring stats, a number that has to improve if CSU wants to have even a whiff of the bowl scent this fall.

Four starters return along an OL that not only has had problems protecting its QBs, but has yet to master the sort of drive-blocking techniques that can translate into the sort of smashmouth infantry diversion that Fairchild and o.c. Pat Meyer are so hellbent to establish. Spring work was encouraging, however, as Fairchild noted improved coordination along a line he still believes should blossom due to the athleticism within the unit. LT Paul Madsen, a 313-pounder, is rated as one of the MWC’s best. Former UCLA transfer RB Raymond Carter ran with some flair last fall as a junior, but durability issues remain a concern, so look for bruising RS soph Chris Nwoke to handle some of the ball-toting chores. Unfortunately, ballyhooed frosh Kapri Bibbs, a decorated recruit from Illinois who gained 289 pg (!) as a senior and turned down Big Ten offers from Purdue, Minnesota and others in the midwest to sign with the Rams (who expected him to compete for carries in the fall), looks to be a late eligibility casualty and will likely spend the fall at a JC instead. Another frosh RB, punishing 220-lb. local recruit Dorian Brown, could also emerge as a factor in what is hoped will be an improved ground game. There is some experience in a WR corps featuring speedy jr. Lou Greenwood, who caught 34 passes last fall, but Fairchild has higher hopes for soph TE Crockett Gilmore, a converted DE, and RS frosh WR Brett Etherton, both of whom opened many eyes in the spring.

Whatever upgrades are made by the offense, however, could be for naught if the “D” doesn’t develop a bit stronger backbone after being pushed around the past couple of seasons. That’s been especially true of the defensive front, which was susceptible to pounding tactics from the opposition last year when allowing nearly 200 yards per game and 5 yards per carry on the ground. Six starters return from a beleaguered stop unit that allowed a whopping 34.7 ppg, ranking a poor 104th in points allowed, and prompted d.c. Larry Kerr to experiment heavily with new 3-4 looks in spring that hopefully better feature the platoon’s foot speed. Nonetheless, the two best run-stuffers (such as they were) from last year, DTs Guy Miller and Ty Whittier, have graduated, putting a heavy burden on thick 300-lb. sr. NT Nuku Latu to occupy multiple blockers in the middle of the pile. The stop unit remains very undersized, however, with Latu likely the only starter to tip the scales at better than 245 pounds. A small but active LB corps featuring a couple of playmakers on the edge, OLBs sr. Mychal Sisson and soph Mike Orakpo, remains the strength of the platoon, and three starters return in the secondary, including both CBs, jr. Momo Thomas & the only known college football player who was named after one of Cher’s offspring, sr. Elijah-Blu Smith. But the platoon needs to generate more big plays after forcing just 30 turnovers the past two seasons combined, and just 4 interceptions in 2010, which tied for the lowest mark in the country.

Although CSU offered some pointspread value at Hughes Stadium last season when covering the number in 4 of 5 home opportunities, overall the Rams’ pointspread fortunes have sunk along with performance since early in the 2009 campaign. CSU enters 2011 having covered only 6 of its last 18 games on the board, with road results particularly dreadful (0-12 SU and 2-10 vs. the line since late September of 2009).

Summary...Fairchild might not be in immediate danger of losing his job this fall, but his seat has become much warmer after collapses the past two years and the debacle at the end of 2010 vs. rival Wyo, which left a bitter taste in the mouths of Ram Nation the entire offseason. Some progress should at least buy Fairchild another year to put CSU back on track, and expected improvements from the offense with soph Pete Thomas now firmly entrenched at QB ought to get the Rams once again on the ascent. And the 2011 slate is not overly demanding, with CSU likely favored in four of its first five games before playing host to Boise State on October 15. The keys to getting back into the bowl mix involve better play along the lines, especially both ways regarding the run, and for some playmakers to emerge on a stop unit that has not been proactive enough the past two years. Given the forgiving slate, however, Fairchild is best advised to avoid another 3 or 4-win season that could easily land himself in some real hot water.

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