Forgive head coach Karl Dorrell and his Colorado Buffaloes if they seem uncommonly excited about their appearance in the Alamo Bowl.
After all, a program that won four straight Big 12 North division titles under Gary Barnett and beat the Texas Longhorns in 2001 to earn a conference title only made two bowl appearances in the 14 years between Barnett’s ignominious termination in 2005 and Dorrell’s return to Boulder this year. A Houston Bowl win over UTEP in 2004 is the last time Colorado was victorious in a bowl game.
So the narrative for this Buffaloes team looks a lot different than the last two bowl opponents for the Longhorns.
In 2018, Georgia was dealing with opt outs and the disappointment of losing a chance at the College Football Playoffs with an SEC Championship game loss. Last year, Utah was dealing with opt outs and the disappointment of losing a chance at the College Football Playoffs with a Pac-12 Championship game loss.
So when the Alamo Bowl kicks off on Dec. 29 in San Antonio, it’s Texas that will have to overcome the disappointment of failing to meet the high expectations this season, navigate the remaining uncertainty surrounding head coach Tom Herman, and overcome the loss of five captains to opt outs and another to injury.
However, at 4-1 and ranked No. 61 in SP+, Colorado doesn’t have the same winning pedigree as Georgia or even Utah and isn’t a darling of the analytics. Dorrell is still in the early stages of his attempted rebuild after his hire was announced in late February, only weeks before the pandemic shut down all football activities.
The loss of multi-year starter Steven Montez has dried up a passing game led last season by second-round draft pick Laviska Shenault Jr. With the graduation of Montez, the leading returning wide receiver, DeSoto product KD Nixon, hasn’t been as dynamic — he’s averaging less than 10 yards per reception as Shenault’s younger brother La’Vontae and Dimitri Stanley have emerged as the top targets of Sam Noyer.
None of those wide receivers average more than 50 yards per game, though, as Noyer’s best asset is his legs. In fact, it’s the running game overall that makes the Colorado offense tick, as the Buffs rank third in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per game and first in rushing attempts per game.
Noyer has five rushing touchdowns and 191 yards in five games, but it is sophomore Jared Broussard, a Dallas Bishop Lynch product, who has become the offensive standout for Colorado with 813 rushing yards, good for 162.6 yards per game.
After suffering two ACL injuries to the same knee dating back to his high school career, Broussard made his collegiate debut against UCLA — he was a member of the 2018 recruiting class — with 187 yards and three touchdowns. In a game against Arizona earlier this month, Broussard was even better, rolling up 301 rushing yards on 25 carries. Stopping him will be the focal point of the Longhorns defense.
In the red zone, Colorado turns to 6’2, 215-pound running back Jaren Mangham or 6’0, 200-pound Ashaad Clayton.
With the opts out of Jack Joseph Ossai and defensive tackle Ta’Quon Graham, backups on the Texas defensive line will have to step up to stop the Colorado rushing attack. If the defensive front struggles, defensive coordinator Chris Ash may have to make the type of adjustments that he hasn’t been forced into this season — committing numbers against the run at the risk of the Buffaloes throwing the ball over the Longhorns secondary.
The Colorado defense ranks No. 55 in SP+ and ranks No. 8 in the Pac-12 in rushing yards per attempt at 4.9. There are some playmakers, however, most notably rush linebacker Carson Wells, who recorded 13.5 tackles for loss through five games, and linebacker Nate Landman, who has nine tackles for loss. Wells and Landman are dangerous on passing plays, too, combining to record 9.5 sacks this season.
Both players will challenge the depleted Texas offensive line. As a result, the Longhorns will almost certainly have to employ a similar strategy to offensive coordinator Mike Yurcich’s approach against the Wildcats — lean on the running game and short passing game while avoiding the type of drop-back passes that could lead to sacks.
Colorado has been good against the pass, allowing seven passing touchdowns against four interceptions and limiting opponents to 5.9 yards per attempt, the best mark in the conference.
For Texas, the outcome is probably less important than getting more playing time for the young players asked to step up due to opt outs, injuries, and COVID-19 absences, but there’s no question that Colorado will have much more motivation in this game than the two previous bowl opponents for the Longhorns.
After all, only three Buffaloes players on the depth chart, including Noyer, have played in a bowl game before.