Prior to last season, when the Colorado State Rams won eight games and defeated the Washington State Cougars in the New Mexico Bowl, the Rams had not won more than seven games since 2002. The architect of Colorado State’s turnaround is Jim McElwain, the former offensive coordinator for Nick Saban and the Alabama Crimson Tide. As you may expect, Colorado State football has found success primarily through their offense, under McElwain’s leadership. After finishing in the top 30 in both passing and rushing offense last year, they have some rebuilding to do. But expect the Rams to continue winning their share of Mountain West games in 2014, with the offense leading the way.
The Rams have all the pieces at the skill positions to field a very good offense again in 2014. Whether they can match last season’s production will depend on their offensive line. Senior LT Ty Sambrailo is an all-conference performer, but, otherwise, the rest of the line will have minimal experience. A bad line can drag down even the most talented offense, so finding cohesion there will be absolutely vital.
The good news is that the Rams have one one of the top quarterbacks in the Mountain West, with senior Garrett Grayson returning. After winning the starting job last year, Grayson threw for 3,696 yards and 23 touchdowns. He will need to cut back on the turnovers this year, after throwing 11 interceptions last season, but a year of experience should help with that.
Grayson will also have plenty of quality targets to throw to this year. He will have one of the top receivers in the conference in Rashard Higgins along with one of the best pass-catching tight ends, Kivon Cartwright. Joe Hansley, Charles Lovett and Jordan Vaden are solid receivers as well and give the Rams considerable depth.
The Rams will have to find a replacement for Kapri Bibbs and Donnell Alexander at running back. But Jasen Oden moved over from safety in the spring and looked like a potential star.
The Rams must replace all three starters along the defensive line of their 3-4 set. Colorado State played their backups quite a bit last year, though, so the new starters do have experience. The Rams just won’t have the kind of depth they enjoyed last season.
The Rams also lost one of their top linebackers, Shaquil Barrett, but that unit should still be a strength. The three returning starters combined for 314 tackles last season and Corey James and Aaron Davis excel at causing havoc in the backfield. James recorded eight sacks last year and Davis made seven tackles for a loss.
The secondary also returns largely intact, which may or may not be a good thing. This unit struggled mightily last year and will need to take a step forward if the Rams are going to be contenders in the Mountain West. The experience the unit gained last year might help, but it is unclear whether their mistakes can be fixed, or if the Rams simply lack talent in the secondary.
The Rams’ schedule is front-loaded, but not overly difficult. They will kick off the season against their in-state rivals, the Colorado Buffaloes, in Denver. Two of their next three games are on the road against the Boise State Broncos and Boston College Eagles. Boise State has a chance to win the Mountain West title this year, and should be able to handle the Rams. But the games against Colorado and Boston College are both winnable, if things come together.
If the Rams can find a way to win a couple of those games, they could find themselves on the road to an eight- or nine-win regular season. The second half of the schedule is much easier than the first. The Rams could potentially win their final fives games of the season, with the toughest game during that stretch being a road matchup with the San Jose State Spartans. The Rams may remain a few steps behind the elite teams in the conference this season, but they are an improving program, and contending for a conference title may not be more than a few years away.