BOULDER — How new coach Mel Tucker intends to make CU football a winner is so crazy it just might work.
“Our goal on defense is going to be 13 points or less,” Tucker told me Thursday. “Every game.”
Defense is dead in college football. Every team scores 30 in a game. Nobody makes stops. The minimum requirement to be a Heisman Trophy finalist in 2018 is three dozen touchdown passes. Walk to the fridge to grab a beer during a Pac-12 Conference game, and you might miss two lead changes.
During the past 15 years, the Buffaloes have had three winning seasons (2004, 2005, 2016) and fired four football coaches (Gary Barnett, Dan Hawkins, Jon Embree and Mike MacIntyre).
If that’s not the definition of a program that’s a coach-killer, I don’t know what is.
“Why not us? Why not the University of Colorado? Why not the Buffs?” said Tucker, given a five-year, $14.75 million contract to build an elite program. “There is no reason we should not be able to compete at a championship level and win championships.”
No disrespect to Tucker, but forgive me for chuckling. I’ve heard this song before. There’s a grand holiday tradition in Boulder. If it’s December, a new Colorado football coach comes a-caroling, proclaiming 1990 was no fluke and there’s no stopping the Buffaloes now.
Let’s play a little game of CU Football Jeopardy! Name the Buffs coach who said this about winning a national championship: “I think that definitely has to be the goal. To me, there are only two types of class: first and none. You’re either trying to be the best, or you’re not.”
Those were the words of Hawkins in December 2005, who also vowed to recruit CU’s next Heisman winner. Five years later, Embree took over for Hawkins and declared: People “don’t know the accomplishments we have as a program. People are going to know about it now, I’ll tell you that.” And in December 2012, MacIntyre assured his new employer: “There’s no reason Colorado can’t be at the top of the Pac-12.”
Well, I can give you 117 reasons. During the past 15 seasons, the Buffaloes have lost an average of 7.8 games per year and won exactly one bowl game (against Texas-El Paso, for those of you keeping score at home).
This is not to suggest Tucker cannot succeed. But he will only do it by being true to his heart, rather than chasing trends or high-school prospects in SEC country not good enough to play for Nick Saban.
CU athletic director Rick George traveled in the way back time machine to hire a coach that most resembled Bill McCartney, circa 1982. Defensive coordinator at a football powerhouse? Check. Midwest values? Check. Reputation as an always-be-closing recruiter? Check.
Tucker checks all those McCartney boxes.
But after his introductory press conference, as snow fell on the Dal Ward Center, I presented a scoreboard riddle to Tucker:
West Virginia scored 56 points, but it wasn’t enough to beat Oklahoma. Thirty-nine by Michigan got them routed by rival Ohio State. Georgia, where Tucker was defensive coordinator, left the recent SEC championship game with 28, and fell a TD short to Alabama.
So what qualifies as great defense in college football today?
“Scoring defense is the No. 1 stat you look for,” Tucker said. “I still believe that.”
The game has changed. Chad Brown lived football glory for the Buffaloes as an all-conference linebacker in the early ’90s
“Once upon a time, making a defensive play was defined as knocking the snot out of somebody. That big hit elevated the excitement in the crowd, it got your sideline going and created momentum,” he said. “Now we’re playing basketball on a football field. We’re creating turnovers, forcing fumbles or making interceptions on defense. And that’s become more important than knocking the snot out of somebody.”
So while CU’s goal of limiting foes to 13 points per game is laudable, is it remotely realistic? This season, only 19 defenses of 130 FBS programs held opponents to under 20 points per game.
“I’ve seen places in college football where the goal in terms of points allowed has gone up, because they feel the game has changed,” Tucker said. “But I don’t see a reason to do that. You stop the run. You make offenses one-dimensional. And you keep in mind it’s hard to get off the field on third down, if your defense is always facing third-and-2.”
Now get off his lawn.
But know what? Maybe Tucker has a point.
While we’re dazzled by the video-game numbers rocking scoreboards from Pullman, Wash., to Columbus, Ohio, here’s old-school philosophy to consider: Among the playoffs’ final four, the defenses of Clemson, Alabama and Notre Dame all rank among the top 10 in fewest points allowed.
“We will be physical,” said Tucker, who has called football by a different name since the age of 3. “My dad always told me that the name of the game of football was hit. H. I. T. Hit.”
There’s nothing timid or weak about the pride and tradition Tucker wants to build at Colorado.
It begins with old-school defense like your dad talks about.
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