Are the Buffs Ram-Tough?

This is football country.
Oh, sure, Coloradans have embraced their late-arriving, lovable Rockies, which makes everyone feel very big-league and connected to the ghosts of Ty Cobb and Jackie Robinson. Scratching their heads, fans also learned that Peter Forsberg isn't allowed to make a two-line pass, and when the Stanley Cup was unexpectedly dumped in their laps--it was like winning the lottery--they were probably more shocked than they let on.

On the rare occasions when the region's benighted basketball teams, professional and collegiate, manage to emerge from the darkness for a moment, Coloradans stuff the joint and cheer. Witness the Nuggets' playoff upset of the Seattle Sonics a couple of seasons back, and the CU Buffs' startling return to the NCAA tournament last spring.

But this is still football country.
By all accounts, our generally fit, active citizenry would rather ski the glorious back bowls at Vail or pedal a bike over Loveland Pass than sit in a stadium or vegetate with a six-pack in front of the boob tube. Good for them. But when it comes to spectator sports, football holds a place in the Colorado heart that Dante Bichette and Joe Sakic still can't quite reach.

Honestly, now. Which do you recall more vividly--John Elway engineering The Drive or the Avs' Cup-winning game against Florida? (Those who remember the final score was 8-1, go to the head of the class.) Which event has stayed longer with you? Michael Westbrook's miracle catch in Michigan Stadium or the Rockies' historic playoff series versus Atlanta?

Which golfer won the International out at Castle Pines a few weeks back? Pretty tough. What number did Floyd Little wear a few decades back? Not so tough.

So buckle on the pads and fasten the chin strap. Here comes the kickoff.
The first major event of the local football season will come this Sunday, of course, when the Broncos host their old divisional rivals from Kansas City. Between John Elway's injured right arm (the most discussed American appendage since John Bobbitt's) and destitute Pat Bowlen's plea for corporate welfare, the opener looms large for a very good team that, when last we saw them in a game that counted, got their Super Bowl-bound butts kicked by the newcomers from Jacksonville. Dressed in circus costumes now and banged up, they could have their hands full.

The most interesting early-season football game, however, could be the one played Sep-tember 6 at Folsom Field in Boulder between Colorado and Colorado State.

First, the Buffs: Rick Neuheisel's kids are once more tabbed for greatness. The preseason polls rank them anywhere from first in the nation (The Sporting News) to twelfth (Athlon), and although they lost quarterback Koy Detmer to graduation, senior replacement John Hessler--a backup for three years--already ranks ninth on the school's all-time passing list. Top receiver Rae Carruth is also gone, but all that means is that the equally talented Phil Savoy will see more balls thrown his way. The rest of the receiving corps isn't exactly ground buffalo: Chris Anderson is rock steady on third downs, and the coaches are sky-high on young Darrin Chiaverini, who had seven catches in last year's Holiday Bowl and figures to loom prominently in the Buffs' offense.

With the possible exception of young linebackers, the Colorado defense is as staunch as ever, led by a pair of huge defensive tackles--Ryan Olson and (here's one of the great roster names for you) Viliami Maumau.

The running game? Lendon Henry is gone, but little Herchell Troutman, just 5-7 and 190 pounds, has shown his mettle for two years. Buffs fans may be surprised to learn that their club had the 62nd-ranked running game in Division 1A last season--not exactly the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse--but the sleeper this year is junior Marlon Barnes. Neuheisel says Barnes must improve his pass blocking, but the kid can run the ball. Just watch. They won't be 62nd again.

The bottom line on the Buffs: Florida, Nebraska, Florida State and Colorado are the only schools that won ten-plus games in 1994, 1995 and 1996, and the first three have all won the mythical national title.

Is this the year for Neuheisel's bunch? "Last year I came up in front of [the media] and said our goal was to win the national championship," he told the assembled reporters on Media Day. "I'm not going to say that this year." However, he also said, "We want to be to the point where we keep pushing the edge...I don't want people to talk about Florida, Florida State and Nebraska and then talk about Colorado in the next group down."

The guys who always find themselves a couple of groups down (and sixty miles north) would like nothing more than to turn the trick a week from Saturday.