FORT COLLINS, Colo. — The wait is over. College football season is officially here. 

After a year filled with frustration, cancelations and empty seats, we finally have an opportunity to enjoy the sport that we all love, and do it with the traditions and pageantry that college football deserves. 

Sure, the NFL is a cleaner product on the field, much like the NBA has higher levels of execution than college hoops, but what college football lacks in precision it makes up for with passion. Bradlee Van Pelt spiking the football off of a Colorado player’s helmet. Joey Porter running into the end zone to chest bump Gartrell Johnson. Those are the moments we live for as college football fans. And those are the moments the Ram Faithful were longing for in 2020, as they watched from their couches. 

For Colorado State, this season is an opportunity to put the frustrations of 2020 in the rearview and reach a bowl game for the first time since 2017. If the Rams are going to qualify for the postseason, though, they must first survive a pretty brutal schedule, starting with South Dakota State at home. So with that in mind, here’s a week-by-week preview/prediction for CSU’s 2021 season.

Week 1 South Dakota State (Sept. 3) 

The Jackrabbits are coming off of a tremendous spring season in which they went 8-2 overall and nearly won the FCS National Championship. Despite losing starting quarterback, Mark Gronowski, for significant time in the 23-21 loss to Sam Houston State in the title game last May, many are projecting the Jackrabbits to be a powerhouse at the FCS level once again. Steve Addazio even called them the best non-FBS team he’s ever seen.

Looking at the numbers it’s unsurprising why the masses have a lot of faith in the team from Brookings, S.D. They’re one of only two teams at the FCS level to qualify for the postseason in each of the last nine seasons. Not to mention they’ve at least reached the semifinal in three of the past five years. But even if you ignore their recent success and the respect they’ve established as a team under head coach John Stiegelmeier (174-107), this current iteration of SDSU Football is dangerous. They return 22 starters, 10 on each side of the ball and both specialists. 

On offense they run the hell out of the football. The Jackrabbits averaged 231.7 yards on the ground per game last spring. On defense they do a good job of preventing the big play and defending the Red Zone — an effective strategy when you also control time of possession and score 29.2 points per game. 

Putting things bluntly, this is a nightmare of an opponent for the Rams to open a season against. There is almost nothing good that can come from it. Either you beat a team from a lower division of competition and nobody really cares, because that’s what an FBS team should do. Or you lose to a team that’s done nothing but win over the last half decade, and even came close to upsetting a good Minnesota team in 2019, yet you’ll still get mocked for it. Alas, it’s the game on the schedule, so it’s a game that the Rams must win, especially when you factor in the following matchups. 

Going to Toledo and Iowa in back-to-back weeks will be a tough test. And although Vanderbilt is a bottom dweller in the SEC, they’re still a power five opponent. If CSU drops its home opener to SDSU there is a realistic scenario in which the Green & Gold go 0-4 in non-conference play, before opening the Mountain West slate against the defending conference champions. At the risk of being dramatic, this is a must-win game for CSU. 

Prediction: South Dakota State competes well and potentially even leads the game for a while. The Rams start slow but run the ball effectively, target Trey McBride and Dante Wright frequently, and get enough pressure from their defensive line to combat SDSU’s run game. CSU wins a tight one, 24-20. 

Week 2 Vanderbilt (Sept. 11)

While CSU should draw some criticism for scheduling South Dakota State, the school should get praised for being able to get another SEC team to travel west of the Mississippi River, especially because it’s a winnable game. The Commodores went 0-9 in 2020 and are just 3-18 over their last 21 games. Making things worse the program has suffered significant roster turnover in recent years. 

Vandy does have a new staff this year, including CSU’s offensive coordinator from a year ago, Joey Lynch, as their QB coach. He’ll try to help improve an offense that finished 14th in the SEC in scoring last season. Former Notre Dame defensive coordinator Clark Lea is now running the show. Even with Derek Mason out of the picture, expectations aren’t much higher for the Commodores though, as they were tabbed to finish dead last in the conference by the league’s media. 

Coming off of a 1-3 year themselves, CSU cannot afford to get too cocky going into this matchup. You know the Commodores are going to view it as one of their most winnable games and will give the Rams everything they’ve got. But the reality is they do not have anyone as talented on the roster as McBride or Wright on offense. And they don’t have a Scott Patchan or Manny Jones to attack the QB either. 

Prediction: CSU comes out in the new Ag unis and performs well in front of a nice home crowd. Vandy makes a couple of plays on offense. But the Rams find a way to close the door in the second half. CSU wins 33-17. 

Week 3 at Toledo (Sept. 18)

The road trip into MAC territory is one of the games that I am most interested in. By Week 3 the Rams should have worked out some of the kinks of the early season and should be starting to establish an identity as a team. But looking at the situation realistically, this is not going to be an easy upset for the Rams to pull at all. 

Toledo went 4-2 in 2020, so much like CSU, it’s a pretty small sample size to pull from. Nonetheless, looking at the numbers it’s easy to see they were an explosive group last fall. The Rockets scored 35 points and averaged 494 yards per game in 2020. The big question is whether or not they can replicate the success after losing last season’s starting quarterback, Eli Peters, to medical retirement. As of Aug. 31, 2021, Toledo has yet to name its Week 1 starter publicly. But we should know that answer by the end of Week 1. 

While Toledo will have a new face at QB, the rest of the offense will look essentially the same. The Rockets return all five starters from last year’s offensive line. They also return running back Bryant Koback. If that name sounds familiar, it’s probably because Koback went for 228 yards on 19 carries (12.0 Avg.) and three touchdowns when Toledo came to Canvas Stadium in 2019. Over his career he’s totaled 2,226 rushing yards and 30 touchdowns over the last three seasons, so slowing down Koback will obviously be important. 

Defensively Toledo returns four all-MAC selections but the group did allow about 25 points per game last fall. If the Rams can get the run game going, control time of possession and capitalize in the Red Zone, there is a path to success if CSU is the team dictating the pace of the game. But if it turns into a shootout or Toledo jumps out to a big lead and gets to send their veteran edge rushers after Centeio all game, things could get ugly in a hurry. 

Prediction: The Rams play much better than when these teams faced off in 2019 but Toledo’s offense proves to be a little too much to overcome on the road. The Rams lose their first road game of the year, 34-24. 

Week 4 at Iowa (Sept. 25) 

This trip to Iowa is a great way for the Rams to get some national attention but it’s a pretty difficult way to close out the OOC portion of the schedule. The Hawkeyes ended the 2020 campaign on a six game winning streak and are widely projected to be a top 15 team this fall. 

If there is a silver lining for Ram fans it’s that the Hawkeyes will have quite a few new starters on both sides of the football this season. But even so, Iowa returned its starting quarterback (Spencer Petras). They also bring back Tyler Goodson, a star running back that totaled 762 rushing yards in eight games last fall. Tyler Linderbaum, who is largely considered the best center in the country, returned for the Hawkeyes as well. 

The realistic goal for this one is to just try to be competitive and come out of the game whole. Nobody expects the Rams to win this game. If CSU’s performance resembled the 2013 or 2017 trips to Alabama though, I think most would consider it a moral win going into conference play. 

Prediction: Iowa leans on its ground game and controls throughout. The Hawkeyes win handily but don’t embarrass the Rams in the process. Iowa wins 38-17. (Trey McBride scores a TD). 

Week 5 Bye

Week 6 San Jose State (Oct. 9)

San Jose State shocked the world in 2020 when they won the Mountain West Championship. Skeptics will say it was the product of a flukey season. The truth is they were, and they still are a damn good football team. 

On offense SJSU brings back nine starters, including (QB) Nick Starkel, who has really come into his own since transferring in from the SEC. Starkel completed 64 percent of his passes and a 4:1 touchdown to interception ratio last fall. The Spartans are counting on more of the same from him in 2021. 

Where SJSU really stands out, however, is on defense. The Spartans bring back all 11 starters from 2020, highlighted by the reigning MW Defensive Player of the Year Cade Hall (DE). Hall was a quarterback killer in 2020, finishing the season with 10 sacks in just seven games. And the scary thing is he’s just one of many playmakers on this defense. SJSU also brings back three senior linebackers and a secondary full of veterans. 

Considering the talent at quarterback in the West division this season, it’s probably a good thing SJSU is so defensively stout. My only real question is whether they’re able to survive a deceptively grueling schedule. After playing at USC in Week 1, they’re weirdly on a bye in Week 2. Then coming out of the bye week the Spartans have to travel to Hawaii in Week 3, before going to Western Michigan in Week 4, and hosting New Mexico State in Week 5. Other than USC, they’re definitely better than all of those teams, and I honestly think they’ll compete well against the Trojans even. But that’s a ton of travel for SJSU early in the season. So maybe the Rams will get lucky and they’ll come into FoCo worn out. 

Prediction: CSU comes close to pulling the upset but San Jose State takes the lead in the second half and pulls out the road win. San Jose State (24) CSU (16)

Week 7 at New Mexico (Oct. 16)

It’s been over a decade since UNM was able to beat CSU. After spending time with head coach Danny Gonzales and their veteran players at Media Days this summer, I can tell you that it’s something that drives the good folks in Albuquerque, N.M. insane. The Rams better be ready for the Lobos to throw their best punch in this one, especially with the game being played in New Mexico. 

Over the last decade the series has been kinda weird. Games have either been extremely tight or total blowouts, rarely anything in between. If I had to guess, 2021 will likely be the former, but it’s tough to say given the question marks surrounding their offense. 

Assuming that it’s Kentucky-transfer Terry Wilson under center, the Lobos should find a little more consistency with the passing game than they did with a QB carousel a year ago. And with 14 seniors on the roster, I expect UNM to be a tricky opponent for anyone they face in league play this season. Honestly, it really wouldn’t be that surprising if they were competing for a bowl bid at the end of the year. But the talent gap between these programs is still significant enough that it feels safe saying the Rams should expect to win as long as they are healthy and value their offensive possessions. 

If you take anything away from this, it should be that this game is going to be tougher than most expect.

Prediction: UNM hangs with CSU for three quarters but the Rams pull away with a couple of scores in the fourth quarter. CSU (27) UNM (20) 

Week 8 at Utah State (Oct. 22)

This is going to be one of the shortest sections of the article, because the truth is Utah State is going to look way different than what we’ve seen over the last two years, and we just don’t really know that much about them. The Aggies have a new coach, new quarterback, and all kinds of new talent on the roster. 

They should be better than they were in 2020, especially with Logan Bonner (QB) running the same system he ran for head coach Blake Anderson at Arkansas State. He threw for 1,863 yards and 18 touchdowns in 11 games with the Red Wolves last fall.

Adding Justin Rice at linebacker should help the Aggies as well. He was a stud during his time with Fresno State and produced well at Arkansas State in his lone year there. But will they be so much better that they drastically improve upon a year in which they allowed roughly 35 points and 500 yards of offense per game? We shall see. 

The trip to Logan, UT. is never easy so CSU is going to have to perform well in order to come out on top. But early in the league slate it still feels like a pretty winnable game for the Green & Gold.

Prediction: CSU goes into Maverik Stadium and controls throughout. The Rams don’t blow out the Aggies but they never trail and are able to get the ground game going. CSU (30) Utah State (20) 

Week 9 Boise State (Oct. 30)

Boise State was once again projected to win the Mountain West in 2021, which makes sense given the program’s winning tradition, and the fact that there was nobody in the Mountain Division to split the vote like there was in the West. While the Broncos should be a really solid football team, a group that finishes with eight or even nine wins, I don’t believe they’re going to be the powerhouse that their fanbase has become accustomed to. 

Boise State has a new head coach, a new offensive coordinator for the third year in a row, and a quarterback in Hank Bachmeier that can’t seem to stay healthy. So there’s plenty of reasons to be skeptical of the Orange & Blue coming in. Playing devil’s advocate, there’s reason to believe as well with (WR) Khalik Shakir and RB (George Holani) both still in the mix. This is definitely an offense that could be explosive if everything goes their way. 

Defensively the Broncos will have to replace both starting cornerbacks. Ram fans can breathe a little easier knowing that Avery Williams won’t be on the field. That said, one would also assume that Andy Avalos’ defensive background should be a good thing for the Broncos defense, which was good but not great a year ago. 

Prediction: CSU hangs tough, as they traditionally do when the Broncos come to town, but ultimately fall short to a team with more offensive firepower. Boise State (34) CSU (24)

Week 10 at Wyoming (Nov. 6)

The Bronze Boot returning to CSU was one of the few things worth celebrating in 2020. If the Rams want to keep it they’re going to have to go beat an inexperienced Wyoming team on the road. 

The Pokes have the best running back in the Mountain West in Xazavian Valladay. They have one of the best linebackers in Chad Muma as well. With a favorable schedule that includes an absolute cakewalk of a non-conference slate, everything is set up for the Pokes to win eight or more games in 2021. The one thing that could hold them back is a lack of passing offense. 

Sean Chambers is back at starting quarterback after suffering yet another season-ending injury in Game 1 of last season. I have doubts that he’ll be a consistently effective passer but the dude has the heart of a lion. If he can do just enough, like move the chains and put points on the board when the Cowboys reach the Red Zone, they should be one of the better teams in the Mountain West, especially with 10 starters coming back on defense. 

The reason I believe CSU plays well, though, is the roster is led by a strong veteran group. I have a hard time seeing the McBride brothers, Scott Patchan, Manny Jones, etc. laying a duck in their last Border War as players. I also have faith in Addazio getting the guys amped up for this one, as he’s already shown a willingness to lean into the rivalry.

Prediction: CSU finds a way to steal an ugly one from the team up North. Neither offense looks particularly exciting but Trey McBride finishes with 100 receiving yards and at least one touchdown. CSU (17) Wyoming (13)

Week 11 Air Force (Nov. 13)

Much like Utah State, Air Force is tough to project, because their roster is going to be so different than it was a season ago. I’ve learned to not ever count out Troy Calhoun’s teams over the years but I do have a hard time seeing why many are so high on the Falcons this fall. 

Air Force will be replacing its entire starting offensive line, may or may not have a new quarterback, and is almost entirely unproven at the skill positions going into the season. So it’s just about impossible to say how they’ll look running the academy’s unique option offense. One would assume they’d have most things figured out by Week 11 though. 

What’s crazy is they’re almost just as difficult to predict on defense, as 10 of the 11 projected starters for the 2020 team ended up opting out of the season. A few of the contributors from 2019 should be back in the mix this fall. It’s just really a crap shoot trying to guess how good this team is actually going to be. Air Force is very good at limiting the information that comes out about them in the preseason. 

Prediction: CSU snaps a four-game losing streak to the Falcons thanks to standout defensive performance. CSU (24) Air Force (13)  

Week 12 at Hawaii (Nov. 20)

At this point we already saw Hawaii get curb stomped in their Week 0 trip to UCLA. Even so, I still have confidence in the Warriors playing a factor in the Mountain West this year. 

Chevan Cordeiro has multiple years of experience under his belt and is one of the more athletic quarterbacks in the conference. Calvin Turner (WR) is one of the most versatile weapons in the MW as well. 

The most important factor for Hawaii will be whether or not they’re able to improve defensively. They got torched for about 28 points and 400 yards of offense per game in 2020, and things didn’t look any smoother against the Bruins in their first game of 2021. 

If they can be even an average defensive unit, Hawaii should be a tricky team to deal with this fall, especially with the natural home field advantage they get from their opponents having to travel across the Pacific Ocean. The caveat is that after losing their stadium, the Warriors will be going from one of the biggest venues in CFB to the smallest. It’s unclear if that will have a big impact on the team or not, especially after a year where most games were played without fans anyways. But it’s definitely something to keep an eye on.

At this point of the year this game is probably a coin flip for me. CSU has played well at Hawaii over the last decade but it’s never an easy thing to do. If the Rams are going to qualify for a bowl game this season, they probably have to win this one, particularly if they lose to one or both of their local rivals in the two weeks leading up to it.

Prediction: After winning back-to-back rivalry games the Rams look a little sluggish on the island but find a way to win with a strong rushing attack. CSU (26) Hawaii (20)

Week 13 Nevada (Nov. 27)

With the return of Carson Strong (QB), Toa Taua (RB), Romeo Doubbs (WR), Elijah Cooks (WR) and Cole Turner (TE), Nevada should be one of the most electric offenses in the entire country. The Wolf Pack scored 31 points and averaged 441 yards of offense per game in 2020. I don’t see any reason why they won’t be just as dangerous this fall. 

After losing to San Jose State in the Mountain West Championship Game last winter, Nevada is hungry to prove they’re the new top dogs of the league. But their goals are even higher. In an interview with DNVR last month, Strong said that it’s New Year’s Six or bust for the Wolf Pack in 2021, which means they’ll also have to show out against the three power five opponents they play in the opening month of the season. 

There is a scenario where the Wolf Pack come into Fort Collins needing a win to secure a spot in the conference title game or potentially to cap off a double-digit win regular season, and if that’s the case it could be a long night for the Green & Gold.

But there’s also a scenario where Nevada comes up short of its goals and really doesn’t have much to play for. If the ladder were to happen, CSU would likely have a better shot at an upset. If you’re the Rams, you just don’t want to be going into this matchup one win shy of bowl eligibility. 

Prediction: Nevada controls throughout and wins by two scores. Wolf Pack (37) CSU (23) 

2021 Projection:

Record: 7-5

Postseason Game: New Mexico Bowl

Best Win: Wyoming

Worst Loss: Iowa

Justin Michael
Author

Justin has been covering Colorado State athletics since 2015 & has been featured in multiple national outlets. Along with keeping up with the Mountain West, Justin loves the local teams and has been going to Broncos games since he was six years old. Follow Justin on Twitter - @JustinTMichael

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