Karl Dorrell’s first season as head coach of the Colorado football team came to a close with a 55-23 loss to Texas in the Alamo Bowl last December.
It was an ugly loss, but at least it came in a bowl game — just the second for CU since 2007. And Dorrell took home Pac-12 coach of the year honors after leading the Buffs to a 4-2 record.
His second season with the Buffs ended on Friday with a 28-13 loss to Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. And, rather than coach of the year awards, Dorrell has some fans wishing he’d get fired after going 4-8 (3-6 in conference) and slipping to fifth in the South division.
Despite the difference in results, Dorrell — who won’t be getting fired this winter — said Friday that he feels better about the Buffs’ program now than he did when he left San Antonio after the loss to Texas 11 months ago.
“I tell them that,” Dorrell said as he nodded towards a pair of players waiting to take the podium. “This team, in my opinion — and I told him that two or three weeks ago — is a better team than last year’s team. It has the foundation that it should have. Now, it doesn’t look that way in wins and losses, but like I just told them 15 minutes ago (after the loss to Utah), we’re inches away from being a winning program. We really are. And I think they understand that a little bit. But we still have a lot of work to do.”
There’s no question the Buffs have a lot of work to do this offseason, and Dorrell won’t wait long to get started. Among the priorities:
1) The coaching staff: Most notably, the Buffs have to decide what to do with offensive coordinator Darrin Chiaverini. The former CU receiver has been on staff for six seasons, including the past two as coordinator and play caller. He’s also got one year and $650,000 left on his three-year contract.
Chiaverini had a lot working against him this year. The Buffs were led by a freshman, first-time starter at quarterback. They struggled mightily on the offensive line, to the point of firing line coach Mitch Rodrigue after seven games. And, injuries and a suspension depleted the receiving corps at times.
Coaching is a results-oriented business, however, and the results on offense were not only bad. They were historically bad. The Buffs averaged 257.6 yards per game — the program’s lowest total since 1964 and the worst average for any Power 5 program since 2014. CU also finished with a scoring average of 18.8 points, which was boosted by the defense and special teams (four total touchdowns). The offense failed to score a touchdown in three games.
2) Close strong: National signing day, on Dec. 15, is rapidly approaching. The Buffs lost two commits last week, but they’ve got 15 on board. The class isn’t flashy but currently ranks fifth in the Pac-12, according to 247Sports.com. CU hasn’t had a class rank among the top half of the Pac-12 since joining the conference in 2011. Over the next two weeks, the staff will need to work on keeping the class together and making it better.
3) Roster decisions: There are only four players on the team who are seniors and exhausting eligibility. The COVID-19 pandemic-impacted year of 2020, however, has made it complicated going forward. The NCAA didn’t count 2020 towards eligibility, so the Buffs have 22 juniors who would have exhausted eligibility this fall but could come back. Several of those players went through senior day ceremonies on Nov. 20 and some of them won’t return. But, CU has to make some decisions on exactly who will come back. A lot of CU’s decisions will be based on which players have already received four years of financial aid (and a degree), rather than how much eligibility they have left. There will also be some roster decisions out of Dorrell’s control as there could be some players who choose to put their name in the transfer portal.
4) Hit the portal: The NCAA transfer portal could hurt the Buffs if certain players decide to leave. The portal could also help CU turn things around quicker. The Pac-12 was loaded with impact transfers this season, but not at CU. The Buffs added six transfers last offseason and none of them became regular starters — although linebackers Robert Barnes and Jack Lamb played well late in the season. Dorrell and his staff could be very active in the portal. How successful they are in finding impact players could make or break next season.
There’s a lot of building to be done by Dorrell and his staff, but he left Salt Lake City encouraged because he saw something in this team that he didn’t a year ago.
“I felt last year’s team didn’t have the fight and I told them that,” he said. “I felt like last year’s team, when we were in these moments you could sense a letdown. I felt this year’s team fought every time — every time — in all the circumstances. And I know that foundation in the program about finishing games and playing hard and playing for each other, that’s definitely in place in this program right now.
“We need to play smarter and then we have to play with better execution for us to result to wins. Those are the things that we need to work on as a coaching staff and as players. But in terms of fight, I didn’t doubt it one bit this year. These guys fought every day.”