Pope: Utah proves Colorado State not yet ready to run with the big dogs

Keegan Pope

Keegan Pope
Keegan Pope

LAS VEGAS — Four years ago, the Colorado State football program was in the middle of three consecutive three-win seasons when it walked into Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. CSU was uninspired, undisciplined and unable to stay on the field with then-No. 9 Utah as the Utes steamrolled the Rams 59-6 in what would be the last time the two teams would meet as Mountain West foes. It was the Rams’ worst loss since their 65-9 debacle against then-No. 8 Nebraska all the way back in 1997. Coaches, fans and players alike were happy to finally see the Utes go when they left for the Pac-12 after that season.

But sure enough, four years later, the two teams met again Saturday night at Sam Boyd Stadium in the Royal Purple Las Vegas Bowl. And unfortunately for the Rams, the result was very much the same. Without the leadership of former head coach Jim McElwain, who took the head coaching job at Florida on Dec. 4, the Rams were run off the field yet again by the Utes, who played disciplined, inspired football while dominating CSU from start to finish. But more than anything, Saturday’s game solidified the notion that the Pac-12, and “Power Five” conferences in general are head and shoulders above everyone else when it comes to football.

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Over the last two seasons, Colorado State had won three straight matchups with teams from the Power Five. First, they defeated Washington State in the New Mexico Bowl behind a miraculous comeback that was basically handed to them on a silver platter by two Cougar fumbles in the final minutes. Then, the Rams took down almighty big brother Colorado in Denver in the season opener earlier this year, before the Buffs (2-10) managed their first winless conference season in 115 years.

And finally came Boston College, who managed a 7-5 season, an upset of then-No. 9 USC and a near-upset of undefeated Florida State. Between their three wins over the “big boys,” CSU managed to: soundly upset a good Boston College team, beat one of the worst teams in the country over the past five years and be gifted a win over a Washington State team that had dominated for three quarters of that game.

And while none of this is CSU’s fault, when the Rams faced a legitimate contender from a Power Five conference, they were battered, beaten and embarrassed. The Utes’ 45-10 shellacking says less about Colorado State as a program and more about the Grand Canyon-sized gap between the haves and the have-nots of college football.

CSU was outmatched at nearly every position, with the exception of quarterback Garrett Grayson, wide receiver Rashard Higgins and left tackle Ty Sambrailo, all who will find their way into the NFL after their careers at CSU are over. The Utes were bigger, stronger, faster, meaner and more talented than the Rams on nearly every play. This was no more apparent than on the offensive side of the ball, where the only touchdown CSU could muster was on a double-pass trick play between Garrett Grayson and Charles Lovett that went for a 39-yard touchdown. Other than that, CSU managed just 239 yards of offense – including an abysmal 12 rushing yards, and a 41-yard field goal from Jared Roberts.

“We got beat by a better football team today,” interim head coach Dave Baldwin admitted. “They were more physical than us, (and) I think they were faster than us.”

Despite what fans from outside the Power Five conferences want to believe, the talent gap between the two groups is bigger than it ever has been and it will only continue to widen as the money, resources and bargaining power of the big conferences continues to grow exponentially.

Don’t take anything from Colorado State, and the rest of the Mountain West, who was by far the best Group of Five conference this year. Finishing a season with 10 wins, including a nine-game winning streak is terrific, no matter what league they play in. But it’s time to face the music – Colorado State can’t yet run with the big dogs, not yet at least.

Collegian Sports Editor Keegan Pope can be reached at kpope@collegian.com and on Twitter @ByKeeganPope.