Tory Horton
Colorado State's Tory Horton is a key offensive threat (PHOTO CREDIT: CSU Athletics)

Colorado State Football Preview: Rams Could Be Nation's Most Improved Team in 2023

Colorado State football took its punches in 2022, but has some spark this year with second-year coach Jay Norvell.

Colorado State football has taken its lumps in recent years, winning just 14 games in the past five seasons — with three of the 38 losses actually coming from Football Championship Subdivision opponents (Illinois State in 2018, South Dakota State in 2019 and Sacramento State in 2020).

However, there are reasons for optimism in Fort Collins this fall, and they start with second-year coach Jay Norvell.

Colorado State 2023 Preview

The conference: Mountain West Conference (Note: The MWC got rid of the two divisions this spring)

2022 record: 3-9 (wins against MWC teams Nevada, Hawaii and New Mexico)

Conference finish: 3-5 (tied for fifth in Mountain Division)

Head coach: Jay Norvell (second year, 3-9; sixth year overall, 36-35 record including Nevada years of 2017-21)

Five all-star candidates: Tory Horton (junior), wide receiver/punt returner (1,131 yards receiving, 71 receptions, 8 touchdowns in 2022); Avery Morrow (junior), running back (834 yards rushing, 4 touchdowns); Jacob Gardner (senior), offensive lineman (21 career starts); Mohamed Kamara (senior), defensive end (career: 79 tackles, 9 sacks); Jack Howell (junior), safety (108 tackles, 3 interceptions)

Mohomed Kamara

Colorado State's Mohamed Kamara is expected to be an anchor on defense. (Photo credit: CSU Athletics)

The newcomer: Tony Pierce (senior), defensive end (started 19 career games with 99 career tackles and 8 sacks while at FCS superpower North Dakota State — and he has a few national title rings to show for it, too)

The Breakdown

When a coach comes in and cleans house, as Jay Norvell did in 2022, the program is bound to suffer — at least temporarily. In fact, the Rams played with fewer than 60 scholarship players last year, which is more comparable to an FCS program (63 allowed) than an FBS program (85 allowed). Well, the CSU roster is restocked now; it has 15 starters returning and a slew of talented transfers slated to be in a position to start.

The offense will probably take the biggest leaps, likely doubling last year's putrid 13.2 points-per-game scoring clip, which generally won't cut it in the Mountain West Conference — especially when you're giving up around 27 points a game, as the Rams did in 2022. Even considering all of that and a winless non-conference slate last year, the program still managed three conference wins (Nevada, Hawaii and New Mexico). This program knows that if it could win three league games under those circumstances last year, it can qualify for a bowl game this year — something it hasn't done since 2017.

The Key Game and Why

While home matchups against Mountain West front-runners Boise State and Air Force are big ones, a more-important span for the Rams is when it travels to Wyoming on Nov. 4 and hosts San Diego State on Nov. 11. If Colorado State can manage two wins in these games, it will be a bowl team — mark it down. We'll call it a tie for which is most key, on the road to slightly weaker Wyoming or at home against slightly stronger (on paper) San Diego State.

The Toughest Game and Why

While Pac-12 matchups against Washington State (at home in Fort Collins) and Colorado (in Boulder) would seem the most daunting, they aren't. That comes back again to the home opponents Boise State and Air Force. The two in-conference rivals are actually ranked above Washington State and Colorado in many all-team FBS rankings. One can imagine that the in-state battle with a rebuilding Colorado will be a circus, with Buffaloes coach Deion Sanders emceeing the show.

The Chances of Reaching the Conference Title Game

Those chances are not very good this year. It's a stretch for sure, even with the toughest two Mountain West games at home. But this program is heading in the right direction — doing the right things in recruiting and using the transfer portal, as well as running schemes that young men want to be a part of. A conference title game berth may not be out of the realm of possibility within the next couple of years.

Jack Howell

Colorado State's Jack Howell had 100-plus tackles last season. (Photo credit: CSU Athletics)

The Prediction

This year, Colorado State won't be losing to any FCS schools, as its lone one scheduled (Utah Tech at home) should be an easy win. A non-conference road trip to a strong-looking Middle Tennessee team — and, of course, the two aforementioned Pac-12 games — won't be impossible but likely will mean losses. The way CSU can get to bowl game eligibility (six wins) is through conference wins, and it'll likely need five of them at the very least.

Utah State, University of Nevada at Las Vegas, Wyoming, Nevada and Hawaii are the five most likely beatable candidates to help the Rams get to the postseason for the first time since December 2017, when they lost a close one to Marshall in the New Mexico Bowl.

MORE: Mountain West Preview: Boise State Should Supplant Fresno State