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Building a new foundation in Fort Collins

Throughout the rest of the month leading up to the 2008 season, I'll be looking at key storylines for each Mountain West Conference program. Today I am looking at the rebuilding project Steve Fairchild is about to undertake at Colorado State.

Past previews: Wyoming, Air Force, UNLV

Sonny Lubick inherited an also-ran program back in 1993 and promptly took it to the its highest points of success, winning six conference championships, guiding the Rams to nine bowl games and finishing in the top 25 three times, the only three times Colorado State has ever finished ranked to end the season.

For that, Lubick has solidified his spot as not only the best coach in Colorado State history, but one of the best in all of college football. He took a small college, in a small town, in the shadow of its larger rival and built one of the most dominant football programs in the western United States. His success may never again be replicated at Colorado State, but the man succeeding him surely will try and he knows he has some mighty big shoes to fill.

Steve Fairchild ushered in a new era of Rams football when he was introduced as the 18th head coach in Colorado State history. Prior to accepting the duties in Fort Collins, he had spent a season and a half as the Buffalo Bills offensive coordinator. And though he never was a head coach, at any level, his ties to the program are deep. Fairchild had played at Colorado State as quarterback from 1978 to 1980 and then had a short stint as quarterbacks coach for 3 seasons back in the early 90s. The fact he coached under Lubick ties him to Colorado State's most successful roots, however, his hire, much like Troy Calhoun at Air Force, injects some newness into a program that had clearly stagnated over the past few years.

That decline in the latter part of Lubick's career now becomes the biggest issue for Fairchild in his quest to return Colorado State back to past glories. The Rams have been down right awful recently and pulling them out of their tailspin and setting the right course will be the driving force behind this coaching staff. Fairchild's ability to succeed here will hinge on whether or not he can make Colorado State competitive again. His predecessor managed to do so, but football has changed a great deal since 1993 and the conference in which Colorado State belongs to is far more competitive.  The good news for Fairchild is that he brings in freshness and offensive knowledge, while relying on the fact Colorado State is a more named program today than it was 15 years ago, when Lubick took over for Earle Bruce.

Entering 2008, expectations are fairly low for Colorado State. Fairchild doesn't have much to work with, which means success could be difficult right out of the gate, so don't expect the Rams to surprise like Air Force last year. Of course, there is still the possibility of a not-so-bad team emerging if Fairchild can create some type of ground game. The Rams return running backs Gartrell Johnson and Kyle Bell, who are undoubtedly the stars of this offense. And though Colorado State has underperformed on offense as of late, the possibility of a fresh approach from Fairchild might just provide the spark they need to turn it up a notch, especially on the ground. And they will need to, since this offense has a lot of questions at quarterback.

Last week, the Rams named Billy Farris their starting quarterback, he will replace Caleb Hanie, who graduated after the 2007 season. While Farris is a senior, he didn't play all that much last year for the Rams, only seeing action in nine games, one of which was in a loss to Utah. Against the Utes, he went 4-for-9 and had 46 yards. But now he's been entrusted with the starting role and it could prove to be a difficult task.

Outside of a solid backfield, Farris may have trouble finding offensive production. The Rams have dearth of experience at wide receiver, which could slow down the offense, especially if their running game is as ineffective as it was last season. Leading the receivers are Rashaun Greer, Dion Morton and Kory Sperry, all of whom have minimal experience starting for the Rams. Greer, a junior, is a big player and could cause matchup problems, but he struggled last year and will need to step up this season if the Rams are going to have any type of passing game. Sperry is returning from an ACL injury that kept him out most of the 2007 season and if he stays healthy, might be the best player of this group.

Farris should feel more secure with the fact the Rams return all five starters on their offensive line, except their pass protection last year was down right terrible. Experience is a major plus here, especially in creating holes for CSU's running game, but they need to protect the quarterback, or things could get ugly.

On the defensive side, things are a bit better, but still far from perfect. The linebackers are probably the strongest aspect of Colorado State's defense, while there are some legitimate questions about the defensive line and secondary.

The Rams' defensive line had a helluva time stopping the run last year and that very well may be the case again this season. If Fairchild is going to have a defense worthy of the toughness he preaches, it begins right here. If they can hold their own at the line and do a good enough job of stopping the run, they should be better than last year. But if they revert back to last season's weak play, CSU will find it very difficult doing anything up front.

Beyond the line, the defensive backfield is another big question mark for the Rams. In the past two years, Colorado State has only managed 14 interceptions, but with the return of Klint Kubiak -- who missed most of last season after being hospitalized over an ulcer -- at safety, things could be looking up. But there are some weaknesses, especially at corner, where inexperience may cause some problems early in the season. In fact, like on offense, the inexperience of their secondary will be a hindrance. Whether they have enough talent to overcome that should be known fairly early. But that will require battle tested players to step up and recently for the Rams, that has been a problem.

Colorado State's 2008 schedule:

Aug. 31 Colorado (Denver)
Sept. 6 Sacramento State
Sept. 13
Sept. 20 Houston
Sept. 27 at California
Oct. 4 UNLV
Oct. 11 TCU
Oct. 18 at Utah
Oct. 25 at San Diego State
Nov. 1 BYU
Nov. 8 at Air Force
Nov. 15  New Mexico
Nov. 22 at Wyoming

The Rams' schedule offers three challenging out of conference games, as they have to play Colorado, Houston and California. Though it's unlikely they win two of the three, Houston does offer their best chance of nabbing a solid win early in the season.

It's too much to expect a winning record in Fairchild's first year, but 5-7 is not out of the question. If the Rams can manage that, especially if they end the season on a high note against Wyoming, it will provide a solid foundation for Fairchild to build on. And really, that's what should be expected from Colorado State, a rebuilding process that will take its time, but begins this season for Fairchild and his staff.


Fairchild's biggest construction project yet -- build a football program