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Statistically Speaking: Utah at Colorado

Fresh off a listless, uninspired beating at the hands of the Wildcats that put an end to the Utes' tenuous hopes of the Pac-12 South title, Utah heads to Colorado to take on what may be the worst team in the conference.

Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau leads his team against Utah in Boulder.
Colorado quarterback Sefo Liufau leads his team against Utah in Boulder.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

It’s been a wild regular season, and the Utes have kept fans on their toes, playing in six one-possession games and three overtime games. Despite the close scores, the Utes have largely dominated their opposition; they did not trail by more than four points until November 1st. They have laid two eggs, both at home, and fallen in hard-fought matches against two of the very best opponents they have faced.

Colorado has a reputation of hanging tough and falling in close, hard fought games. Sefo Liufau, the thinking goes, has been good enough to keep them in any game, and Nelson Spruce is an unstoppable force at wide receiver. They took UCLA, a top ten team, to double overtime and battled Cal to the bitter end, putting up 56 points on the Bears. They are getting some of the same credit last year’s Utes did, who despite finishing 5-7 were 36th in ESPN FPI and 31st in F/+. The 2013 Utes battled critical injuries and an incredible run of bad luck but still wound up garnering respect (at least statistically). Are the Buffaloes the same kind of team?

In a word, no. Apart from Nelson Spruce, Colorado doesn’t have a player on offense who is impressive. There is no one on the team who has rushed for more than 400 yards, and no receiver averaging more than 12.2 a catch (even the Utes have a couple). Liufau has not been great, with a lower passer rating than Travis Wilson. The Buffs have been in a handful of tight games, but it hasn’t been the norm; they’ve lost games by 14 (twice), 28, 15, 18, and 34. It’s easy to lump them in with the other bottom-tier PAC 12 teams California and Washington State, who play excellent offense but can’t stop a nosebleed. However, Colorado has been struggling in a different way.

Advanced Metrics Primer:

At this point in the season, advanced metrics ought to be almost completely settled, with very little volatility. The Utes played very poorly on Saturday, but because that game is being matched up against ten others, it doesn’t move the needle much. We’ve seen the Utes at their very best (UCLA, USC, Michigan) and at their very worst (Arizona, Washington State). We can be reasonably certain that the Utes’ performance at Colorado is going to fall somewhere within those two extremes, most likely near the middle. The challenge as a fan is not to fall victim to ‘recency bias’, where you give more weight to the more recent performance. The Utes team that couldn’t move the ball against Arizona is the same one that sliced through USC and overwhelmed Stanford.

There’s more to the Utes’ periodic offensive struggles than incompetence. They’ve been playing very good defensive teams, teams which are able to take away important components of an offense. Since Utah only does a handful of things very well, a team which is able to counteract one of those things (say by pressuring the passer with blitzes or stuffing Devontae Booker at the line of scrimmage) is taking away most of what the Utes can do. A better offensive team with a bigger tactical toolkit can change strategies (adding hot reads that challenge extra pass rushers or utilizing zone read option plays to stymie a defensive line, for example). The Utes can’t, or won’t.

The thing about Colorado is that they have been unable to prevent any kind of offensive success. The Utes should be able to exert their will in a number of ways on offense, severely limit a Buffaloes offense that appears to be getting more credit than it has earned, and continually flip the field with vastly superior special teams play.


Offense (RK)

Defense (RK)

Spc.T (RK)

Overall (RK)


Utah Last Week

1.1 (72)

10.16 (12)

4.84 (2)

16.11 (21)

13.9 (28)

Utah This Week

-.70 (79)

9.01 (14)

4.72 (3)

13.02 (33)

11.7 (29)


1.53 (69)

-4.60 (85)

-.27 (78)

-3.35 (79)

-1.8 (73)

Colorado’s divergence from the prevailing narrative is obvious here. Their reputation is as a plucky team with a number of dangerous skill position players on offense, who will be able to keep up even against solid defenses. The reality is that Colorado has struggled mightily in every phase, unable to crack the top half of the nation in any category. The Buffs have played two top 30 defenses by this metric, and scored 23 (Washington) and 24 (Arizona State). Utah’s defense is substantially better than either.

F/+ Rankings:




Special Teams
























Again, we see a team struggling in every phase. Colorado’s mark of 59th in their highest ranking in any phase of the game by any statistic, and even that is barely in the top half of the nation. The Utes match up reasonable well offensively, and completely outclass the Buffaloes on defense and special teams. These numbers suggest an extremely lopsided affair.

Vegas & Massey:

The polls and computers prefer Utah, who is ranked 30th on average. This ranking closely follows the Utes advanced stats rankings, where they are 29th in FPI and 38th in F/+. Colorado comes in at 92nd, a significant step down from their middle of the pack rankings of 73rd in FPI and 79th in F/+. The Buffaloes are winless in Pac-12 play despite some close calls, and any metric which considers a team’s W-L is going to look very harshly on the Buffaloes. Vegas agrees that there is a wide gap between these two teams, where the line opened with the Utes as a 10 point road favorite, and is now at 9 points for the Utes.

Quantifying the Buff’s Defensive Woes:

Colorado has struggled in all phases, but they’ve been particularly weak against the run, where they hold the 93rd ranking in Rushing S&P+ to go along with their 212 rush yards per game allowed (108th) and their 5.8 YPC allowed (125th). They allow teams to be efficient, giving up a success rate of 43.5% (92nd), but they also are repeatedly victimized by explosive plays. 23.8% of Colorado’s defensive drives average worse than 10 yards per play. Only Idaho, New Mexico, Tulsa, and Bowling Green have been worse.

Barring a total meltdown, all but the very worst offenses in the country can score at will against this defense. The Utes’ offense is bad, but it’s middle of the road bad and uninspired rather than a complete train wreck. Expect a lot of points and a very run-heavy attack.

Stat-Head Prediction:

The Utes have played an incredibly difficult schedule, only matching up against teams out of the top 40 three times: Michigan, Washington State, and Oregon State. Bad luck and poor execution kept two of these games close, but Utah is simply the superior team overall. Colorado’s offense gets a lot of credit but they have wilted against many of the better defenses they have played, and have never taken on a squad like Utah. Sefo Liufau hasn’t been as special as advertised, and apart from Nelson Spruce the Buffaloes really don’t have any fearsome weapons. This is a game that the Utes should win comfortably.

34-20 Utes