Game on … Football is back | AspenTimes.com

Game on … Football is back

Kelly J. Hayes

Fall.

It is a season of change. School is back in session. Summer vacations have been relegated to photo memories on our iPhones. And there is a nip in the air at night.

But if you are one of the millions of Americans who only feel alive when football kicks off, it's your season. Yes, this is the time of year when fans once again become fanatics as football returns. Especially those who bleed orange and blue.

For those with a passion for the NFL, tonight — Thursday, Sept. 9 — marks the beginning of the new year as the world champion Philadelphia Eagles begin their defense of the Lombardi Trophy against the Atlanta Falcons in a battle of the NFC's best birds on NBC. Tune in at 6 p.m. It is the first of 256 regular season games that will be played to determine which teams make the playoffs, and ultimately, which teams go to the Mercedes Benz Stadium in Atlanta for Super Bowl LIII on Feb. 3, 2019, on CBS.

College football fans in Colorado likely saw the Colorado Buffaloes beat the CSU Rams on Aug. 31 in Denver in the Mile High Showdown. But now it is time to see how the rest of the college season unfolds. Can Alabama make it to Levi's Stadium in San Jose on Jan. 7 for a fourth straight appearance in the College Football Playoff National Championship? Can the Buffs make a run in the PAC 12?

And locals who bask in the lights of Friday nights are excited about the valley squads as both Aspen and Basalt High schools have games on tap this weekend. The Aspen Skiers, already 1-0, travel a couple of hundred miles south for a Saturday road tilt against a powerhouse Bayfield squad that was the undefeated 2A state champion in 2017. Meanwhile, Basalt travels to Vail's Battle Mountain after lighting up their new scoreboard with a home victory over Olathe.

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We thought we'd take a look at some of the Colorado story lines for the upcoming season:

BRONCOS PREVIEW

Just two seasons removed from the "Best of Times" — the win in Super Bowl 50 — the Denver Broncos suffered through the "Worst of Times" in 2017 with a 5-11 season. Only three times since the NFL-AFL merger had they won fewer games than last year's five victories. And they had not had an eight-game losing streak as since 1967. That's half a century, folks.

Ah, but in today's NFL turnarounds come fast and furious and, as the Broncos fans get lathered up for the season opener this weekend at home against the Seattle Seahawks, hope springs eternal that the Broncos' new jockey, quarterback Case Keenum, can turn their offensive fortunes around. If that happens, and the defense can return to 2015 form, Denver could be the surprise of the 2018 season.

If not, expect that second-year head coach Vance Joseph will not become third-year head coach Vance Joseph.

Denver Offense

Mix something old with something new and see what you get. It is an old formula in the NFL and we shall see if it works for the Broncos. The new is starting quarterback Case Keenum, who is coming off a storybook season last year in Minnesota where he took over for the injured Sam Bradford and led the Vikings all the way to the NFC Championship.

Keenum, who came into the NFL as a free agent in 2012 with Houston, following a record-breaking career at the University of Houston, will look to run offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave's (a Grand Junction native) offense that focuses on a precise and measured passing attack. Extremely accurate, Keenum threw just seven interceptions in 15 games last year. Keenum will throw often and get rid of the ball quickly to avoid sacks, a problem for Denver last year when they allowed 52.

This is the first time since Peyton Manning's retirement after Super Bowl 50 that the Broncos are bullish on the quarterback position. There are even those who like the spunk of Denver's likely No. 2 QB Chad Kelly, who is coming off a second straight preseason where he showed the ability to move the team. Kelly, was the final draft choice of the 2017 NFL Draft (#253) gaining the title of "Mr. Irrelevant," but he has been anything but in his preseason action. After two seasons of "meh," this could be an exciting year for the Broncos quarterbacks.

And a trio of rookies, receiver Courtland Sutton, running back Royce Freeman and a Denver-born and -bred, Boulder-primed free agent Philip Lindsay, a special teams maven and running back, could play critical roles in the upcoming season.

As for the old, two proven wide-outs, Demaryius Thomas and Emmanuel Sanders, both enter their ninth seasons in the NFL, hoping to return to the form that has marked their careers. Thomas, who had five straight 1,000-yard seasons before falling to 949 yards in 2017, had been the subject of trade rumors. Meanwhile, Sanders, who is coming off his least productive season since becoming a Bronco in 2014, is recharged. Both can flourish in Musgrave's offense and benefit from the accuracy of Keenum.

Denver Defense

The identity of the Denver Broncos was forged on the defensive side of the football, and Von Miller, the face of that defense is still arguably the most talented and disruptive defensive player in the NFL, even as he enters his eighth season. And this year he has a young pup to help pursue the passer.

The fifth pick in the 2018 draft, Bradley Chubb from North Carolina State, is expected to make an impact right away and help the Broncos return to the elite pass rushing unit that dominated the NFL in 2015. Expect to hear the Mile High throng go crazy on third downs as the "NASCAR" rush package is unleashed on the opposition

With Aquib Talib, the vocal leader of the "No Fly Zone" gone to the Los Angeles Rams, it will be Chris Harris and Bradley Roby controlling the corners. Safety will be a strength with Justin Simmons and Darian Stewart playing centerfield and ball hawking. Last year the Broncos could muster just 17 take-aways over a 16-game season. Expect that to be a point of emphasis for second year defensive coordinator Joe Woods.

How Will they Do?

If Keenum can be anywhere near the player he showed last year in Minnesota and rookie Royce Freeman can carry the running game, the Broncos will be light years ahead of their 2017 season. A stronger offense should help the defense and improved special teams (new punter Marquette King will generate excitement this year) will complement both. Doubling their wins to 10 is a worthy goal and one that could see the Broncos on the cusp of a playoff spot.

THE SCHEDULE

With three of their first four games at home, the Broncos could get off to a nice start. Of course, they started 3-1 in 2017 and lost their next eight games, so go figure. Denver plays the NFC West, a dynamic division, so that could provide difficulty. For the first time in a decade they are not on Sunday Night Football, but they play a pair of Monday Night Football games.

Denver Broncos 2018 Schedule

Sunday Sept. 9 Seattle Seahawks 4:25 pm

Sunday Sept. 16 Oakland Raiders 4:25 pm

Sunday Sept. 23 @Baltimore Ravens 1:00 pm

Monday Oct. 1 Kansas City Chiefs (MNF) 8:15 pm

Sunday Oct. 7 @New York Jets 1:00 pm

Sunday Oct. 14 Los Angeles Rams 4:05 pm

Thursday Oct. 18 @Arizona Cardinals 8:20 pm

Sunday Oct. 28 @Kansas City Chiefs 1:00 pm

Sunday Nov. 4 Houston Texans 4:05 pm

Sunday Nov. 11 BYE WEEK

Sunday Nov. 18 @Los Angeles Chargers 4:05 pm

Sunday Nov. 25 Pittsburgh Steelers 4:25 pm

Sunday Dec. 2 @Cincinnati Bengals 1:00 pm

Sunday Dec. 9 @San Francisco 49ers 4:05 pm

Saturday Dec. 15 Cleveland Browns TBD

Monday Dec. 24 @Oakland Raiders (MNF) 8:15 pm

Sunday Dec. 30 Los Angeles Chargers 4:25 pm

Going to the Game?

If you are one of the lucky ones to have tickets to the Broncos (they have sold out their last 394 home games since 1970, the longest streak in the NFL), expect a few changes.

First, the name of the stadium is now "Broncos Stadium at Mile High." This could change if they find a new partner willing to spend millions to put their name on the edifice, but for now it remains clean.

Second, be sure to bring both your cellphone and your printed parking pass. To make things more "convenient," the team has gone digital with all tickets. "Mobile Entry," they call it, and to get into a game, you will need to go to the Broncos 365 app, log into your account and then scan your tickets to enter.

Third, and perhaps most important, there have been food upgrades for the 2018 season at the stadium. Denver chefs Troy Guard (TAG), Lon Symensma (ChoLon) and Elise Wiggins (Cattivella) have been drafted to improve the offerings. Hawaiian sliders, wood-fired pizzas, noodle bowls and acai energy bowls will be available along with the traditional hot dogs.

MR. B

The most poetic outcome for the Broncos 2018 season? That would come in Atlanta on the first weekend of February. Pat Bowlen, the owner of the team, has been nominated for the Pro Football Hall of Fame as a contributor. If he receives 80 percent of the votes from the 48-member selection committee, he would receive word of acceptance on Feb. 2. The next day is Super Bowl LIII. It would make for quite a weekend if the Broncos could be there with Mr. Bowlen.

THE COLLEGES

The University of Colorado Buffaloes

If game one — the Rocky Mountain Showdown — was any indication, the Buffs could be in for a big year. Head coach Mike MacIntyre's group opened 2018 with a decisive 45-13 win in Denver over in state rival Colorado State. This week they play their former Big 8 nemesis Nebraska in Lincoln before their PAC 12 schedule begins.

The "it" factor is quarterback Steven Montez, who opened his second season as a starting signal caller by throwing for four touchdowns and running for another against the Rams. And that was in just three quarters. The 6-foot, 5-inch, 225-pound El Paso, Texas-native has already begun to generate Heisman buzz and a win this week in Lincoln will only exacerbate that chatter.

Supporting Montez will be wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr. (another Texan), who was on the receiving end of an 89-yard TD toss, and transfer running back Travon McMillian (Virginia Tech) who replaces the aforementioned Philip Lindsay, who made the Broncos as a free agent.

The Buff defense was not challenged in the opener, but sophomore linebacker Nate Landman showed a mean streak as he made 16 stops. He joins a half-dozen returning starters on defense as Colorado looks to return to the winning ways of 2016, when they were the PAC 12 South Champs. Last year, they reverted to a 5-7 season.

The Colorado State Rams

It may be a tough year for fans of the Rams. Thus far they have had to endure the uncertain health status of coach Mike Bobo and have lost a pair of games, giving up over 40 points in each, first at Hawaii and then to Colorado.

While coach Bobo was on the sidelines for the whipping in the Mile High Showdown, he still was showing the effects of the numbness that has impacted his legs. It remains to be seen just how long he can go without significant improvement.

And significant improvement is seriously in need for the Rams, as well. On the plus side, quarterback KJ Carta-Samuels, a graduate transfer from Washington, threw for five touchdowns and a school record 537 yards in Honolulu in a loss to Hawaii. But the offense was miserable in their return to the mountains.

Defensively the Rams were gouged for 617 yards by the Rainbow Warriors and then for nearly 600 yards by the Buffaloes. Last year they had such a porous defense that a new defensive coordinator, John Jancek, was hired after a stint at Tennessee.

Things don't get any easier as they host Arkansas this weekend in Fort Collins before traveling to Gainesville to play Florida. An 0-4 start could be pending for the Rams. At least with trips to Hawaii and Florida they will get some frequent flyer miles.

THE PREPS

Perhaps the best way to enjoy football in the Roaring Fork Valley is to get out on a Friday night and watch the preps. There is purity in the participation of the players and experience of sitting in the stands rooting for the home team that can bring a sense of nostalgia. Both the Basalt Longhorns and the Aspen Skiers play in stadiums that offer great sunset views, so pick a night and head out for a little high school action this season.

ASPEN SKIERS

The hope is the second time around is the charm for Aspen Skiers’ head coach Travis Benson, who gets another chance at the helm. Benson, who is an AHS graduate, class of 1995, has to be pleased with the way the Skiers opened with a road win in Meeker. Quarterback Tyler Ward found receiver Noah Hollander five times for touchdowns as Aspen won 38-26.

The Skiers field a young team and they host just three home games this season — and must travel to Bayfield to play the top ranked team in the 2A state rankings and close at Basalt. But if they can duplicate the 8-2 record of 2017, it will be a major step forward for the program under a new head coach.

2018 ASPEN HIGH SCHOOL 
FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

* League games

Aug. 24 at Meeker

Sept. 8 at Bayfield

Sept. 14 vs. Cedaredge

Sept. 21 at Grand Valley

Sept. 28 at Delta*

Oct. 5 vs. Moffat*

Oct. 12 at Rifle*

Oct. 19 vs. Coal Ridge*

Oct. 26 at Basalt*

BASALT LONGHORNS

For the past two years, the Basalt Longhorns have been the class of the 2A Western Slope League, winning the division back to back. Last year’s 9-2 season ended in the second round of playoffs to eventual champion Bayfield.

Though they lose a 1,400-yard rusher in Noah Williams (Fort Lewis State), they return their starting quarterback Trevor Reuss (along with his twin brother OL Jake Reuss) and the bulk of last year’s defensive starters. Jake Reardon figures to get the bulk of the carries at running back replacing Williams.

Coach Carl Frerichs (starting his 11th year as coach) and the Longhorns kicked off their year at their annual fundraising dinner at the Roaring Fork Club just as the Lake Christine Fire got under way. They hope to make the season as memorable as that evening.

2018 BASALT FOOTBALL SCHEDULE

*League games

Aug. 31 vs. Olathe

Sept. 7 at Battle Mountain

Sept. 14 vs. Pagosa Springs

Sept. 21 at Paonia

Sept. 29 at Moffat County*

Oct. 5 vs. Coal Ridge*

Oct. 12 vs. Delta*

Oct. 19 at Rifle*

Oct. 26 vs. Aspen*