- David Lombardi, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference opponents in 2015.
At Hawaii Rainbow Warriors, Thursday, September 3
Coach: Norm Chow (8-29), fourth year
2014 record: 4-9, 3-5 Mountain West
Returning starters: Six offense, six defense
Offensive headliners: Quarterback Ikaika Woolsey is the incumbent, but he struggled last season. Steven Lakalaka led the Hawaii in rushing, and top receivers Quinton Pedroza and Marcus Kemp are also back.
The skinny: It appears that Chow is on the hot seat in his third year on the job, so Hawaii might come out of the gate with an air of desperation. Run defense was the Buffs' biggest 2014 issue, and the Warriors were rather stagnant offensively, so this might be a good way for Mike MacIntyre's team to get its feet wet. But remember that a trip to the islands is always potentially tricky.
UMass Minutemen, Saturday, September 12
Coach: Mark Whipple (3-9), second year of second stint
2014 record: 3-9, 3-5 Mid-American
Returning starters: 10 offense, nine defense
Defensive headliners: Nose tackle Robert Kitching (307 pounds, 5.5 TFL), linebacker Jovan Santos-Knox (98 stops), and cornerback Randall Jette (4 INT, 14 pass break-ups) give this defense productive returning senior leadership.
The skinny: This story actually mirrors Colorado's close-but-no-cigar theme of 2014: Though UMass might have only won three games last season, it finished 0-5 in contests decided by a possession or less. It also returns nearly all of its starters, so improvement is expected in 2015. The Buffs' narrow 41-38 escape against the Minutemen in New England is reason to be wary of this game, but it's in Boulder this year.
Colorado State Rams, Saturday, September 19
Coach: Mike Bobo, first year
2014 record: 10-3, 6-2 Mountain West
Returning starters: Eight offense, seven defense
Defensive headliners: Defensive tackle Terry Jackson brings some versatility to the interior (31.5 tackles, 5 TFL), and linebacker Cory James (8.5 TFL, 6.5 sacks) also stands out. Defensive backs Trent Matthews and Tyree Simmons both picked off three passes last season.
The skinny: Former Georgia offensive coordinator Mike Bobo looks to maintain the momentum that Jim McElwain built in Fort Collins. The Rams finished an impressive 10-3 last season -- including a 31-17 win against the Buffs -- but two parts of that three-headed offensive monster are gone. Still, there is returning talent here, and the Buffs will be challenged by their in-state rival again -- especially if Colorado State can deliver a sturdy defensive effort.
Nicholls State Colonels, Saturday, September 26
Coach: Time Rebowe, first year
2014 record: 0-12, 0-8 Southland
Offensive headliners: Running back Michael Henry (5.2 yards per carry) enters his senior season after posting a 1,000-yard campaign in 2014.
Defensive headliners: Kameryon Brown was the the Colonel’s leading tackler in 2014, amassing 89 stops on the season. He also enters his senior year.
The skinny: Last season was not fun for the Colonels. They finished 0-12, and their head coach Charlie Stubbs retired early in the season citing health concerns. Nicholls State hired Rebowe as its new head coach in November, and he obviously has much work on his plate.
Thoughts: By rule, Colorado is allowed to play a fourth nonconference game this season because one of its trips is to the Hawaiian Islands. That fourth contest comes against FCS foe Nicholls State, so there is little question about the outcome there. The other games, though, should be far more interesting gauges of the Buffs’ progress. None of the three can be considered a lock, but if Colorado is going to make that jump out of the Pac-12 cellar in 2015, a convincing 4-0 sweep through September will be Step 1.