- Kevin Gemmell, ESPN Staff Writer
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We continue our series taking a closer look at each Pac-12 team's nonconference schedule.
Colorado State, Sept. 1 (in Denver)
Coach: Jim McElwain (4-8), second year
2012 record: 4-8, 3-5 Mountain West
Returning starters: nine offense, six defense
Defensive headliner: Cornerback Shaq Bell is the leader of a young secondary. He was all-league honorable mention last year after posting 66 tackles, a sack, a pick and he recovered three fumbles.
The skinny: The Rams went through a quarterback carousel last year (which should sound familiar to Colorado fans) but appear to be settling on Garrett Grayson, last year's original starter. Last season, McElwain became the first Rams coach to win his debut in 42 years. And it came against the Buffs after they failed to hold a 17-16 fourth-quarter lead in the season opener.
Central Arkansas, Sept. 7
Coach: Clint Conque (98-54), 14th year
2012 record: 9-3, 6-1 Southland
Returning starters: eight offense, nine defense
Offensive headliner: Quarterback Wynrick Smothers put up fantastic numbers last year, earning the league's Offensive Player of the Year honors while completing 64.9 percent of his throws for 3,103 yards with 31 touchdowns to nine interceptions. He also rushed for 449 yards and three touchdowns.
Defensive headliner: Sophomore defensive end Jonathan Woodard earned the league's Freshman of the Year honors last season after posting 11 tackles for a loss and seven sacks in 2012.
The skinny: Conque is the winningest coach in school history. They hung with Ole Miss last year and took Louisiana Tech to overtime the year before that, so they won't be intimidated at the mere thought of playing an FBS team. And the Buffs, though I don't think anyone needs reminding, fell at home to FCS opponent Sacramento State last year.
Fresno State, Sept. 14
Coach: Tim DeRuyter (9-4), second year
2012 record: 9-4, 7-1 Mountain West
Returning starters: seven offense, eight defense
Offensive headliner: Senior quarterback Derek Carr was the 2012 MWC Offensive Player of the Year, setting a new league record with 4,104 passing yards. His 37 touchdowns last year were second all-time in league history and he has the second-highest career touchdown-to-interception ratio (63-16) of all returning FBS quarterbacks with at least 300 completions.
Defensive headliner: Nose guard Tyeler Davison -- a first-team all-league selection last year -- posted 43 stops last year, tops among the Bulldogs D-linemen. He also had seven tackles for a loss with three sacks and he was the only Fresno State defensive lineman to start every game last year.
The skinny: After taking a slice of the MWC title last year, the Bulldogs should be tough again -- though they are moving on without running back Robbie Rouse -- the school's all-time leading rusher. Interestingly enough, Rouse set the school record on a 94-yard touchdown run (his fourth touchdown of the first quarter) in a 69-14 win over Colorado last year.
Thoughts: Colorado lost two close games to open 2012 -- the first to Colorado State and the next week to Sacramento State -- and that essentially opened the flood gates for a horrific season (save the Washington State shocker). The Rams are one of CU's oldest rivals and just as the Buffs gave McElwain his first career win, Mike MacIntyre getting his first career win against CSU would add nice symmetry to the rivalry. As noted, Central Arkansas is no pushover. But both of those games should fall under the winnable category. They get Fresno State at home and should -- at least -- have a better showing than they did last year. I don't think asking for a 2-1 start is out of the question. But another 0-3 opening would kill any momentum Colorado has heading into the year with its new coaching staff.
You can see the rest of the series here.