To play the best, or not to play the best.
That was the question facing Colorado State football coaches and administrators prior to making up the Rams’ 2002 schedule.
The answer was obvious.
“I felt our program was ready for this type of test,” said Sonny Lubick, entering his 10th year as the Rams’ head coach. “It’s time for our players to find out, ‘How good are we? How good is our football team? Let’s push the envelope and find out.'”
The Rams will have plenty of chances to find out, as they face what arguably is their toughest schedule since Lubick’s arrival in 1993.
Most of the fun will take place away from home. Of the Rams’ record 13 regular-season games, CSU will play only five contests within the friendly confines of Hughes Stadium, the first of which won’t be until Sept. 14 against Louisville.
To say this year’s slate is a challenge is an understatement.
To say the Rams are up to it is a bigger one.
“My goal coming to Colorado State was to play football,” said Drew Wood, the Rams’ pre-season all-conference linebacker. “The coaches made that schedule with a purpose.”
The main purpose was to gain national respect. Over the last ten years, CSU already has one of the winningest programs in the nation. Defeating schools from larger conferences would push the Rams’ program to the next level.
“It’s great for our school and our program to have a hard schedule,” said Joey Cuppari, senior wide receiver. “If we had more hard schedules within the (Mountain West) conference, we’d be more reputable as a conference.”
Where tough schedules are concerned, the Mountain West has seen success and failure. Fellow MWC member UNLV had plans for a more reputable program in mind when they scheduled a brutal 2001 slate, which included match-ups with Arkansas, Northwestern and Arizona. The Rebels dropped their first four decisions and, though the margin of defeat was narrow, lost any hope of a successful season.
“Sometimes losing comes with the territory when you schedule the big boys,” Lubick said. “There were times early on in the pre-season when I’d think to myself, ‘I think (we) might have bitten off more than (we) can chew.'”
CSU had no trouble biting into its first opponent, the University of Virginia of the Atlantic Coast Conference. Though the 35-29 victory nearly slipped from the Rams’ grasp, CSU appeared confident and never in awe of the Cavaliers.
“You can’t go into a game saying, “Boy, these guys are good,” cause you’ll probably lose,” Wood said. “I don’t think about losing games, that’s just the attitude you have to take. You have to go in thinking you’re better.”
The Rams next opponent will be the University of Colorado Buffaloes, Ranked No. 6 nationally. After the Rocky Mountain Showdown, CSU will be headed for the Rose Bowl and a date with the UCLA Bruins of the Pac-10. The Rams have only played UCLA on one other occasion – a 35-7 loss in 1962.
Other notable dates on the schedule include the matchup with Louisville, the two-time defending Conference-USA champs, and a road tussle with the Fresno State Bulldogs, who in 2001 defeated the Rams in a thrilling overtime contest at Hughes Stadium.
Conference play won’t be much of a break, either. The Rams will travel to Salt Lake City on Oct. 19 to face the University of Utah, picked by the media to finish second behind the Rams in the Mountain West. Defending MWC champion BYU comes to Fort Collins the following week on Oct. 24.
“Winning the conference is still the overall goal of the program every season,” Lubick said. “It’d be great to win a few of those non-conference games, but the team knows winning the Mountain West is still No. 1.”