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As we all know, the 2016 University of Colorado Buffaloes football team went to a bowl game for the first time since the 2007 season. It was a year of exceeded expectations that saw the Buffs win 10 games as well as a Pac-12 South title. After such a magical resurgence this year, many out there now ask themselves what to truly make of this season, following Colorado’s ugly 38-8 loss to Oklahoma State in the Valero Alamo Bowl last Thursday.
As the season began and CU easily dismantled rival Colorado State and put up a 56-7 bashing of Idaho State at home the next week, many fans probably found themselves thinking, “Well alright Buffs, good on ya.”
Then, the team faced a test, playing the then-No. 4 Michigan Wolverines on the road in Ann Arbor, Michigan. The Buffs lost 45-28, but played competitively, at one point leading the Wolverines 21-0 early in the game. Next came what head coach Mike MacIntyre described as a “signature win:” Colorado’s 41-38 victory over the Oregon Ducks on the road.
Without senior quarterback Sefo Liufau, the Steven Montez-led Buffs marched into Eugene, Oregon, and took down the Ducks in a game that saw stellar catches by junior wide receiver Bryce Bobo and a do-or-die goal-line stand at the end of the game when the Ducks threatened to retake the lead. Senior defensive back Ahkello Witherspoon picked off Oregon’s Dakota Prukop in the end zone, sealing CU’s win.
The team returned to campus during the early morning hours of the following Sunday with a modest horde of fans awaiting them to offer congratulations. At that point, the Buffaloes proved that they were capable of taking down Pac-12 powerhouses. Needless to say, the eyebrows of many naysayers began to raise.
Not counting a somewhat bitter loss to USC that the team suffered without the services of Liufau, the Buffaloes knocked off Pac-12 competition like a series of dominoes. Then, in the final two weeks of the regular season, the Buffs faced stout competition in the No. 20 Washington State Cougars and the No. 21 Utah Utes. But CU prevailed, won the Pac-12 South title and began preparations for a Pac-12 title game showdown with the No. 4 Washington Huskies.
From there, Colorado’s luck ran out. The Buffs lost soundly to the Huskies, 41-10, at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California. A game that was supposed to be a pretty evenly matched contest saw Liufau throw three picks and the Buffaloes’ defense unable to stop Washington’s offense. Then came the 38-8 trouncing by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
So, after the Buffs dropped their final two games of the year in a disappointing fashion, is it fair to call the team that finished the regular season as the No. 10 team in the nation overrated?
Well, with the latest two contests, rough losses to Washington and Oklahoma State in the month of December, it certainly seems easy to do so. The long story short is that Colorado put up its resume in 2016 with a stellar defense, one that finished atop the Pac-12 in total defense and pass defense at the end of the regular season. Colorado’s offense was good, not great, but nonetheless scored 40 points six times this season.
The team was not able to match its defensive dominance in the two games that mattered most. Against the Huskies, although Colorado’s pass defense was solid and limited Washington quarterback Jake Browning to a 9-of-24 performance with just 118 yards through the air (while recording six pass breakups), the Buffs were steamrolled by the Huskies’ ground game. Colorado surrendered 265 yards combined to Washington’s Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman.
Oklahoma State had its way with the Colorado defense through the air and on the ground, putting up 527 yards of total offense and averaging a frightening 7.1 yards per play in the Alamo Bowl.
Offensively, Colorado struggled to do much of anything positive. It scored just 18 points combined in its final two games — that speaks for itself. Liufau had a rough outing in the Pac-12 Championship Game with three interceptions, and he played decent in the Alamo Bowl, but in both games, he came out due to injury and returned to finish the game. He doesn’t deserve a majority of the blame for Colorado’s end-of-season crumbling.
It feels more than strange that the Buffaloes collapsed in such a fashion. Throughout this season, when the Buffs were beginning to win Pac-12 contests and assert some dominance over teams that had in the past routinely beat up on them, questions were asked in regard to how it all was happening.
Constant themes in those answers given from players and coaches were that the Buffaloes were finally closing the gap with other programs within the Pac-12. The team was mature, had good leadership and was ready to bring the football program to the next level, and it certainly did. The Buffs broke through their regular season glass ceiling and won 10 games. But for all the talk of maturity and readiness, it could be argued that CU lacked the experience to get the job done in major games.
It took head coach Mike MacIntyre four seasons to lead his team to a winning record and a bowl game. The fact that he was able to accomplish such a tremendous turnaround speaks for itself. Those previous three years, from 2013 to 2015, were filled with disappointment, but progress. Over those three years, Colorado saw bad losses become replaced with close losses. Slowly but surely, the team inched its way toward being a more competitive squad until, in 2016, it was able to make life a living hell for the majority of the teams it faced.
It is important to also consider that Bill McCartney, who coached CU from 1982-1994, took eight years to win his first bowl game with the program, an Orange Bowl victory over Notre Dame that gave the Buffs a share of the 1990 National Championship. Like MacIntyre, McCartney also took four years to take a formerly abysmal Buffs team to a bowl.
In 1985, his Buffaloes played in their postseason game under him, losing in the Freedom Bowl to Washington, 20-17, and finishing the season with a 7-6 record. McCartney’s Buffs would fail at their first four attempts to win a bowl game, in 1985, 1986, 1988 and 1989, before winning the 1990 Orange Bowl.
This group of Buffaloes had its first taste of postseason play, albeit not a good taste. But as was the case in 2013-2015, the Buffaloes, perhaps not even to their knowledge, have opened a mental bank account and have made their first deposits in the forms of experience, preparation and the knowledge of what it takes to win important games.
In time, that account will have sufficient funds for the Buffs to withdraw and apply towards the goal of winning big games, as was the case this season. So was this 2016 team overrated? It’s hard to say that as a fan, considering the powerful squads that the team lost to while also taking into account solid programs like Stanford, Washington State and Utah, whom the Buffaloes dispatched.
Given the nature of CU’s final two losses, perhaps it is only fair to admit that this team was in fact overrated, but Colorado has nonetheless proved that it is ready to play with the big dogs in the future. The Buffs have a new chip on their shoulder, and with promising new recruits eager to join the team and younger players having been instilled with the desire to win, good things appear to be in store for the Colorado Buffaloes.
Contact CU Independent Head Sports Editor Justin Guerriero at firstname.lastname@example.org and follow him on Twitter @TheHungry_Hippo.