The Colorado Buffaloes arrived in the newly expanded Pac-12 five years ago, and they dutifully took their place at the bottom of the conference, suffering forty-point losses to Stanford and Oregon and winning just two league games on their way to a 3-10 overall record. Things only got worse the following year, with four forty-point losses (including a 70-14 shellacking at the hands of the Ducks) and a 1-11 mark. They managed just one conference win in 2013, and while they finished 0-9 in league in 2014, there were fewer blowouts and there was a feeling that the Buffs were getting closer. The strides expected in 2015, however, didn’t happen, as the Buffaloes again only earned a single league win and finished a disappointing 4-9. During its five years of conference membership, Colorado has posted a 14-47 overall mark with an anemic 5-40 record inside the Pac-12. To say that they’ve been doormats would be putting it nicely.
All of which makes what’s happened thus far this season all the more surprising. The Buffs opened with two convincing wins over Colorado State and Idaho State, outscoring those two opponents by a combined 100-14. Those win were easily dismissed as coming against inferior competitions, but over the next two weeks it became clear that there was something different going on with the 2016 Colorado Buffaloes. First they travelled to Ann Arbor and stood toe to toe with the Michigan Wolverines, holding a 21-7 lead after the first quarter, and a 28-24 lead early in the third quarter. That game would get away late and end 45-28 in favor of the Wolverines, but a week later Colorado travelled to Eugene to face the Oregon Ducks, the team that had beaten them byeight touchdowns not long ago, and came home with a 41-38 win.
Since that game the Buffaloes have added wins over Oregon State and Arizona State to bring their record to 5-2 and 3-1 and claim the top spot in the Pac-12 South, making this already their best season since joining the conference.
How has this dramatic transformation happened? For one thing, the Buffs have found balance on offense. Senior quarterback Sefo Liufau began showing flashes of potential early in his career, and this year he seems to have put everything together. Last week against Arizona State he threw for 265 yards while rushing for 38. As impressive as that is, perhaps the best thing he did was hand the ball to Phillip Lindsay 26 times and watch him rumble for 219 yards and three touchdowns. These L&L Boys will look to barbecue the Stanford defense on Saturday afternoon. If they get rolling, the Buffalo offense will be difficult to stop.
The good news, of course, is that Stanford’s defensive line has been playing at a high level all season long and seems to be getting better each week. Solomon Thomas had what might have been the best game of his career last weekend against Notre Dame, and I expect him to continue his stellar season with another big performance against the Buffs. With his presence in the backfield and the lockdown coverage of Quenton Meeks downfield, I think the Stanford defense will lead the way to a 24-16 Stanford win.
But you didn’t come here to read my thoughts, you want an expert’s opinion of the Colorado Buffaloes. For that I give you Brian Howell, columnist at the BuffZone.com. Now I’ll get out of the way.
Go Mighty Card:
I still catch myself referring to the conference as the Pac-10 from time to time. How to Colorado fans feel about the conference? Does it feel like home yet?
I think it felt like home right from the start. The Pac-12 is a much better fit for Colorado than the Big 12, in a lot of ways. More than anything, it’s a great fit for the alumni. CU has a large alumni base in the Pac-12 footprint, and not so much in the Big 12. And, fans love traveling to Pac-12 locations for games. All-in-all, I’ve heard no complaints about the change.
Last year it felt like the Buffaloes were a good team on the rise, but they just weren't yet ready to close out games. Do you feel like that's accurate? How have things changed this season?
Yes, it was accurate, to a point. They were nowhere near this explosive on offense, though, and injuries buried this team in 2015. This year, they’ve been healthy and they’re a more experienced, veteran group. Combine that with the changes they made to the offense to make it more explosive and it’s been a recipe for success.
Stanford fans have enjoyed watching Solomon Thomas wreaking havoc with opposing offenses this year, but the Buffs have their own defensive star, Jimmie Gilbert. How do those two players compare? What are Gilbert's strengths?
Thomas is much bigger and plays more on the interior, whereas Gilbert is a long, lean outside linebacker. He’s a talented pass rusher and does a nice job setting the edge. Gilbert also has the luxury of having one of the Pac-12’s best secondaries behind him. The real star of the Colorado defense is cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, who is exceptional in coverage and against the run.
Quarterback Sefo Liufau has missed some time, but it looks like he's on schedule to start for the Buffs on Saturday. How has he progressed as a quarterback? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Liufau is having his best season, by far. He’s a four-year starter and playing like it. His leadership and experience have been invaluable for this team. He’s been very accurate and has avoided mistakes (no interceptions this year), which plagued him in the past. It’s helped him a lot, though, that his teammates have improved. Liufau has more talent around him than ever before. His weakness is that he can sometimes make a bad, costly decision, but he hasn’t done much of that this year.
After his breakout game against ASU last week, has Phillip Lindsay become the lead back? What are his strengths? Who else should the Stanford defense be concerned about?
Lindsay has pretty much been the lead back all season. He’s not a big guy (5-8, 190), but he plays big. He’s a strong runner and has good speed, but doesn’t often break long runs. He’s also got great hands as a receiver (I’m not sure I’ve ever seen him drop a pass) and is a good blocker in pass protection. In terms of running backs, you might see Kyle Evans, who is another small (5-6, 175), but powerful runner. Donovan Lee could be a factor, too, but he hasn’t done much since Week 2. If Lindsay and Evans stay healthy, they’ll team with Liufau to handle the run game.
What's your prediction for the game? If you can, give me a final score and an explanation for how we get there.
For the first time, CU actually matches up with Stanford. Frankly, the Buffs are having a better season and might be a better team right now. Something tells me Stanford will play well in this one, though. The Cardinal have five very winnable conference games on the horizon and they know they could get on a nice run, and it starts on Saturday. I’m expecting a tough, physical, close game, but give the edge to Stanford, 27-23.