Sunday November 20th, 2016

A matchup between two of the worst Power 5 programs of the last decade was one of the most thrilling contests in a bland Week 12 slate. No. 10 Colorado and No. 22 Washington State entered Saturday’s meeting in Boulder with division and conference title aspirations. The Buffaloes handled the Cougars, 38–24, to move to 9–2 (7–1 in the Pac-12) and extend their winning streak to five games.

Here are three thoughts on what unfolded at Folsom Field and the Pac-12 more generally:

1. Colorado did enough to slow down Washington State

This game could be boiled down to a collision of strengths: the Cougars’ high-flying offense vs. the Buffaloes’ suffocating defense. Washington State entered Saturday leading the nation in points per game this month (62.5), while the Buffaloes ranked ninth in the country in Football Outsiders’ defensive S&P + statistic. The immense task of shutting down coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid attack only became more difficult for Colorado midway through the first quarter, when starting defensive back Afolabi Laguda was ejected for targeting while trying to tackle Cougars wide receiver Robert Lewis on a touchdown reception.

Yet for as threatening as Washington State looked with star quarterback Luke Falk spreading the ball around to a battery of targets throughout the first half, the Cougars could not create separation against the Buffaloes’ stingy D. Colorado did well to limit Washington State to a pair of field goal attempts in the first half (only one of which went through the uprights), and the Buffaloes continued to weather the Cougars’ aerial assault after the break.

Meanwhile, after gaining nearly a yard per play less than Washington State over the first two quarters, Colorado put together a pair of 70-plus-yard drives in the third quarter, both punctuated by touchdown runs from veteran quarterback Sefo Liufau. The Buffaloes complemented Liufau’s forays from the pocket with solid production from running back Philip Lindsay, who iced the game with a 13-yard sprint into the end zone with just over four minutes remaining in the game. And Liufau kept Washington State honest by connecting with receivers Devin Ross and Jay MacIntyre (son of coach Mike) for a combined 15 receptions.

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Still, the most encouraging takeaway for Colorado involved its performance on the other side of the ball. In holding Washington State under 25 points for the first time this season, the Buffaloes put to rest any questions on how their defense would stack up against an elite offense. Falk is the nation’s most accurate thrower, the Cougars’ cadre of pass-catching threats is one of the Pac-12’s best even without River Cracraft and Leach has sliced and diced opposing secondaries all season. If Colorado can gum up Washington State’s point-spewing machine, it shouldn’t sweat any opponent it faces the rest of this season.

2. It's time to talk about Colorado as a playoff contender

As recently as one week ago, it was reasonable to posit that Washington was the Pac-12’s only legitimate candidate to make the College Football Playoff. The Huskies were undefeated and slotted at No. 5 in the first set of the selection committee’s rankings. More importantly, the manner in which they handled conference opponents suggested they were in a different class than the rest of the Pac-12: Washington wasn’t just beating teams, but crushing them.

Yet the assumption that the Huskies would comfortably stroll into the national semifinals looks increasingly dubious. Washington’s less-rosy outlook is partly of its own making; the Huskies were bludgeoned by USC on their home turf earlier this month. Yet that defeat may not even be their biggest obstacle to reaching the final four. Washington will have to take down two quality opponents before selection Sunday, either of which is capable of upending the Huskies and thereby denying them a CFP bid. The first is Washington State, which remains a frightening proposition for any defense even after Saturday’s result, especially in Pullman, where the Cougars are averaging 14.7 more points per game than on the road. The other opponent could be Colorado, which flashed the sort of defensive form Saturday that could stultify Jake Browning, John Ross and the Huskies’ offense.

However, the Buffaloes’ win over the Cougars suggests a potential Washington-Colorado matchup should be framed in a different light. The Buffaloes may be in line to reach the playoff themselves at Washington’s expense. Yes, a team picked to finish last in its own division this preseason could earn the Pac-12’s lone invitation to the final four.

And Colorado may not even have to face the Huskies to get there. Ranked 10th in the selection committee’s latest top 25, the Buffaloes could meet Washington State in a rematch for the league title. To get there, Colorado will need to beat Utah next week (more on that below). Wins over the Utes and Cougars could vault the Buffaloes into the discussion for a spot in the playoff field depending on what happens in other Power 5 leagues. Of course, Colorado also could face Washington in the conference title game, but the Huskies will need to beat the Cougars in the Apple Cup to make that happen.

Whomever Colorado meets if it reaches the league title game, it has done enough to warrant consideration as a CFP participant. A few months ago, the more pertinent discussion regarding the Buffaloes was whether MacIntyre was on the hot seat. Now he’s on the cusp of leading them to their best season in more than two decades.

Icon Sportswire via AP Images

3. The Pac-12 South race is not over…yet

Midway through Colorado’s win Saturday, Utah suffered a stunning loss to an Oregon team that it beat by 42 points in Eugene a year ago. Setting aside the improbability of the result and its importance for Mark Helfrich amid a torrent of speculation that he’s coaching for his job, the Ducks’ win adds another wrinkle to one of the most intriguing division races in the Power 5. First and foremost, Utah's defeat benefits USC, which fell to the Utes in Salt Lake City earlier this year, surrendering the tiebreaker between the teams.

Going one step further, the loss increases the probability that the Huskies will face the Trojans in a rematch in the conference title game. That could help Washington, as it would present Chris Petersen’s team an opportunity to redeem its lone defeat. On the other hand, there’s a chance it will effectively eliminate Washington (and the Pac-12) from the playoff. If USC’s beatdown of the Huskies in Seattle was an accurate reflection of the gap that exists between these two squads (instead of, say, an aberrant slip in an otherwise great season for Washington), the Trojans will have the upper hand again. But it’s probably too early to look ahead to that potential league title game matchup.

Colorado’s win Saturday puts it in position to clinch the South with a win over Utah next week. However, the Buffaloes could hand the division over to the Trojans if they stumble against the Utes. Colorado displayed the defensive mettle and offensive versatility Saturday to handle Utah, but it’d be foolish to dismiss a Utes squad that upended USC earlier this year and came close to taking down league favorite Washington last month. If the Buffaloes win, that would set up a matchup with either Washington State or the Huskies with the Pac-12 crown on the line. Realistically, only Colorado and Washington are in contention for playoff berths, which makes the prospect of those two teams meeting in the league championship game particularly intriguing. No Power 5 conference will have a more fascinating conclusion to the regular season than the Pac-12.

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