STANFORD, Calif. (AP) A year ago, Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre watched his struggling team play Stanford close early before a pair of quick scores just before halftime broke the game open and helped catapult the Cardinal to its third Pac-12 championship in four years.
How quickly things have changed.
This season the Buffaloes are tied for first place in the South Division and charging hard toward a potential berth in the conference title game while Stanford is two games off the pace in the North and simply trying to stay in the postseason picture.
Both teams can take a big step forward when they meet for a rare noon kickoff Saturday at Stanford Stadium.
Beating Stanford would not only enhance the Buffaloes' (5-2, 3-1) hold on the division lead but it would also make them bowl eligible just one year after they lost eight of their nine conference games.
That's nice, Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay said, but he and his teammates remain focused on a bigger prize.
''Our goal is Pac-12 champs, there's nothing less than that for us,'' Lindsay said. ''The bowl game will come as we continue to win games. We just need to focus on ourselves and Colorado football.''
The Buffaloes are off to their best start since 2005 but have lost five straight to the Cardinal, including all three times since Colorado joined the Pac-12 in 2011.
MacIntyre said his team has to match Stanford's toughness in order to win, something the Buffaloes failed to do a year ago when they lost 42-10
''We have to be more physical than we were last year,'' MacIntyre said. ''We have to go in there and go toe-to-toe with them. We have to surpass what they do to be able to win the football game. That's a big challenge for us.''
This year could be different.
Stanford (4-2, 2-2) has come back to the pack after being dominant in the conference for several years. Many of the problems have come on offense and have been self-inflicted, from turnovers to costly penalties in the red zone that have repeatedly derailed the Cardinal's once-prolific offense.
''Those are things that we don't have here and that we don't accept here,'' Stanford coach David Shaw said. ''The thing with us is not doing those things that hurt us. It's just those one or two plays that kill a drive that we just can't have.''
Here are a few more things to look for when Stanford hosts Colorado:
MCCAFFREY ON THE MEND: Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey was held out of last week's win over Notre Dame with an unspecified injury. The 2015 Heisman Trophy finalist did some light on-field work three days after the Cardinal beat the Irish but is still questionable. If McCaffrey can't go, Stanford will once again lean on Bryce Love, who had his first career 100-yard game against Notre Dame.
RETURN OF THE MAC: Before taking over the Buffaloes program in 2013, MacIntyre spent three seasons as the coach at San Jose State and went 16-21 with the Spartans. While he's looking forward to going back to the Bay Area, MacIntyre won't have much time for walking down memory lane. ''After the game I'll probably get to see a few of those guys before we get on the bus to head back,'' MacIntyre said. ''That was a very special place in our family's lives.''
LINDSAY ON A ROLL: While McCaffrey is must-see TV every time he touches the ball, Lindsay has also done quite well for himself this season. The Colorado junior leads the Pac-12 with 614 rushing yards with 10 touchdowns and is the reigning conference player of the week after rushing for a career-best 216 yards and three scores against Arizona State.
GILBERT'S PASS RUSH: Colorado outside linebacker Jimmie Gilbert leads the Pac-12 with 6 + sacks this season and leads the nation with five forced fumbles. Gilbert has had at least one forced fumble in three consecutive games and will be facing a Stanford offensive line that has been banged up most of the year.