A week after slaying Pac-12 North contender Washington State at Folsom Field, Colorado defeated another talented conference opponent on its home turf. The Buffaloes beat Utah 27–22 on Saturday to secure their first double-digit-win season since 2001, clinch the Pac-12 South Division and earn a ticket to the conference championship game, where they will face No. 5 Washington.
Here are three thoughts on what unfolded in Boulder:
1. Colorado turned it on in the second half again
The Buffaloes probably went into halftime feeling like the scoreboard didn’t reflect their advantage on the field. Over the first two quarters their average yards per play was over two yards higher than the Utes' and they recorded six more first downs. Yet Colorado couldn’t take advantage of its scoring opportunities, settling for a pair of short field goals in the second quarter that left it with only a three-point lead heading into the break. Buffaloes coach Mike MacIntyre justifiably suggested in a halftime interview that his team should be leading by double digits. That was be the case a short while later, after Colorado marched 75 yards for a passing touchdown to wide receiver Shay Fields at the end of the third quarter and then recovered a fumble from Utes star tailback Joe Williams for another score early in the fourth. Colorado forced yet another turnover later in the quarter, and the Buffaloes ran out the clock after a Utah touchdown narrowed their lead to five.
The second-half surge recalled their strong push after the break in another crucial conference collision last week against Washington State, when Colorado turned a 17–14 halftime deficit into a 14-point victory. The two wins quash any doubts over whether the Buffaloes could handle such a big stage after spending years in the conference cellar and being picked to finish last in the division this season. If anything, MacIntyre’s team seems built for crunch time, feeding off pressure to keep opponents at bay. Colorado’s ability to elevate its play as the game progresses will serve it well in the conference title game and possibly the College Football Playoff, but it will need to clean up its redzone execution to have a chance against Washington. Leaving points on the board is a minor error against an offensively limited team like Utah. Against the Huskies, it could be a fatal mistake.
2. Colorado’s formula isn’t pretty, but it does the job
Colorado might be the best story in college football, but the narrative appeal of its turnaround obscures its simple, but powerful, recipe for success. The Buffaloes are a boring watch for most neutral observers. They don’t score a ton of points, they don’t feature any A-list skill players in the passing game and their offense skews toward the run. While that formula might not generate a lot of style points or highlights, it just works. Colorado leans on designed runs from big-bodied quarterback Sefo Liufau as well as talented tailback Phillip Lindsay to propel an effective running game, and it does a good job taking care of the ball, ranking second nationally in turnover margin against winning teams. Colorado can move the ball effectively even if Liufau isn’t connecting with his receivers, but the senior has identified a go-to target in sophomore Devin Ross (17 receptions over the last two games) and entered Saturday completing a higher percentage of his throws than Washington starter and Heisman Trophy candidate Jake Browning.
However, the biggest reason the Buffaloes vastly outperformed preseason projections in 2016 is their defense. They entered Saturday ranked 12th nationally in Football Outsiders' S&P + Ratings, including 12th against the pass, and have yielded a Pac-12 best 18 points per game during conference play. Colorado’s vanilla offense and lockdown defense proved a potent combination during the Pac-12 slate, and it should translate well in the postseason. The latest piece of evidence came Saturday, when the Buffaloes stifled one of the nation’s top running backs in Williams and limited Utes quarterback Troy Williams to 13-of-40 passing with only 160 yards and two interceptions. Colorado’s next assignment, the Huskies, are a bigger challenge, but Chidobe Awuzie and the Buffaloes’ D can stymie Browning and his array of playmakers. The Huskies might be relieved to avoid a rematch with USC in the league title game, but they have not faced a better defense than Colorado’s this season.
3. The Pac-12 will have the most intriguing conference title game
The playoff field is beginning to take shape. No. 1 Alabama likely will earn a bid even if it loses to Florida in the SEC Championship Game. No. 2 Ohio State also should get in after beating No. 3 Michigan on Saturday, even though it didn’t win its own division. And No. 4 Clemson will be a heavy favorite against Virginia Tech in the ACC title bout. The Pac-12 championship, however, will pit two top-10 caliber teams in what could double as either a CFP play-in or elimination game for the conference. If Washington wins, it will have a strong argument for inclusion. In the selection committee’s latest set of rankings, the Huskies were slotted ahead of the pair of two-loss Big Ten teams (Penn State and Wisconsin) vying for that conference’s title, as well as both Big 12 squads (Oklahoma and Oklahoma State) in contention for that league’s championship. With a victory over Colorado, the Huskies shouldn’t fall below any of those teams despite their atrocious strength of schedule.
A Washington loss, however, would leave the Pac-12 in a tenuous position heading into selection Sunday. The Buffaloes could earn consideration for a bid, but they’d be assessed against other teams with strong arguments for entry like the Big Ten champion and the Big 12 champion. It’s far from certain that the committee would elevate Colorado over those squads. Washington clearly is the Pac-12’s most deserving candidate, and perhaps the conference’s only hope of avoiding a second consecutive year sitting on the sidelines watching the CFP. Whatever happens, it’s clear there will be a lot at stake when the Huskies and Buffaloes square off next week in Santa Clara.