The Colorado Buffaloes and Arizona State Sun Devils have lived in different worlds since CU came to the Pac-12 in 2011.
However, these two schools are linked by several striking similarities as they prepare for Saturday night’s game at Folsom Field in Boulder.
The Buffaloes — never really the same since the 70-3 Big 12 Championship Game loss to Texas in 2005, followed soon after by Gary Barnett’s exit — had not yet found a foothold in the Pac-12 when they entered this season. Five years of struggle and hardship kicked Colorado to the curb. Mike MacIntyre certainly hoped to break through in his fourth year on the job, but even the most optimistic onlooker couldn’t have been certain of a turnaround. The Buffs needed to bring an end to the “almosts” and “could have beens” which marked their 2015 season. Before Week 1 in 2016, they were still on the outside of prosperity, walking up to the window for a closer view but not being able to get inside the store.
Arizona State has traced a different path — not a hugely triumphant one, but a noticeably different one just the same — since the Pac-10 became the Pac-12, thanks to Colorado and Utah.
The Sun Devils have long been viewed as a “sleeping giant” program, situated in a fertile recruiting area and a rapidly increasing metropolitan market (Phoenix) with access to Southern California and Texas. They have not maxed out in these first few years of the Pac-12’s existence, but they’ve achieved a measure of relevance. They won the Pac-12 South in 2013 and have become a program which makes bowl games on an annual basis. This isn’t USC under Pete Carroll, but it’s not what Colorado has endured. It’s squarely in between.
ASU and Colorado have not breathed the same oxygen in the American West, but this season, they have become extremely similar teams from their divergent vantage points.
First, both teams are overachieving. It’s not necessarily that these teams have won; they’ve won with backup quarterbacks starting or at least playing the majority of games against credible opposition (Colorado at Oregon, Arizona State this past weekend against UCLA). The Buffs and Devils are only halfway through their seasons, and they’ve shown levels of resourcefulness their fan bases have not been conditioned (at least not emotionally) to expect.
Second, these teams’ quarterback situations remain in flux, with the original Week 1 starters likely to start on Saturday night in Boulder. Sefo Liufau seems to be the likely choice to start for CU against Arizona State, after Steven Montez capably and confidently carried this team through a precarious stretch in late September and early October. On the other side of the divide, Manny Wilkins — who did not play last Saturday against UCLA — appears ready to start for the Sun Devils, and not a moment too soon. No. 2 quarterback Brady White was knocked out for the season with an injury suffered in the UCLA game, which he won. Dillon Sterling-Cole, whose redshirt was burned against the Bruins, is now the No. 2 signal-caller, waiting in the wings.
Everyone who cares about this game will intently monitor the starting quarterbacks to see if they can quickly regain rhythm and continuity with their offensive teammates. An element of rust figures into this game, as does a looming question about health and a more tangential aspect of fatigue. The roster disruption at the most important position in the sport will lend a large serving of intrigue to the proceedings.
Finally, Colorado and Arizona State are united in the sense that while they’ve exceeded their hopes in the first half of the season, there’s the impossible-to-ignore worry that the second half of the season will crash upon them. The schedules — though not overwhelmingly hard (with Oregon and Stanford declining) — are not pieces of cake. The more film opposing coaches collect on these teams, the more difficult it might become for the Buffs and Devils to thrive. Maybe they’re ready to continue to triumph in a season of renewal, but in the always-fragile Pac-12 South, nothing can be taken for granted — any longtime Pac-12 watcher knows this.
Colorado. Arizona State. The teams that have lived in different worlds since the Buffs entered the Pac-12 are now portraits of similar gridiron journeys. The winner of Saturday’s game will take a big step forward, the loser running the risk of being shaken with the “prove-it” month of November lurking around the corner.