For a Rocky Mountain Showdown decision nearly as lopsided as Colorado’s 44-7 win Friday in Denver, one must go back to the 2001 season.
That year should make Buffs fans’ ears and Ralphie’s horns perk up.
In 2001, Colorado stampeded to 10 wins and a Big 12 championship, embarrassing national runner-up Nebraska along the way. That season, however, was also the beginning of the decline for Buffalo football.
A national powerhouse throughout the 1990s, the turn of the millennium turned the fortunes of the Colorado football program. Never since 2001 have the Buffs reached that 10-win mark. Certainly no one outside of their locker room is slotting them for that milestone in 2016, and a blowout of Colorado State isn’t indicative of a march to nine more victories — this wasn’t a Colorado State of the Sonny Lubick days, after all.
Still, CU handled Colorado State in an effortless way that hasn’t been commonplace for the Buffs over the course of the last decade. The Buffs peppered an overwhelmed Ram defense with a variety of passes and runs, unleashed from a high-tempo set, that worked like a series of jabs in a prize fight.
Haymakers came from the arm of quarterback Sefo Liufau, who — earlier this week — head coach Mike MacIntyre said was playing by “miracle” after enduring a grueling Lisfranc injury, surgery and rehabilitation.
No one would guess it, seeing him go 23-of-33 for 318 yards. The way Liufau and the Buff offense clicked early, CU could have deluged its rival for north of 40 points by halftime, had MacIntyre not let off the gas.
For so long, roles have been reversed for the Buffaloes. Colorado’s opponents have built insurmountable leads early, then given repetitions to backups throughout second halves. For much of the Pac-12, “Colorado” was spelled “W” on the calendar.
Maybe the Buffs aren’t Pac-12 South title contenders, but they’re not an opponent any member of the conference can take lightly.
What culminated Friday in Denver was the first glimpse of a long process in redirecting Colorado from that slide that began so many years ago. It’s an ongoing process, one that requires patience — something rarely afforded in college football.
The process is paying off just in time.
MacIntyre was the right hire for Colorado football, boasting credentials to lead an uncanny turnaround. He previously went to San Jose State in 2010, at a time the Spartan football program barely clung to existence at the FBS level.
It took MacIntyre and his staff all of two years to transform a 1-11 team into an 11-game winner and a nationally ranked presence.
The collective strength of the Pac-12 is not exactly conducive to quick fixes; not as quick as MacIntyre got San Jose State back on track, at least.
“We were so far down when we got there, and I think the biggest challenge in the Pac-12 has been we have improved,” MacIntyre said at media days in July. “But everybody else was so far ahead of us, and they’re still driving 80 miles an hour. We’ve been trying to drive 120 miles an hour to catch them.”
Presumably no one in Sports Authority Field at Mile High had a radar gun fixed on the Colorado offense, but 120 miles per hour sounds about right. Recent CU offenses would not have had the necessary combination of athleticism, discipline or experience to execute at such a torrid pace.
Eighty-nine plays. A first down just about every third snap, on average. Almost 600 yards and a perfect 8-of-8 in the red zone from an offense that — last year — ranked 120th nationally in efficiency inside the 20.
Friday showed a new look for Colorado football — and an old one reminiscent of 2001 — at the same time.