The Pac-12 South is a heap of garbage and the Colorado Buffaloes are hungry raccoons.
The South has always been the lesser of the two Pac-12 divisions — no South team has ever won the Pac-12 Championship game — but it has never been quite this bad. As the Buffaloes have gotten off to a 3-0 start, they stand alone in first place in the division standings. There’s a good chance they could reach the Pac-12 Championship for the second time in three years.
When the Buffaloes won the Pac-12 South in 2016, it was possible because they went 4-1 against their division mates, all of which struggle with consistency (USC), injuries (Utah, UCLA) or just plain bad football (Arizona, Arizona State). It also helped that Colorado drew a relatively easy schedule, and aside from road games at USC and Stanford, the Buffs faced most of its toughest competition at home.
The 2018 Buffaloes aren’t as good or as determined as that incredible 2016 team, but they could similarly benefit from a soft schedule. The non-conference schedule wasn’t supposed to be as easy as it was — Colorado State was expected to be improved, Nebraska is better with Adrian Martinez healthy, and New Hampshire, always a warm-up game, is usually an FCS powerhouse. Meanwhile, they have risen to the top of the South standings because everyone else in the division has struggled some, and that too could bode well for the Buffs.
After a bye on Saturday, the Buffs will start conference play against an awful UCLA team fresh off being blown out at home by Fresno State. If the Buffs lose at home to the Bruins, forget this article existed and hope it will be a wake up for the team to get refocused. CU’s fifth game is at home against Arizona State. Though they have looked superb at times early this season, it’s hard to say how sustainable their defense is. Aside from the nightmare that is N’Keal Harry, the Buffs match up well with the Sun Devils and should be able to bag those two conference wins.
After that, the Buffs hit the road in their toughest stretch of the season. First is a game at USC, an extremely talented team that should beat Colorado, especially if they dominate the trenches. But after being soundly defeated by Texas, it’s unknown if they can convert that talent into on-field success in 2018. The Buffs follow that with a trip to Washington, where they will be a heavy underdog. CU will almost certainly lose to Washington, but if the Buffs can steal an away win in these two games — still unlikely, even if USC is not at its best — they would get through this slog likely in first place in the South division.
The schedule gets quite manageable as they host Oregon State and visit the curiously awful Arizona, who have for some reason tried to turn Khalil Tate into a pocket passer. The Beavers might be the worst in a Power 5 conference now that Kansas is finally winning games; lest I jinx it, Colorado could beat OSU with their backups. Arizona, meanwhile, are going nowhere until they unleash Tate. Even if the Buffs do see the best version of Tate, the CU defense is faster than a year ago, plus the Wildcats’ defense is much worse than the unit Steven Montez tore up in that shootout. Traveling to Tuscon is always dangerous, but both of these should be wins.
Washington State and Utah will be the Buffs’ final home games. Wazzu has been good the past couple seasons and have yet to lose in 2018, but they graduated most of their key defenders from a year ago and haven’t looked capable of replacing those losses. Their offense will always be competent, but it doesn’t look like Mike Leach’s air raid can carry them in shootouts. Utah, then, is the dangerous game. The Buffs will be fighting like hell on Senior Day, but that could be for naught if the Utes dominate the line of scrimmage. CU did beat Nebraska despite getting trashed in the trenches, but they needed turnovers and clutch plays to get that W. For them to win their home finale and stand the best chance of winning the division, they will need improvement on those fronts.
The Buffs’ final regular season game will be at California. Considering this game is still more than two months away, it’s silly to project what each team will look like, but that’s the spirit of this post. Cal’s win over BYU looks more impressive after the Cougars upset Wisconsin. It’s hard to say, though, if Cal is any good, especially as their offense has scuffled. The Buffs also match up quite well with the Bears — especially if they can’t figure out how to throw — so even away from home, we should see a win here.
All told, the Buffs will probably finish somewhere around 8-4 or 9-3. The three likely losses are against USC, Washington and Utah, but if Colorado could get one or two of those, their record could be as good as 10-2 or 11-1. It sounds insane to say this team could be 11-1, but if they take care of lesser teams and get lucky elsewhere, it’s only a little bit ridiculous.
If the Buffs finish closer to the conservative estimates, they would still be fighting for the South. Their most likely competition will be with ASU, USC and Utah. The Devils, as mentioned early, are a solid team but they’re probably playing better than their true talent level. Their schedule is also brutal as they face Stanford at home, then Washington, USC and Oregon (and Colorado) on the road. Utah is always ready for a home upset, and that sets up nicely as they host USC and Oregon. But they already lost to Washington and travel to Stanford, so that’s already two losses that can afford the Buffs breathing room. USC might have an easier schedule than the Buffs. Besides their early loss to Stanford, their toughest Pac-12 game is at Utah. If they play closer to what has been expected of them, they should beat CU and ASU at home, then hold off Utah for the South. But if their slump lasts longer than expected and they drop a Pac-12 game they shouldn’t, the Buffs could have an edge on them in the standings, just as they did in 2016.
Colorado probably won’t win the Pac-12 South and we should be happy for 8 or 9 wins (if that), but it’s too tempting to look ahead to see that the Buffs’ chances in the division are better than many would think. These Buffs aren’t nearly as good as they were during the Rise, but we could still see a run to the Pac-12 Championship.