SB Nation is doing a themed week every week of the Covid-19 shutdown. This week we’re asking What if? questions that could have swung games, seasons or even athletic programs.
Let’s go back to 2016, the season in which Colorado went from ten years of futility to a 10-2 record and a #8 spot in the College Football Playoff Rankings. Mike MacIntyre won every Coach of the Year award out there, but it was a senior-driven squad that powered itself to every victory.
Every time the going got tough, it was one of those seniors (or Phillip Lindsay) who made a statement play — Ahkello Witherspoon’s interception at Oregon, Tedric Thompson’s interceptions against Stanford, Sefo Liufau’s stiff arm against UCLA, Chidobe Awuzie’s kickoff return tackle and Kenneuth Olugbode’s touchdown to beat Utah.
There were so many close finishes and near misses during that run, but seemingly every time, Colorado had those breaks go their way. Except for one crucial piece: Sefo Liufau’s ankle.
After annihilating Colorado State and Idaho State in weeks 1 and 2, the Buffaloes visited the 4th-ranked Michigan Wolverines. The Buffs wore the same uniforms they wore when The Catch happened, when Kordell Stewart threw a hail mary 70 yards and Michael Westbrook came down with it. It was supposed to be a blowout, Michigan the 20-point favorites.
What’s why it was so fun when Colorado hit the ground running and took an early 21-7 lead. Liufau hit Devin Ross with a perfect pass for the 37-yard score. Awuzie surprised Wilton Speight on a blitz and Derek McCartney ran back the fumble. Ross caught another pass from Sefo, this time a fade to the back corner.
It was happening, the Buffs were there to play football. It felt at the time like an announcement that this team was to be reckoned with, that after 10 years in football wilderness the Buffs were finally back.
Michigan scored the next 17 points, mostly via special teams dominance and their skill players getting to the edge every time. It was 24-21 at the half, but Colorado was still in it. They just needed to clean up some mistakes and stay aggressive. They had to get lucky too, but The Catch was lucky too.
The Buffaloes were not lucky. At the very beginning of the third quarter, Liufau went down awkwardly on a Chris Wormley tackle, injuring his ankle. He refused to leave the game even though he could barely stand. Using his bum leg to sell the play action, Liufau stepped into pressure and threw a bomb to Shay Fields for the 70-yard score. He got a huge hit on the throw, ultimately knocking him out of the game (2:24 of this video).
Without Liufau in the game, the Buffs could not keep up on the scoreboard. The vaunted Colorado defense had one problem and that was side-to-side team speed, which Michigan had in bunches. Even worse, Steven Montez was a freshman quarterback at the Big House, and even though he knocked off Oregon at Autzen Stadium a week later, he was scattered in relief.
In the What if? of Liufau’s injury, anything could have happened. Maybe Colorado pulls off the upset at the Big House, knocked off Oregon the next, and finally beat USC with a healthy Liufau. Or maybe they still lose to Michigan, fall to Oregon without Montez having the game of his life, and struggle just the same against the Trojans (remember, it was line play that outdid Colorado in that game).
The ripple effects of that game continue outward. If Colorado beats USC, then freshman wonder Sam Darnold doesn’t lead the Trojans to the Rose Bowl and doesn’t have the same Heisman hype in 2017, possibly avoiding going to the Jets. Surely Clay Helton gets fired and USC is in a much better position than they are. And maybe Michigan has a slightly different season, disappointing fans in Week 3 instead of losing three of their final four games. Maybe Colorado turns that 12-0 season into landing K’Lavon Chaisson, who turns into a star here instead of helping LSU to a championship, etc.
It’s dangerous asking What if? but Sefo deserved a chance at beating Michigan.