This Pac-12 season has been one large and heaping serving of the choicest chaos this sport has to offer. Thus far there've been two gorgeous Mary's Hailed, multiple swashbuckling offensive bombardments resulting in school, conference, and national records, ridiculous wins by underdogs on the road, and for good measure one or two defensive grudge matches. Each school can claim to be *just* a few plays away from an extra win or two, and possibly a division lead. With dangerous talent present up and down the ranks, this conference has more than proven itself to be one of the nation's deepest in 2014.
For their part the Buffs have shown undeniable progress and improvement, especially on the offensive side of the ball. It just hasn't yet translated to the one column that truly matters. They very well could, maybe even should, be sitting at 2-1 in conference play right now and in position to challenge for a bowl bid and beyond. But, as it stands they've got quite a lot of mountain left to scale. If this team is to notch another couple of wins in a wide-open league, and confirm their progress by finally closing out a tight game, they'll have to do it against much harsher opposition. Here's how I see the second half of this season going down.
USC Trojans, Saturday, October 18th, 4 p.m., Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum
After a week to put the heartbreak of two consecutive close losses behind them, the Buffs travel to the Coliseum to play a team that is likely their second toughest remaining matchup. USC will always have exceptional athletes on both sides of the ball, even when dealing with scholarship limits, and they are extremely tough to defeat at home. But, we just saw an ASU defense that had been playing like a road cone go in there and do just enough to give their offense a chance to win in the end. Talent-wise, the Trojan defense will be the toughest Colorado has seen this season, but they too have earned a couple of black eyes. Boston College racked up 452 yards on the ground against this unit and the Sun Devils threw for 464 yards before completing their game-winning 46-yard touchdown.
Sefo Liufau and the offense face a very stern test in this matchup, but unlike past conference road games that looked like no-hopers the Buffs at least have the chance to put up some numbers. Colorado's defense stepped up and got some timely stops against Oregon State, and it will be a terrific sign if they're able to disrupt the USC offense in any way. While this one won't be a win, putting points up early and keeping it within two scores late would be a successful trip to the City of Angels.
UCLA Bruins, Saturday, October 25th, Folsom Field
Last year the Buffs went into the Rose Bowl and gave the Bruins a bit of a fight. At one point P-Rich was glowering over one of their defenders like a prizefighter after essentially tackling him while making a catch. They stood up to Anthony Barr and the UCLA defense and were very much in it until the 3rd quarter. This year, UCLA has been the Belgium of the college football season, a trendy dark horse to win the conference and make the playoff but a team that may ultimately lack a crucial component or two. After a slow start, nearly losing to Virginia and Memphis, they rolled into Tempe and looked like the team everyone thought they'd be while routing the Sun Devils 62-27. Then, they lost at home to Utah last weekend. While no slouches themselves, losing to the Utes in Pasadena raises just as many questions as it seemed were finally answered the week prior.
We'll have no idea which UCLA team the Buffs will get come the 25th, but if last year was any indication this one will be a battle. Brett Hundley is incredibly tough to bring down and can make plays out of seemingly nothing but the Bruins' major weakness has been their offensive line. The defense will have to be the heroes in this one, keeping tight coverage and pressuring Hundley effectively whenever possible. Again, I don't see the Buffs winning this game but a one or two score game late in the 4th quarter is entirely possible.
Washington Huskies, Saturday, November 1st, Folsom Field
On the first day of November we arrive at one of the Buffs' best shots at victory. Washington has athletic talent and their offense is capable of moving the ball, but their defense has not been on the same level as last year's unit. They're still adapting to Chris Petersen's coaching regime and have only just played their first conference game, which resulted in a 20-13 home loss to Stanford. Before that, they squeaked by Hawaii by a point in the season opener down on Oahu and were taken to the brink by an always-game Eastern Washington team at home, giving up 52 points. Before facing the Buffs, the Husky defense will have had to contend with Cal's Bear Raid, rival Oregon and Marcus Mariota, and ASU's high-powered attack. We'll know much more about how the Huskies truly stack up in a couple of weeks.
If Colorado's defense comes to play here and Sefo and the offense do their thing, there's no reason the Buffs can't pull this one out. I could very well be eating my words if Washington wins two out of their next three, but as of now this game is as winnable as the Oregon State game was.
Arizona Wildcats, Saturday, November 8th, Arizona Stadium
After the wild, last-second win over Cal, it looked like the 'Cats were in for another classic Rich Rod season. A roller coaster ride powered by a sometimes inconsistent but scintillating light-speed offense offset by a somewhat suspect defense. But, here they are at 5-0 and ranked 10th in the country after beating Oregon in Eugene last Thursday. Freshman quarterback Anu Solomon has been a revelation and defensive coordinator Jeff Casteel's 3-3-5 odd stack defense has frustrated opponents, especially Mark Helfrich and the Ducks. As part of their 574 yards per game output, the 'Cats are averaging 220 yards on the ground each time out, which doesn't bode as well for the CU defense in its current state. ‘Zona gets USC at home this Saturday in what has to be one of the biggest games in Tucson since the height of the Desert Swarm days. They'll then face Washington State and UCLA before the Buffs (and myself) come to visit the desert. We're going to find out quickly just how real these Wildcats are.
Earlier on, this looked like a good shot at a potential road win. It still might be a shootout on the level of the Cal game but if Arizona's defense continues to play the way it did up in Eugene, beating the Wildcats in Tucson will be very difficult. It's improbable of course, but this matchup represents the Buffaloes' best chance to spring a major upset.
Oregon Ducks, Saturday, November 22nd, Autzen Stadium
The Ducks looked like legitimate national title contenders during their resounding win over Michigan State. But since, they've escaped Pullman with a one-touchdown victory and collapsed at home against the Wildcats. The offense's confidence looks shaken, especially along the offensive line, which is never a good sign. Their matchup this Saturday with UCLA in Pasadena will go a long way towards determining which direction the Ducks' season heads from here. Regardless of how their next 5 games play out, beating Oregon in their house takes extraordinary circumstances and immense amounts of team speed, and Arizona happened to have both last Thursday. Colorado's defensive talent and scheme do not yet operate at a level where they can contain the Ducks' offense for an entire game. The Buffs may score some points but they aren't winning this one and it may not even be close in the 4th quarter.
Utah Utes, Saturday, November 29th, Folsom Field
Ah, the team in red in late November. We can make this work eventually, right? Since these two schools joined the Pac-12, each contest has been decided by just one score, with Utah winning two to Colorado's one. Neither team has yet had serious stakes on the line but this year may be different. The Utes are very much improved and have already racked up two signature wins, beating Michigan in the Big House and UCLA in the Rose Bowl. If not for a second half stall against Washington State, they'd be undefeated and leading the South with Arizona right now. They head to Oregon State next Thursday and then open up the meat of their schedule, facing USC, ASU, Oregon, Stanford, and Arizona before traveling to Boulder the Saturday after Thanksgiving. Playing one of the nation's toughest slates, a bowl bid will be nothing short of impressive. If they can somehow capture a few more statement wins, unlikely but possible, Utah could very well have something further on the line when they battle the Buffs.
At home in the last game of the season, this is still the Buffs' next best chance at victory. (There's still the possibility that this won't be the last game but it will take an incredible string of performances. Which, could you imagine if that happened? Oh my.) These two teams have played each other very tight the past 3 seasons and I don't expect this year to be any different. Utah's offense isn't explosive but they can drive you into submission. If CU's offense can put up points in each quarter and if the defense bends but doesn't break, the Buffaloes have a great shot of ending the season on a winning note, and rolling into 2015 with newfound confidence, and a newly discovered identity.