At the beginning of the season nobody expected a Pac-12 Championship game between the No. 4 Washington Huskies (11-1, 8-1 Pac-12) and No. 8 Colorado Buffaloes (10-2, 8-1 Pac-12). Nobody could fathom a historic turnaround by Coach Mike MacIntyre that put his program in position to play for a conference championship.
Nobody except for one man — Colorado’s athletic director Rick George.
The man who’s helping "make CU great again" sat in a roundtable discussion with the media almost three years ago and set the goal of the Buffaloes competing in a Pac-12 championship game by 2016. An expectation that was once laughed has now become reality with MacIntyre winning National Coach of the Year and the Buffs’ earning their first 10 win season since 2001.
Colorado’s South Division championship isn’t the end goal for this team and there’s no feeling of excitement for just making the championship game in Santa Clara.
"If we win the Pac-12 Championship, we'll have an opportunity to do things nobody dreamed we could do," MacIntyre said. One more win and the Buffaloes would be the only team in the nation to defeat three ranked teams in a row.
As for Washington, the potential of competing for a championship was there at the start of the season. The Huskies were projected to finish second behind Stanford in the North standings. Coach Chris Petersen has put together a solid season with the Huskies only loss coming at home to USC. The last time Washington won a conference championship was in 2000 with a three-way split between Oregon and Oregon State.
It’ll be the first time Colorado and Washington have played in the Pac-12 championship game since the conference expanded to in 2011. The last time the two teams faced each other was Nov. 1, 2014 in Boulder. Washington overcame an early 10-0 deficit behind Shaq Thompson’s 174 yards and a touchdown. Colorado took a 23-17 lead in the third quarter, before 21 unanswered points from Washington solidified a 38-23 win.
What to expect from Colorado
Sefo Liufau started the season as a question mark that quickly had an answer. A broken foot and the rehab that followed gave uncertainty to the quarterback’s season; but through patience and persistence the leader of the Buffaloes offense has come back stronger. In nine starts this season, he totaled 2,647 yards, 18 touchdowns and three interceptions. He led CU’s 26th ranked offense along with the rushing attack led by Phillip Lindsay’s 1,136 yards and 15 touchdowns.
On defense, the Buffs have a stout unit that is one of the best in the nation. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has helped to turn CU from worst to first in the Pac-12. The Buffs have the nation’s longest forced turnover streak that spans over his time in Boulder. A renewed physical demeanor and senior leadership has willed Colorado success on that side of the ball.
Here’s five ways the Buffaloes can breakdown the Huskies in the battle of the Pac-12.
1. Load up and run
Phillip Lindsay can have success wearing down the middle of Washington’s defense for tough yards and the Buffs offensive line can pull either direction to allow blockers to get to the second level. CU’s average of 201.1 rushing yards per game goes up against UW’s 127.0 yards allowed. Liufau’s dual-threat ability will be the X-factor for Colorado.
2. Force Browning out of his "comfort zone"
Before calling him a Heisman hopeful, Washington quarterback Jake Browning will have to face the most talented defense of his young college career. Colorado’s defensive front of Jimmie Gilbert, Kenneth Olugbode and Addison Gillam can’t allow the 20-year old sophomore to develop a rhythm in the pocket. Browning started the first nine games with three interceptions and has thrown four in the past three games. Five out of the seven picks he has thrown were on third down and a majority while scrambling out of the pocket.
Browning doesn’t have the biggest arm to take shots down the field, but has made a name being consistent. He has a tendency to make mistakes under pressure and Leavitt must dial up plays to force Washington into converting on third down.
3. Sefo knows
When it comes to analyzing CU quarterback Sefo Liufau, his knowledge of the game is a huge factor. He’ll be playing on the biggest stage of his record-setting career and needs to use experience to his advantage. If history can be repeated, Washington’s defensive front of Elijah Qualls, Greg Gaines and Vita Vea gave up 176 rushing yards to Arizona’s dual-threat QB Brandon Dawkins. This could present problems for UW containing CU’s offense. Liufau’s success will be dependent on getting a good read of the Huskies defense and knowing when take off down the field.
4. Secondary prospective
Colorado comes into this game with the best secondary in the Pac-12, allowing an average of 187.3 passing yards per game and will be looking to show the nation their strength. The defensive backfield combination of Chidobe Auwzie, Akhello Witherspoon, Ryan Moeller and Isaiah Oliver at cornerback along with safeties Afolabi Laguda and Tedric Thompson are ranked 5th best in the nation for opponents completions (202-of-414, 48.8%)
The most intriguing head-to-head matchup will be how the secondaries from both teams will play. The Buffs and Huskies are disciplined on defense with a "no-fly zone" mentality that could be the difference against Browning or Liufau.
5. Finish strong and be "Uncommon"
MacIntyre has brought CU back to being an elite team in the conference and now’s the time to finish the rest of the season strong. Everything about this matchup would suggests a close fourth quarter battle and the Buffs need to fight with valor. Some critics are still not giving Colorado the credit they deserve and it is time to present a case to the College Football Playoff Committee.
Odds and ends
According to all major Las Vegas sports book, Colorado comes into Friday’s championship game as 8 point underdogs.
Colorado meets Washington on Friday (12/2) at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara, California to decide the Pac-12 Championship. Kickoff’s scheduled for 7 p.m. MT with national television coverage on FOX. Mark Johnson and Gary Barnett will have pregame coverage on 850 KOA starting at 5 p.m. MT.
Weather forecast: 52 ° with Clear skies and slightly humid.