After falling to Washington 41-10 in the Pac-12 championship game in December, Colorado lost a four-year starter at quarterback (Sefo Liufau, the school’s all-time leading passer) and nine starters from a defense that ranked in the top 20 in the FBS. Largely as a result, Pac-12 media in late July picked the 2017 Buffaloes to finish fourth in the South Division behind USC, Utah and UCLA.
Based on his remarks earlier this week, Washington head coach Chris Petersen is not nearly as dismissive of the Buffaloes as was Pac-12 media, which also based its prediction on the fact that Colorado lost well-regarded defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to the University of Oregon.
“They have all of their offensive coaches intact (from last year) along with most of their players,” Petersen argued this week. “It’s not dramatically different from last year. They are playing really well on both sides of the ball, but really on defense, (considering) how many guys they’ve graduated.”
Like Washington, Colorado is 3-0 after feasting on a preseason slate (Colorado State, Texas State, Northern Colorado) as soft as UW’s. The Buffaloes are 10-point underdogs against the Huskies Saturday (7 p.m., PT, FS1), but collected votes in this week’s Associated Press and coaches polls.
While Colorado has yet to receive a national ranking, seven other Pac-12 schools – USC, Washington, Stanford, Washington State, UCLA, Utah and Oregon – are listed. Five are ranked in the Top 25 this week.
“It (Pac-12) is really competitive,” Petersen said. “I’m kind of a broken record on our conference. I just really think that anybody in this league can beat anybody on a given day. I think we have good teams. I think you can kind of see that.”
It has ever been thus about the ultra-competitive nature of the conference.
Since Utah and Colorado turned the Pac-10 into the Pac-12 in 2011, no team has gone undefeated in league play. Only seven of 12 division winners since then have made it through with a single loss.
The five other division winners – 2011 USC (7-2-0), 2012 UCLA (6-3-0), 2014 Arizona (7-2-0) and 2015 USC (6-3-0) from the South and 2013 Oregon (7-2-0) from the North – all had two or more conference defeats.
That’s not a recent phenomenon. Since the additions of Arizona and Arizona State turned the Pac-8 into the Pac-10 in 1978, only seven teams, including USC three times, have gone undefeated in conference play. Three conference winners have had a loss and a tie and five others had two defeats. The seven undefeated teams (conference games):
|1988||USC||Larry Smith||8-0-0||10-2, lost Rose to Mich. St.|
|1991||Washington||Don James||8-0-0||12-0, co-national champs|
|1996||ASU||Bruce Snyder||8-0-0||11-1, lost Rose to Ohio St.|
|1998||UCLA||Bob Toledo||8-0-0||10-2, lost Rose to Wisconsin|
|2004||USC||Pete Carroll||7-0-0||1 win vacated, NCAA penalty|
|2005||USC||Pete Carroll||8-0-0||12-1, lost Rose to Texas|
|2010||Oregon||Chip Kelly||9-0-0||12-1, lost BCS title to Auburn|
Petersen admitted this week to an “emotional uptick” once conference play gets underway.
“Everybody realizes league has started now, and the intensity of those games kind of feels a little bit different,” he said. “It’s not like kids play harder. But maybe when you’re talking, there’s a little more focus. Everybody understands how competitive this league is.”
Based on the order of Pac-12 media predictions, Colorado will be the second-toughest road game on Washington’s schedule. Picked to finish second in the North behind Washington, Stanford will be the most difficult. Before meeting the Cardinal Nov. 10 in Palo Alto, the Huskies play at Oregon State Sept. 30 (picked to finish fifth in the North) and at Arizona State in Tempe Oct. 14 (No. 5 in the South).
Petersen doesn’t see much difference in this Colorado team and the one his Huskies dominated. In fact, Petersen seems impressed over Colorado’s preseason results.
“It seems like the (Colorado) players are very dialed in to what they are doing,” he said. “(They don’t) make assignment mistakes. Sometimes early in the season, especially when you have new guys, you’ll see guys that are misplaced out of a gap a little bit. I haven’t seen that from these guys. They are playing at such a high level of defense. For all the guys that have left, it’s really a credit to (the holdovers).”
Petersen also dismissed the idea that this will be a revenge game.
“We don’t think like that,” Petersen said. “(Revenge) doesn’t have anything to do with us. That has to do with them. We just have to get ready to play.
“Our thinking is, this (Colorado) is a new team, and we are going in with our team. They can think whatever they need to think. We know it’s going to be a hostile environment. They are a good football team. This is a completely new season with completely different energies and rhythms . . . now we start the hard part.”
No Pac-12 team has navigated the hard part unscathed.