The experience of traveling to follow your college football team changes significantly when that team's record stands at 2-7. For example, I doubt I'd have been handed a Coors Light from the passenger side window of an SUV packed with ‘Zona bros at noon on Highland Avenue had the Buffaloes rolled into Tucson with a winning record and posed a legitimate threat to fully dash Arizona's outside shot at reaching the Pac-12 Championship game. Instead I heard, "Welcome to Tucson buddy, you're gonna need that."
As it turned out, the Buffs did imperil the Wildcats' national ranking, but only for 47 minutes and change. The danger ended when Sefo Liufau was knocked out of the game as his desperate 3rd down pass sailed into the hands of Devin Holiday. It was a gutting way to see CU lose, especially standing behind players' families and a die-hard group of supporters on the road, but it's one that Buff fans are all too familiar with by now.
Each successive conference loss has represented an increased level of frustration. After the defeat at the hands of Arizona State, it was "Wow, that didn't feel like last season. I'm not all that upset, we were in that." Following what should have been a win at Cal, the mood became much more heated. Everyone knew that one of the best chances at victory and an opportunity to create some much-needed confidence had slipped agonizingly through Colorado's fingers in double overtime. The next week, hosting Oregon State at Folsom, early mistakes and another failed attempt at late-game offensive execution with victory in reach doomed the Buffaloes, costing them a precious shot at what would have been their best Pac-12 win to date.
There was not a game played on October 18th in Los Angeles. Nope, do not recall that.
Next, and this was the most painful loss, it was the ranked and preseason heavyweight UCLA Bruins that produced a late dagger to the heart on a gorgeous fall afternoon in Boulder. CU fell behind early but then proceeded to rally as the defense held firm through much of the 2nd half. The offense came up with 17 4th quarter points to push the game to overtime, but along the way missed yet another opportunity to win the thing in regulation. Liufau and company faltered in both overtime frames and Brett Hundley did what he has always done to CU and won the game with his feet. Not even the student section mobilizing in the east stands could help prevent a crushing defeat. The following week featured an unusually fast start and Colorado control of the game at halftime, which promptly disappeared never to return after the Buffs turned the ball over three consecutive times in the 3rd quarter handing the Washington Huskies a 15-point victory.
Four games, four very real opportunities at quality wins missed by the narrowest of margins. It's been said over and over, and over again but the Buffs could have been looking at 4, 5, or even 6 tallies in the W column entering last weekend if they'd have been able to capitalize on even just a small number of plays.
Watching this team, who were young and thin to begin with but are now so depleted by injuries that this week's scout team defense featured a redshirting QB playing safety, go blow for blow with a Top 25 team in a hostile environment was both unexpected and exhilarating. I'll never forget the defense furiously clapping back at our section as they ran off the field following their third 4th down stop of the night. Unfortunately the ultimate result was, as 8 of them have now been, extremely frustrating and disappointing. There's no telling how much an extra couple of wins would have helped boost CU's recruiting profile and thinking about how close this season came to jumpstarting a program that's been lost for the better part of the last decade makes me sick to my stomach.
No team is currently working with less in the Pac-12. CU has only just begun the process of catching up in earnest after two hard resets following the overdue dismissal of Dan Hawkins in 2010. While there are no moral victories, and saying that "at least losing truly hurts again" is becoming tired, Mike MacIntyre has continued to build the Buffs up this season. The improvement is there, it's both measurable and obvious to the naked eye. This team's performance has actually been fairly remarkable considering their lack of depth and experience, the injuries that have been sustained and the schedule they've faced.
Colorado has essentially been in a constant state of rebuilding since the disastrous end to the 2005 season, but for the first time the progress feels real, like it means something, like there's something substantial there. Wins for a program in CU's current state and position don't magically happen at the flip of a switch, the process of surmounting the mental block that's in front of them is required to be messy and time consuming and painful but this time around I think the payoff will ultimately come. In the meantime, I'll have another beer.