Wildcats, Buffaloes meet in Boulder with first place in the Pac-12 South on the line
The Wildcats (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) edged UCLA 20-17 in their league opener after rallying in the fourth quarter. Arizona shut out the Bruins over the final 15 minutes and held an opponent under 20 points for the second consecutive week. The Wildcats have outscored their last two opponents 22-0 during the fourth quarter.
The Buffaloes (3-1, 1-0) knocked off then-No. 20 Arizona State 34-31 to notch their first road win over a ranked opponent since 2002. Colorado jumped out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead and never trailed, although the Sun Devils tied it up on three occasions. The Buffaloes are seeking their third 2-0 start in league play in the last four seasons.
Arizona has won two straight games against Colorado. The Buffaloes hold a 14-7 lead in the overall series, but they have beaten the Wildcats just twice since joining the Pac-12. Colorado's last home win over Arizona came in 2011.
Arizona at Colorado
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 5 at 4:30 p.m. ET
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Colorado -4.5
When Arizona Has the Ball
The Wildcats could be in the position of finding a way to survive without Khalil Tate and J.J. Taylor for a second straight week. Tate and Taylor were both sidelined during the win over UCLA.
Grant Gunnell stepped in as quarterback with Tate limited by hamstring and ankle injuries. Gunnell did well in his first start against the Bruins. The freshman passed for 352 yards and a touchdown while completing 66 percent of his passes. He became the first Arizona QB since Anu Solomon in 2014 to throw for more than 300 yards in his first start.
Gunnell is more of a pocket passer than Tate, which the Buffaloes might welcome. Tate torched Colorado each of the previous two seasons. He rushed for 327 yards and four touchdowns in 2016, then threw for 350 yards and five TDs on 17-of-22 passing last season.
Taylor also is dealing with an ankle injury. Bam Smith stepped in and led the Wildcats with 35 rushing yards and 99 receiving yards. Smith formed part of a backfield trio that also included Gary Brightwell and Nathan Tilford. One of the three backs will need to step up and take some pressure off Gunnell to help Arizona generate enough yardage to keep Colorado's offense off the field.
When Colorado Has the Ball
The Buffaloes got banged up in their win over the Sun Devils. Laviska Shenault Jr., Mustafa Johnson, and Chris Miller are all game-time decisions after suffering injuries two weeks ago. That will put pressure on Colorado on both sides of the ball. Johnson has a team-high three sacks this season. Shenault is the team's most explosive receiver with 226 yards and two touchdowns on 17 catches.
Colorado will count on Tony Brown and K.D. Nixon to step up and give the offense an extra boost in Shenault's absence if he can't go. Brown has 301 yards and four touchdowns on 19 catches while Nixon has tallied 295 yards and a score on 17 receptions. Steven Montez has been effective in making plays in the passing game. Through the first four games, the senior quarterback has piled up 1,164 yards and nine touchdowns while completing 67 percent of his passes.
Alex Fontenot could be the x-factor for the offense. Colorado has won both games where Fontenot has accumulated more than 100 all-purpose yards. The sophomore is the team's most productive running back to this point, with 298 yards and four touchdowns through four games. Fontenot is averaging 4.4 yards per carry.
Arizona has improved dramatically on defense since getting shredded by Hawaii in the season opener. Facing a pair of mediocre opponents in Texas Tech and UCLA had a hand in it, but the Wildcats are also showing a knack for getting stops in the fourth quarter when they've needed them. Colorado has shown some glaring vulnerabilities in both wins over Power 5 opponents. Still, the Buffaloes are much more capable team on offense than the Wildcats. It will be close, but Colorado will get to party like its 2016 again for at least one week.
Prediction: Colorado 27, Arizona 24
— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.