Saturday's Pac-12 Conference matchup between Colorado and No. 15-ranked Washington was very nearly a showdown of two teams alone atop their respective divisions. Instead, this rematch of the 2016 Pac-12 Championship Game becomes a virtual must-win for either to stay in the hunt to get back to Santa Clara this season.
Both the Buffs and Huskies come in tied atop their divisions, but with head-to-head tiebreakers dropped last week — at USC in Colorado's case, at Oregon in Washington's — neither has much room for error.
Colorado at Washington
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 20 at 3:30 p.m. ET
Spread: Washington -15.5
Three Things to Watch
1. The injury bug
Consider last week a case of adding injury to insult: In addition to losing key divisional games, both Colorado and Washington sustained high-profile injuries on offense. The Huskies could be without running backs Myles Gaskin and Salvon Ahmed, the team's two leading rushers. Gaskin and Ahmed are both questionable, but deep-ball threat Quinten Pounds is a definite scratch for the remainder of the season.
Colorado sustained one prominent injury on offense, but it might feel like losing three players. Wide receiver Laviska Shenault Jr., who has done just about everything imaginable for the Buffaloes' offense, came out of the USC game with a toe injury. His availability is uncertain.
Should none of those players return for Saturday's game, the look of both offenses changes dramatically. Colorado quarterback Steven Montez has a varied corps of receivers to target, Travon McMillian in the backfield, and his own, dual-threat ability; but Shenault's presence adds an invaluable dynamic. Likewise, Washington has high-potential backs in Sean McGrew and Kamari Pleasant ready to fill in for Gaskin and/or Ahmed, but their in-game contributions have been limited thus far.
2. Capitalizing on opportunities
Colorado opened last week's game at USC with an interception of Trojans quarterback JT Daniels, on USC's side of the 50-yard line. The ensuing Buffs possession produced no points. Similar issues vexed Washington in its overtime loss at Oregon, with two late possessions moving into Ducks territory but netting no points — points that would have won it for the Huskies.
Washington coach Chris Petersen lamented the decision not to try moving the ball closer for the regulation-ending field-goal attempt. Don't be surprised to see the Huskies operate more aggressively this week when getting into Colorado territory.
3. A heap of pressure
Steven Montez found himself having to scramble out of the pocket much more than usual last week in the loss at USC. Colorado's offensive line struggled to contain a steady and aggressive pass rush from the Trojans, and the Buffs can anticipate more of the same from Washington.
Huskies co-defensive coordinators Jimmy Lake and Pete Kwiatkowski have picked their spots when deploying blitzes this season. Saturday offers them an opportunity to attack frequently. Having Shenault in the lineup helps alleviate some of the pressure on Montez and produces one of the more intriguing potential matchups anywhere in college football this season: How often will Washington tackling machine Ben Burr-Kirven, typically a run-stopping linebacker, slide into coverage on Shenault?
Burr-Kirven's versatility presents that possibility, which could allow for more blitzes — particularly from the secondary with Taylor Rapp.
Colorado's best start in 20 years is nothing to dismiss. The Buffs will get back to bowl eligibility for just the second time in a decade, and their schedule shakes out in such a way that 10 wins for the second time in three years is not unrealistic. How viable their bid to win the South may be is a question for which we may have an answer by Saturday night.
Washington's a tough matchup for the Buffs on paper, and especially so without Laviska Shenault Jr. In much the same way USC's defense ground down the Buffs, racking up 18 tackles for a loss (a program best dating back to 2009), the Huskies have the firepower on defense to wreak havoc in the backfield. The potential absences of Gaskin and Ahmed limit Washington's offense, but quarterback Jake Browning should make some big throws against a Colorado secondary susceptible to surrendering explosive pass plays.