Both thrived defensively, holding opponents to 17.8 points per game in Washington's case, 10th best in the nation; and 18.8 points per for Colorado, 13th in the FBS. Two of the premier secondaries in all of college football helped power those stingy defensive yields.
Quarterbacks Jake Browning and Sefo Liufau ranked among the most prolific and consistent playmakers the Pac-12 had to offer. Both operate behind stout offensive lines, with a bevy of talented receivers to catch passes.
But in reaching Levi's Stadium for Friday's conference title tilt, the Huskies rode a wave of lofty preseason expectations. The Buffaloes stampeded through 2016 as perhaps the single biggest surprise college football had to offer.
Colorado vs. Washington (Santa Clara, Calif.)
Kickoff: Friday, Dec. 2, at 9 p.m. ET
Where: Levi's Stadium
TV Channel: FOX
Spread: Washington -7.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Solving The Secondary
No two secondaries in the Pac-12 — perhaps in all of college football — feature as much star power as those of Colorado and Washington. The Buffaloes' group featuring Tedric Thompson, Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon proves critical to the nation's No. 20 passing defense, and sixth-best turnover-generating defense.
Thompson, Awuzie and Witherspoon combined for 42 passes broken up, and Thompson's seven interceptions rank near the top of the FBS. Two came in last week's South division-sealing win over Utah. Not bad for a defense that gained just one interception as a team two seasons ago.
"I see experience, I see really good athletes back there and a scheme they know inside and out," Washington head coach Chris Petersen said. "There's no gimmes. There's no easy passes. Everybody all year long has to earn this. When you have to earn it down after down, that's really tough to do, and that's why they don't give up a ton of points."
Few teams were as good this regular season at creating turnovers as Colorado, and even fewer were better. Washington was one of them. In fact, the Huskies finished with 30 takeaways, the most among all FBS defenses.
Despite his reputation for overseeing exciting offenses rife with trick plays, Petersen's teams typically make their bones on the defensive side. The 2016 Huskies took that to another level.
The secondary of Budda Baker, Kevin King, Sidney Jones and Pac-12 Defensive Freshman of the Year Taylor Rapp combined for nine of them.
Much credit for both teams' success in the secondary goes to the players up front. Colorado and Washington both stymied opposing quarterbacks, getting into the backfield to disrupt plays and force bad decisions — though coordinators Jim Leavitt (CU) and Pete Kwiatkowski (UW) did so with differing approaches.
The Buffs' blitz is tenacious, starting with end Jimmie Gilbert, the Pac-12's leader in sacks. The Huskies were just as imposing off the lines, though Kwiatkowski rarely called blitzes, instead relying on three-and-four-man rushes to disrupt the backfield. With big Elijah Qualls plugging up rushing lanes, and Greg Gaines and Vita Vea handling the edges, Washington forced quarterbacks to throw into stifling coverage. Linebacker Joe Mathis' injury hurts Washington's ability to get into the backfield somewhat — at least in theory.
The Huskies still managed two sacks and generated a remarkable four turnovers in last week's Apple Cup defeat of Washington State.
2. Get It Going On The Ground
Key to limiting each defenses' proficient turnover generation is establishing an effective ground game. Easier said than done, with Washington allowing just 3.5 yards per carry, and Colorado yielding only 3.9.
The inability to jumpstart the running game impacted both teams in their losses this season. The Buffs mustered just 1.94 yards per rushing attempt at Michigan, and failed to reach 100 yards on the ground at USC. Sluggish rushing performances against UCLA and Utah also made those games a little too close for comfort, with the defense providing the necessary plays to hold off the Bruins and Utes.
Washington's two-pronged attack of Lavon Coleman and Myles Gaskin was rarely bottled up any time in 2016, but USC managed to do so in Seattle on Nov. 12. The Huskies gained just 17 total yards on the ground — a statistic slightly skewed by the Trojans' yard-gobbling sacks of Jake Browning. However, USC was able to get to Browning because the Husky run game was so overwhelmed.
Running Sefo Liufau is central to Colorado's rushing attack. It's no coincidence that two of the Buffs' worst rushing performances came with Liufau injured. His dual-threat ability helps open the field for running back Phillip Lindsay.
For Washington, the tag team of Gaskin and Coleman — "thunder and lightning," as Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre dubbed them — need to offset Leavitt's aggressive play-calling from the front seven.
3. Explosive Plays
Both Colorado and Washington excelled in generating explosive plays, particularly those of 30-plus yards. The Buffs ranked No. 20 in the nation, while the Huskies' 31 plays of 30 yards or more ranked seventh. Deep and multifaceted receiving corps played central roles in each teams' big-play proficiency, which should make for an interesting chess match with those aforementioned secondaries.
Washington's John Ross ranks among the most dynamic big-play threats in the nation, but his performance has at times overshadowed that of Dante Pettis. Pettis averages almost two yards more per reception, and has just two fewer touchdowns despite hauling in 23 fewer catches overall than Ross.
Tight end Darrell Daniels is good for some explosive catches, as well. Just last week, Daniels was the recipient of a deep ball from Pettis, thrown on a trick play that caught Washington State off-guard. In a game for a possible College Football Playoff spot, don't be surprised to see Petersen go to his trick-play well again.
Colorado's pass-catching corps took a hit last week, losing Bryce Bobo to an ankle injury. He could be back to join Jay MacIntyre, Shay Fields and Devin Ross this weekend, however, at a time when the Buffs will need all-hands-on-deck.
Colorado and Washington dominated the college football landscape at times through the 1990s and into the early 2000s, but hit lows over the last decade-plus. Friday's matchup in Santa Clara is something of a throwback for those who grew up on the game in the '90s, and serves as a great reminder as to just how unpredictable this sport can be.
Few could have foreseen a Buffaloes-Huskies championship, though Petersen said former Boise State player and current Colorado offensive line coach Klayton Adams texted the Washington coach this summer, "See you in Santa Clara."
Count him as someone who believed, just as the rest of the Colorado believed. The Buffs may have been easily dismissed before the season, but they cannot be any longer. A win Friday just might insert them into the College Football Playoff conversation — though a trip to the Rose Bowl would be a nice consolation prize.
With a win, Washington is likely assured a playoff berth. The Huskies last won the national championship in 1991, so a quarter-century of hope rests on Friday's outcome. The Huskies face more pressure than their opponents — but Washington also might have just a little bit more than Colorado.
Browning will get his moment to shine in what should shape up as the Pac-12 Championship Game's first competitive contest since 2012, and the South's woes in the title round will continue. The division is winless since its inception in 2011, and Friday night should extend the record to 0-6.