The Colorado Buffaloes defied all expectations in 2016, winning 10 regular-season games and a Pac-12 South division title and earning a bid in the conference championship game. Their history-making season — the greatest one-year turnaround in Pac-12 history — ended short of the ultimate goal.
In the conference championship game, Washington's overpowering defense more than compensated for a lackluster offensive performance, capitalizing on some costly Colorado turnovers en route to a 41-10 rout. The Huskies completed their first conference championship season since 2000 before moving onto the College Football Playoff.
As good as Washington was in the 2016 campaign, Colorado head coach Mike MacIntyre says that this year's bunch is even better.
Washington at Colorado
Kickoff: Saturday, Sept. 23, 10 p.m. ET
TV Channel: FS1
Spread: Washington -11.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Line play
Both Colorado and Washington boast premier offensive lines, two of the best in the nation in terms of sheer talent. Each counters with a quality defensive line, though Washington's is much more of a known commodity coming into the 2017 season with Vita Vea and Greg Gaines up front.
Colorado's defensive line has seen veterans Leo Jackson III and Timothy Coleman step up their production, while Javier Edwards is fast becoming a force on the interior. The Buffs' front must find ways to get through a stout Washington offensive line to disrupt the two-man rushing attack of Myles Gaskin and Lavon Coleman — which has actually became a three-man look, with freshman Salvon Ahmed garnering an average of roughly seven carries per game.
Pressure on the quarterbacks is a must for both sides. Both defenses were among the best in college football at generating pressure a season ago, though the Huskies were markedly better head to head. This year, Washington has allowed only two sacks of quarterback Jake Browning. Steven Montez's dual-threat style lends itself to more sacks, but there's a difference between designed runs and pressure forcing the quarterback out of the pocket. CU wants to avoid the latter as much as possible, or else it will be prone to turnovers, as in the last meeting.
2. UW secondary vs. CU receivers
Colorado has one of the best wide receiving groups in the nation. Through three games, seniors Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross have between 14 and 21 receptions apiece — and the Buffs have yet to get Jay MacIntyre going fully.
Add running back Phillip Lindsay, a very capable pass-catcher out of the backfield, and the ways in which Colorado can attack a defense through the air are perhaps more varied than any other team in the Pac-12.
Washington didn't just successfully counter that threat in December; the Huskies turned Colorado's passing offense into a liability for the Buffs. However, while Pac-12 Championship Game Defensive MVP Taylor Rapp is back, the UW secondary is mostly new. Gone are Budda Baker, Sidney Jones and Kevin King.
So far, Washington has adjusted well. Opponents are averaging just 4.9 yards per pass attempt, and the Huskies have more interceptions (5) than passing touchdowns allowed (3). But Colorado presents a much different problem than any of the Huskies' first three opponents (Rutgers, Montana and Fresno State).
3. QB-1 at 100
Mike MacIntyre says that one of the differences between Washington now compared to the Pac-12 Championship Game is that Browning is playing at 100 percent. The Huskies quarterback played through a shoulder injury last season, hindering his production in the latter portion of the campaign.
That's a scary thought for a defense tasked with slowing Washington.
Conversely, Colorado's starting quarterback last season, Sefo Liufau, was knocked out of the Pac-12 Championship Game, forcing then-freshman Montez behind center. Montez is now the full-time starter, and MacIntyre says he's playing with a more confident presence in the pocket.
The fact that both teams are coming in with their QB-1 at 100 percent makes for an intriguing duel.
Colorado hung with Washington for a half in last year's championship tilt, but the Huskies' outstanding defense turned a competitive contest into a rout — quickly, at that. While the Huskies endured turnover on the roster in the offseason, particularly on defense, this remains a dangerous squad.
The offense features numerous proven playmakers, the defense is loaded with talent, and Dante Pettis is a difference-maker on special teams. There may not be a team in the Pac-12 more balanced in all three phases.
Colorado quietly lingers as a threat to win the South once again, despite being one of only three teams in the division yet to earn a Top 25 ranking so far this season. That will change if the Buffs can spring the upset Saturday.
Folsom Field should be rocking, and Colorado should move the ball more effectively than it did in December. That should make for a much more competitive game, but a win might be difficult to pull off. Washington looks like the team to beat in the Pac-12 once again.