BOULDER, Colo. – When No. 20 Washington State takes the field on Saturday against No. 12 Colorado in a game with enormous national implications, take a moment to consider how surreal that is.
Two years ago, these programs combined to win five games. With two games left in the regular season, WSU (8-2, 7-0 Pac-12) and CU (8-2, 6-1) have decent chances to double that figure by themselves.
While the Cougars foreshadowed this year’s success with a nine-win season in 2015, the Buffaloes charged into college football’s upper echelons this season seemingly from nowhere. It’s as if coach Mike MacIntyre’s players looked around at each other, shrugged, and decided that they would try winning games for a change of pace.
One theory espoused by WSU wide receiver Gabe Marks is that the Buffaloes and Cougars were not as far apart as their final records indicated.
“Last year for them kind of went like us last year, it just went the other way for them,” Marks said. “They were in about as many close, one-possession games as we were, but football just works out like that. Sometimes you win and sometimes you don’t. So I knew they had the ability to get some wins.”
The Buffaloes sure look like a group that is tired of losing. CU starts nine upperclassmen on offense and defense, including quarterback Sefo Liufau, a Tacoma native who has started since his freshman season.
“A lot of them are the same guys as last year, but I think they’re playing harder,” WSU head coach Mike Leach said. “They’re playing more cohesive and they’re a year older. They have a lot of senior guys, too, and sometimes guys play harder toward the end of careers.”
None of those seniors has played in a bowl game, yet they are just three wins removed from playing in the Rose Bowl.
Although CU and WSU may share similarly rapid rises from pauper to prince, their profiles are markedly different. The Cougars are an Air Raid team – The Air Raid team, some would say, given that Leach’s former players and assistants so frequently coach the others.
WSU could have the best defense in the country, but the first thing to come to the mind of a casual fan who was asked about the Cougars would be their prolific passing numbers.
Likewise, the Buffaloes have a good offense. Liufau is great, Phillip Lindsay is a terrific running back in a conference full of good ones and Shay Fields would be the best wide receiver on plenty of Pac-12 teams.
But the Buffaloes have emerged as a top-15 team because of their top-five defense. CU ranks No. 9 nationally in points allowed (17.9), No. 2 in passing yards allowed per attempt, and No. 30 in yards allowed per run.
They play a mean brand of football. Opposing coaches say they legitimately play harder and with more effort than most other teams.
“The biggest thing with these guys is they are relentless up front,” WSU offensive line coach Clay McGuire said. “Their feet never stop moving.”
“It’s just an overall, they care about making the tackle more than sometimes when you turn on other tape,” outside receivers coach Dave Nichol said. “You respect that as a coach and it’s what we try to get out of our offensive guys.”
The Buffaloes might have a little more at stake because the Cougars are guaranteed of a spot in the Pac-12 Championship Game with a win in the Apple Cup next week. CU is in the thick of a three-way divisional race with USC and Utah, and a loss to the Cougars would spell trouble.
But the Cougars can make their lives a lot easier by picking up a road win against a highly ranked team, and even give themselves the possibility of playing in a major bowl game or the Rose Bowl with an Apple Cup loss if they can climb high enough in the rankings.
In short, two programs that have not played in many nationally relevant November games in the last decade or so are about to play in one of college football’s biggest games of the year.
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