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A win over USC could mark a Colorado Buffaloes football revival

A win over USC could mark a Colorado Buffaloes football revival
Colorado Coach Mike MacIntyre and his players sing along with the band after a 56-7 win over Idaho State on Sept. 10. (Dustin Bradford / Getty Images)

In mid-July, five stories above the Hollywood Walk of Fame, a very unglamorous scene was taking shape at the Pac-12 Conference's football media days.

Two days of coach and player news conferences were concluding with Colorado, the worst team in the Pac-12 since it joined in 2011. About the same time, it was announced that lunch was being served on a patio just outside the convention room.

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A room full of reporters cleared out, as if under evacuation orders. The make-your-own sandwich bar was packed. Colorado Coach Mike MacIntyre's news conference was not.

Quarterback Sefo Liufau and cornerback Chidobe Awuzie spent part of their allotted 25 minutes in a lonely corner of the room, whiling away the time with no one to speak to.

This was not what anyone had in mind when Colorado and Utah accepted bids to join what was then the Pacific-10 Conference in 2010. The Buffaloes, a power in the 1990s, were supposed to be the big haul. They were the first team the Pac-10 invited. Utah was a contingency plan.

Five miserable seasons later, as Utah has emerged as a regular Pac-12 South division contender, the merger could not have gone much worse for Colorado.

It won two Pac-12 games in 2011, one each in 2012 and 2013, none in 2014, and one last season. Entering this season, it had never known any spot in the Pac-12 South standings other than last. Last year's losing season was its 10th in a row.

"Everybody else was so far ahead of us, and they're still driving 80 miles an hour," MacIntyre told the few reporters who remained. "We've been trying to drive 120 miles an hour to catch them. I think we've gotten close."

MacIntyre was on to something. After playing two Pac-12 games, Colorado (4-1, 2-0 in the Pac-12) sits alone atop the South. A balanced, explosive attack powers the offense, which ranks ninth in the nation in yards per game. A swarming defense, ranked 13th, is a strong complement.

Colorado's turnaround has transformed USC's game on Saturday from a gimme to potentially one of the toughest left on the schedule. The Buffaloes have never defeated USC in 10 games. That streak is in jeopardy, but USC Coach Clay Helton said he has enough to worry about without adding that to the list.

"I just worry about this game this week," Helton said. "I worry about the now. Not the past, not the future, just right now."

Early upheaval has caused a re-calibration of USC's schedule, initially thought to be loaded in the first four and last four games, with a lull between. The outlook for the end of the season has brightened, with teams such as Notre Dame and Oregon currently struggling.

That leaves USC (2-3, 1-2) with a better opportunity to salvage its season — if it can get through unexpected challengers such as Colorado.

The Buffaloes almost spoiled USC's South division hopes last season, when they led by 11 points at the half. USC eked out a 27-24 win, aided by a blocked field goal.

"We saw game after game them lose close," Helton said. "We walked away from that victory saying, 'Wow, when this team matures, [MacIntyre's] going to have something special here.' "

This is MacIntyre's second rebuilding job. In his first head coaching stint, at San Jose State, he went 1-12 in his first season and finished 10-2 in his third and final season, with a No. 21 ranking.

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Colorado was also ranked No. 21 this week, its first time in the rankings since the George W. Bush presidency, 11 years ago.

"We were so down when we got here," MacIntyre said this week.

The new coaching staff had no new facilities, little talent and only three weeks to recruit its first class. By average recruiting ranking, no Pac-12 team has attracted less talent since 2011. But MacIntyre slowly built up the roster, which is now heavy with upperclassmen. The school spent $165 million on new athletic buildings, which were completed earlier this year.

MacIntyre said he could feel a buzz building around campus. "MAKE CU GREAT AGAIN" hats have popped up at Folsom Field in recent weeks.

Colorado has won a respect from opponents not seen since the days of America Online and Starter jackets. Its lone loss, at No. 4 Michigan, came after the Buffaloes lost their starting quarterback and cost themselves 14 points on special teams mistakes.

"Colorado," Michigan Coach Jim Harbaugh said afterward, "has some outstanding players."

The next week, the Buffaloes shocked Oregon at Eugene.

"We just couldn't stop them," Oregon defensive back Arrion Springs told reporters. "We couldn't stop anything out there."

MacIntyre said the recognition is nice for his players.

"But," he cautioned, "it means nothing when you line up and play Saturday."

Follow Zach Helfand on Twitter @zhelfand

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