Since the season was chock-full of question marks, it seems plausible to launch a retrospective with a question: Does it seem like 25 years have passed since the Buffs celebrated what would be a co-national championship?
Short answer: Well, yes ... yes it does — especially when that magical, mind-boggling 1990 season is reviewed and relived game-by-game. So much of such great importance has been forgotten (and I'm speaking for myself).
Almost three decades is a long time for details to remain fresh, particularly for someone now needing a reminder if his sock drawer is second or third from the top. But the '90 season's details - from Colorado's inauspicious 1-1-1 start to "Fifth Down" to an intrepid fourth-quarter comeback on a raw, Red night in Lincoln to that championship-saving clip - proved devilishly delightful.
Five (possibly) forgotten tidbits from that implausible march to Miami:
• Wingback Mike Pritchard started at tailback in place of the suspended Eric Bieniemy in the 31-31 season-opening tie with Tennessee. His rushing totals: 20 carries, 217 yards, two TDs. Consider: Pritchard ended the season with only nine more carries, which speaks to the team's abundance of talent.
Here's what outsiders saw, according to Lee Barfknecht, a veteran sportswriter for the Omaha World-Herald who covered Nebraska at the time: "There was a steady growth in the program. You could see the athleticism, the talented, high-end players that Bill (McCartney, coach) was accumulating ... as his recruiting classes rolled in, there were many more difference-makers - guys like (Darian) Hagan, (Eric) Bieniemy - and they started to overtake teams with better players. The culmination of that came in 1990."
DIGGING OUT OF A HOLE
• The last two 1s in CU's 1-1-1 start - McCartney thought it was the beginning of the end - were the result of blown two-TD leads in the tie with No. 8 Tennessee and a 23-22 loss at No. 21 Illinois. The lone "W" in the first three games was 21-17 against unranked Stanford, a 20 ½ -point underdog that led CU by two TDs in its home opener.
How could a 1-1-1 team remain in the national championship conversation? It simply couldn't, thought Dennis Dodd, now CBSSports.com's senior college football columnist: "At 1-1-1, with CU being a preseason No. 5, I'm thinking, 'It's over' ... the first six games (including the opening tie) were decided by seven or fewer points, and that included Fifth Down. I saw no way (the Buffs could win a national title)."
• After their mediocre start, the Buffs took another trip to play a Top 25 opponent - at No. 22 Texas - and again needed a fourth-quarter comeback. The muggy night in Austin's most improbable detail: After running only five plays in the third quarter, CU's offense came to life and scored 15 fourth-quarter points in a 29-22 season-turning win that launched a 10-game winning streak.
Fourth-quarter life flowed from the fiery Bieniemy, who, according to Hagan, "gets us all together and tells us, 'OK, this is how we're going to win: The defense is going to get a stop right here, then we're (offense) going to drive, get a touchdown and win the ballgame.' And that's exactly what happened."
CU had discovered its season-saving chemistry. When the defense left the field after forcing Texas into a three-and-out, the offense met the "D" at the sidelines and chanted, "Dee-fense, dee-fense." When the offense scored the first of its 15 fourth-quarter points, the "D" returned the favor, greeting EB & Co. with sideline chants of "Off-fense, off-fense."
"I can see why that game galvanized that team," said Austin American-Statesman columnist Kirk Bohls. "Expectations had been so high going into the 1990 season, and then to have that kind of start, (CU) desperately needed a turnaround game."
• But the Buffs would need more than one turnaround weekend. A bizarre one might help, too - and it was on the way. The Big Eight opener at Missouri brought Fifth Down and two months of mostly bad press. A shoulder injury sidelined Hagan and offered backup Charles Johnson the first of only two college starts. CJ scored (didn't he?) on the extra down as time expired and won 33-31. Johnson's next big moment wouldn't arrive until the Orange Bowl two months later in the 10-9 win against Notre Dame.
For some college football followers (including some AP voters and perhaps some coaches), the extra down attached itself to the Buffs like a virus. The win at Mizzou was "tainted" and could/would be held against them. Other observers, like Barfknect, Bohls and Dodd, allowed McCartney's willingness to compile a murderous schedule (seven Top 25 opponents) to eradicate any extra down stigma.
No one is quite sure of how many AP voters harbored a grudge with their year-end ballots or how many coaches' poll (UPI) ballots favored Georgia Tech based on Fifth Down. But Tom Shatel, longtime Omaha World-Herald columnist, offered this: "Voters think it (a championship season) is supposed to be perfect. It's never perfect. Never. The ball bounces weird and it should not be counted against you. Now, what happened at Missouri was off-the-charts weird but you have to have those kinds of wins."
MAGIC IN MIAMI
• CU had that kind of season. Of the Buffs' 11 wins, five were by seven or fewer points and two of the close wins - MU, Notre Dame - required game-turning officiating calls. That magic night in Miami was saved by the infamous clipping call that wiped out Raghib "Rocket" Ismail's 91-yard punt return. But the night's most telling detail for CU might have been this: Notre Dame kicker Craig Hentrich had made 16 of 20 regular-season field-goal attempts and a school-record 72 consecutive PATs. Against the Buffs, Hentrich missed two field goals - 50, 48 yards - and had his only PAT blocked (Ronnie Bradford).
The '90 Buffs benefited from a remarkably talented roster, a coaching staff that would include seven future head coaches, and the good fortune always required if a special season is to be really special. This one was, and Johnson recalled the euphoric postgame scene at CU's headquarters (Sheraton Bal Harbor).
"I remember just watching happy people, most of whom didn't play football, weren't on the staff, they were just impacted by what had just taken place," he said. "And I realized that what we had just accomplished was much bigger than the football team."
Twenty five years later, that's the way it remains.
Longtime Colorado sportswriter B.G. Brooks covered CU's 1990 national championship season for the Rocky Mountain News.