STANFORD, Calif. — Bowl eligible.
It has a nice ring to it. And it's a phrase long coveted by the Colorado Buffaloes and a fan base starved for reasons to celebrate.
Saturday's ugly yet monumentally fulfilling 10-5 win at Stanford guaranteed the Buffs still will be honing game plans during December practices for the first time in nine years. It also validated all the pain and suffering endured by CU's upperclassmen through the first three years of coach Mike MacIntyre's tenure, a run of frustration punctuated by just two wins in 27 Pac-12 Conference games and 10 victories overall.
Quarterback Sefo Liufau, who earned another win with less than his best stuff on Saturday, grew emotional when talking about a group that has stuck together through thick and thin. Along the way there never were mass defections or roster-crippling transfers. No one questioned the long yet precise process toward a program resurrection outlined by MacIntyre. No one balked in the face of failure or criticism.
Together they bled. Now together they can reap the rewards of success.
"To be able to stick it out with these guys and finally accomplish one of our goals is a great feeling," Liufau said. "This is only one step in the right direction in our minds."
Afterward, an emotional MacIntyre marveled at the life lessons his older players have absorbed, often at the expense of painful defeats.
"After the game I had all the seniors and fourth-year juniors stand up, because all those guys are the guys that I recruited here," MacIntyre said. "They could've left and transferred. I said we rose from the ashes. I said, 'You all chose to come here when you could have gone other places when everybody was saying Colorado was terrible.' We went through some tough times but they hung in there.
"The winning is awesome. Don't get me wrong. But the life lessons these young men have learned about sticking to it, caring about each other, working through it, not listening to anybody else. Keep moving, keep working, keep pushing, keep believing, keep hoping, keep dreaming. They're going to face a lot harder times than being 0-9 in the Pac-12 when they're 30 or 35. They come home and they hear their wife has cancer. OK, what are you going to do? They're going to realize these moments and it's going to give great character and fortitude for them."
Saturday was another signature win in a season that is accumulating such victories rapidly. And the best part? Not only are the Buffs far from done, but things are falling into place that has CU on track for a far greater destination than some obscure dot-com bowl.
Nearly every championship team in any sport can look back on its title drive and shake heads at how many little things broke their way. This is true for a CU program whose national championship 26 years ago survived a controversial fifth-down play, as well as a near-miracle opposing punt return in the title-clinching Orange Bowl nullified by a penalty.
It's not the Buffs' fault they don't have to play Washington until a possible date in the Pac-12 title game, but certainly it doesn't hurt. And while senior Kenneth Olugbode (the local kid not recruited by Stanford) continued to display a nose for the football with his critical fourth-quarter fumble recovery, Stanford botching the snap on a first-and-goal play while knocking on the door for a go-ahead touchdown at the four-yard line is the sort of break no team plans for.
After winning ugly Saturday — the Buffs survived three missed field goals, an off-day by Liufau, and even an inexplicable kickoff out of bounds that gave Stanford decent field position for its last-gasp drive — CU gets to play three of its final four games at home, with the lone road date against a struggling Arizona squad. The Buffs can lick their wounds with extra rest before each of their next two games, given next week's bye will be followed by a Thursday night tilt against UCLA at Folsom Field on Nov. 3.
The pieces are falling into place for what could amount to a South division championship game against Utah at Folsom on Nov. 26. The long rise from the ashes for CU's upperclassmen is fast approaching a thrilling conclusion.