No doubt, head coach Mike MacIntyre has the Colorado football program in a much better place than when he inherited it.

With the Buffaloes well on their way to a second bowl game in three seasons after a nine-year bowl hiatus, it is getting easier and easier for CU fans to forget the 10 consecutive sub-.500 seasons that preceded the 2016 run to the Pac-12 Conference South Division title.

And yet, as evidenced once again in the drubbing the Buffs suffered last week at USC, Colorado still has a long way to go when it comes to competing against the best that college football has to offer.

Dating back to the 2016 season, when the program turned the corner, every time the stakes have gotten bigger for the Buffs, the worse the team has responded. CU will have an opportunity to reverse that trait Saturday at No. 15 Washington, but even if the Buffs don't return to Boulder with a victory, getting improved performances when the pressure increases will make the difference between the Buffs barely edging into a bowl berth and taking the stage in a more prominent postseason slot.

After winning the final six regular season games to claim the South title in 2016, the Buffs faced Washington in the league championship game and folded after halftime, getting outscored 17-0 in the third quarter in what became a 31-point loss.


Weeks later at the Alamo Bowl, the Buffs trailed Oklahoma State 17-0 at halftime and 31-0 through three quarters.

The 2017 Buffs weren't expected to reach that stage again, yet they nonetheless played their worst when the stakes were highest. CU was 5-4 after topping Cal and needed just one win over the final three games to return to a bowl game for a second consecutive season. Not only did it not happen, but it wasn't really close. After squandering a 27-17 lead entering the fourth quarter at Arizona State, the Buffs promptly fell behind 27-0 against USC and 28-0 at Utah.

It was more of the same last week. Despite a 5-0 start and a return to the national rankings, the Buffs crumbled from the top down under the spotlight of the Los Angeles Coliseum, basically conceding defeat in the way they sat on the ball while trailing late in the first half and then playing with a lack of urgency in the second half. Though the competition through the Buffs' undefeated start wasn't the best, they nonetheless played a crisp, aggressive, and largely mistake-free brand of football that abruptly vanished when they saw the Trojans lined up across from them.

Not ready for prime time? Clearly not yet, at any rate.

That might not change this week. The Huskies likely will be riled up after their own tough defeat last week, and the battered Buffs will limp into Seattle wondering if they will have the services of all-everything receiver Laviska Shenault. Regardless, the Buffs still will have ample opportunity to change that big-game narrative down the stretch.

Even if the Buffs don't get over that big-game hump at UW, the Buffs presumably will reach bowl eligibility next week at home against Oregon State. How they perform over the final four games, including a home date against a 25th-ranked Washington State club that has been better than advertised, will shape the ultimate fate of the 2018 season. And even with the likely potential of two league losses looming after the visit to Washington won't eliminate the Buffs from the race in a division stocked with good-but-not-great teams.

It took years for Colorado to go from bad to good. If the Buffs want to go from good to great, they have to start performing when it matters most.

Pat Rooney: or