Colorado must beat Colorado State.

It's hard to imagine the Buffs losing to a rebuilding flock of sheep this afternoon in Denver and then going on to win at least six of their final 11 games.

Make that six of nine games if you pencil in road trips to No. 1 USC and No. 5 Oregon as losses.

But Jon Embree isn't labeling the Rocky Mountain Showdown at Sports Authority Field as a "must-win" for the black and gold side.

CU's second-year head coach was a member of Gary Barnett's staff in 2001 when the Buffs were stunned at home by Fresno State on opening night before rallying to win 10 games and the Big 12.

"You have 11 games left, this isn't THE game," Embree said. "You have a lot of football left, and any coach will tell you that you want to be playing your better football at the end of the season than at the beginning.

"So there are a lot of things that go into it from our perspective as coaches."

It's true that no matter what happens this afternoon, Embree's job is to turn the page and make sure a young team gets physically healed, mentally prepared, and emotionally ready for Sacramento State next week.

Of course, if Embree were still an assistant with the Redskins and watching the Buffs on television in Washington D.C., he might have a different take on what the Buffs must do against CSU.


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Barnett, retired from the sideline and working as a radio broadcaster, doesn't have to use coachspeak on the record these days.

"CU needs this game more. Always the pressure is on CU to win this game," Barnett said during an interview on 102.3 FM in Denver this week. "(Jim) McElwain, first year, everybody's waiting to see what happens. With coach Embree, he went through a tough year that everybody saw was going to happen possibly. ...

"But CU needs this game."

That doesn't mean the Rams don't want this game as much as the Buffs.

A CSU upset would certainly add some spice to the series in the Mile High City, where CU has won the last four meetings.

McElwain, a two-time national champion as Alabama's offensive coordinator, would earn a feather in his Bear Bryant cap by becoming the first CSU head coach to win his debut since the Jerry Wampfler era began with a 29-9 victory over New Mexico State on Sept. 12, 1970.

Ray Polk, CU's senior safety, described the Rocky Mountain Showdown as CSU's bowl game.

The Rams would love nothing more than to help spoil the Buffs' goal of making it to a bowl game while going on to the postseason themselves with additional wins over North Dakota State, San Jose State, Utah State, UNLV and New Mexico.

"I just can't stop smiling, thinking about the game," CSU linebacker James Skelton told the Fort Collins Coloradoan. "Playing them, there's that little bit extra to go get the job done."

CU leads the all-time series 61-20-2. That includes a 7-4 mark in Denver, thanks to the recent streak (the Buffs' only loss in the last five meetings with CSU took place in Boulder on Hawk-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named's watch).

Over the decades, CU has outscored the Rams 1,994 to 957. That's an average score of 24.0 to 11.5 dating back to 70-6 victory for the Buffs in 1893.

History should repeat itself Saturday. This game shouldn't be as close as Las Vegas' 6-point spread favoring CU.

There is no doubt Embree and the Buffs are confident they are going to win this game. I'm still not convinced they realize just how important a victory this would be for their program.

"I'm not that familiar with it, to be quite honest," said new CU starting quarterback Jordan Webb, who is still adjusting to the fact that he is not in Kansas anymore. "I know we take it seriously here."

You can forgive Webb for not knowing much about CU-CSU because he's used to the Border War, the now defunct rivalry game between KU and Missouri. Not that it matters Saturday, but as the Jayhawks quarterback of record, Webb completed a combined 16-of-40 passes for 105 yards with no touchdowns and four interceptions in two losses to the Tigers.

Embree knows how bad an unexpected loss to CSU feels. He played in the Buffs' 23-7 loss to the Rams at Folsom Field in 1986 and coached in the 41-14 loss to Sonny Lubick and Co. in 1999 at Mile High Stadium that led to a tear-gas celebration and three Rams wins in four meetings.

Still, even without Nebraska on the schedule, Embree refuses to circle CSU in red.

"It is important because it is your first game. Next week is a big game because it's the next game. So as a coach that's how you think and prepare," Embree said. "You have a lot of football left, a lot of things can happen, so you have to coach and prepare your team accordingly."

Make no mistake about it, the powers that be in the CU athletic department are nervous.

An 0-1 start would give Jack Graham bragging rights while throwing a wet blanket on any excitement fans have for the Buffs' Folsom Field opener against a Big Sky also-ran.

Losing to the Rams would also rattle whatever confidence CU gained last November with a road game against a more dangerous Mountain West team (Sept. 15 at Fresno State) looming ahead of another difficult Pac-12 slate.

That makes this a must-win game for Embree's team. Or something like that.

"Every game is going to be a big struggle for these guys," Barnett, who has been allowed to watch some practices, says of the 2012 Buffs. "There isn't anybody, except maybe the second game, that they're going to be the favorite (against). And so they need this game.

"It's not a must-win, but it's a we-sure-need-to-win-it game."

Follow Ryan on Twitter: @RyanThorburn