Game at a Glance
Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) at USC Trojans (2-3, 1-2)
Kickoff: 2:10 p.m. MDT
Where: Los Angeles Coliseum. Capacity: 93, 607; Turf: Grass
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: KOA (850 AM & 94.1 FM).
Odds: USC by 4 1/2
Coaches: Colorado - Mike MacIntyre (14-28, 4th season; 30-49 career); USC - Clay Helton, 2nd season (8-7)
Series: USC leads 10-0, 5-0 in Los Angeles
CU cornerbacks Chidobe Awuzie and Ahkello Witherspoon vs. USC receiver JuJu Smith-Schuster
This should be one of the most entertaining battles of the game. Smith-Schuster is one of the best receivers in the country and a likely early-round pick in the 2017 NFL Draft. Awuzie and Witherspoon, meanwhile, have been great all season, and they, too, are possible NFL draft picks. Trying to slow down Smith-Schuster is the toughest challenge for the CU corners to date, and doing so would increase the Buffaloes' chances at victory.
Like most college football teams, the Colorado Buffaloes subscribe to the philosophy that if someone gets injured, they simply turn to the next man up and keep playing.
For years, however, when the Buffaloes had to go to the "next man up," they were in trouble. Lacking quality depth played a role in the Buffs going 5-40 during Pac-12 play from 2011-15, their first five years in the conference.
So far this year, however, the Buffs have proven they finally have the depth to compete, and it's one of the reasons that No. 21 CU (4-1, 2-0 Pac-12) has vaulted into the Top 25 rankings and atop the Pac-12 South division as it visits USC (2-3, 1-2) on Saturday.
"It helps a tremendous amount," head coach Mike MacIntyre said. "The game of football compared to most sports — you always have injuries in every sport, there's no doubt — but the game of football you always have a few each game.
"Every game is its own season within itself, because we have a different team that we're putting on the field, just like USC has a little bit different team than they put on the field last week. It might be a couple special teams spots, it might be a lineman. It might not be the marquee guy that everybody's talking about. It changes week-to-week."
The quality of CU's depth has been magnified at top position on the field, quarterback.
Senior starter Sefo Liufau sprained his right ankle against Michigan on Sept. 17, and redshirt freshman Steven Montez has come in and played very well. In Liufau's absence, Montez has led the Buffs to a 2-0 record and he ranks statistically among the best quarterbacks in the country (as does Liufau).
"He's played great," said Liufau, who could return to the lineup against USC. "He's done a really good job of reading defenses and coverages and getting the ball to our playmakers."
That's quite a change from the recent past, when the Buffs didn't have a lot of confidence in their backups. Liufau missed the last two games of the 2015 season with a foot injury and CU went 0-2 in those games and the offense struggled to move the ball.
Depth has shined at other positions, too:
Outside linebacker: In that game against Michigan, standout junior Derek McCartney left the game with a season-ending knee injury. In his place, the Buffs have received a great effort from Terran Hasselbach and Ryan Moeller. A safety, Moeller's contribution has been unexpected. Two weeks ago, the Buffs decided to try Moeller here, despite him being undersized for the position, at 6-foot-1, 215 pounds. He made three tackles against Oregon and has done a nice job of setting the edge.
Place kicker: That game against Michigan also cost the Buffs starting kicker Diego Gonzalez, who tore his Achilles and is out for the year. Chris Graham kicked a couple field goals in his place at Oregon. When Graham had a couple of extra points blocked, however, the Buffs turned to walk-on freshman Davis Price last week. All he did was go 2-for-2 on field goals — including the longest (54 yards) by a Buff since 2009 — and 5-for-5 on extra points. He was named Pac-12 special teams player of the week.
Offensive line: Last year, injuries to the line contributed to a season filled with struggles up front. This year, the Buffs have already dealt with minor injuries to center Alex Kelley, tackle Sam Kronshage and guard Jonathan Huckins. Players such as Sully Wiefels, Aaron Haigler and Shane Callahan have come off the bench to play well. Already, six linemen have logged more than 200 snaps and five others have at least 47. Coming into the year, CU felt the experience gained by the group last year would pay off, and so far it has. The Buffs don't seem to miss a beat when they turn to their backups.
Inside linebacker: Rick Gamboa and Kenneth Olugbode have been the starters and they've played very well. Junior Addison Gillam — who has started 30 games in his career - has been great off the bench. Newcomer Drew Lewis has been good, too, logging seven tackles and a sack in only 43 snaps.
Receiver: The starting foursome of Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields, Jay MacIntyre and Devin Ross has been great all season, and luckily for the Buffs they've all been healthy. When given a chance, though, Kabion Ento has come up with some big catches.
Running back: The Buffs knew they had talent with juniors Phillip Lindsay, Donovan Lee and Michael Adkins II. In addition, the emergence of sophomore former walk-on Kyle Evans has been a pleasant surprise and given CU four backs they trust.
As the Buffs head into the final seven games of the season, they hope to stay healthy, but know that at some point more injuries will occur. More so than at any point in the past several years, however, there's confidence that they can get through any injuries that arise.
"The depth at those positions is key for you to sustain and be successful, especially in the gauntlet of games that we play," MacIntyre said.
Brian Howell: firstname.lastname@example.org, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.