As a 12-team conference, the Pac-12 is in just its sixth season of football, and for much of that time, the Colorado Buffaloes and Washington State Cougars have resided at the bottom.

When the two teams meet up on Saturday at Folsom Field, it'll represent a refreshing change of pace in the Pac-12 and perhaps a changing of the guard.

Colorado (8-2, 6-1 Pac-12) is leading the Pac-12 South division, while Washington State (8-2, 7-0) is leading the North. Both teams are ranked in the Top 25 in every major poll, with CU checking in at No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings, and Washington State at No. 22.

Quite a change for two teams that have accounted for seven of the 10 last-place division finishes in the conference over the previous five years.

"It shows how far both teams and both programs, both schools have really come," CU senior safety Tedric Thompson said.

CU hasn't been in this position since winning the Big 12 North in 2005. Washington State hasn't won a conference title since sharing the Pac-10 crown in 2002.

With two weeks left, CU is guaranteed a top-three finish in the South, and Wazzu a top-two finish in the North. It'll be the highest finish for both.

"I think it's exciting for us to have this opportunity," CU head coach Mike MacIntyre said. "Washington State, they did really well last year and went to a bowl game, so I think we're probably a little bit more surprising than Washington State is."


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No doubt, the Buffs are one of the most surprising teams in the country this season, but the rise of both programs is rather similar.

They were both 2-7 in Pac-12 play in 2011, and both went 1-8 in 2012.

Last year, the Buffs went 1-8, while Washington State made the jump to 6-3, enjoying newfound success in coach Mike Leach's fourth season in Pullman.

"Last year for (CU), it was kind of like us last year; it just went the other way for them," Washington State receiver Gabe Marks said in his weekly press conference with local media on Monday. "They were in about as many as one-possession games as we were, but football just works out like that sometimes."

In 2015, both teams played seven regular season games decided by one possession. CU went 2-5, while Washington State was 4-3.

Like Washington State last year, CU is in its fourth season with its head coach. And, now the Buffs are doing what the Cougars did last year by learning how to win the close games.

Now that both have figured out how to win, they're in position to win their divisions - and possibly meet up again on Dec. 2 in the Pac-12 title game.

While he's not close to the Wazzu program, Thompson said he figures the process has been similar.

"Just from what we've been doing, they had to buy into what the coaches are saying, because that's what we're doing this year - buying into what the coaches are saying, buying into each other and really caring about each other," Thompson said. "They're probably doing some of the same stuff we're doing."

Doing that has created a situation where Thompson and his teammates can no longer make holiday plays well in advance.

"At this time in my freshman year, I was already thinking about buying my tickets back home," he said. "Now I don't know when I'm going back home. It's a great feeling."

Coach of the year?

During ESPN's broadcast of the College Football Playoff rankings on Tuesday night, analyst Kirk Herbstreit said that MacIntyre should be the national coach of the year.

There's certainly a great argument for that, given that nobody in the country expected much of the Buffs, and yet they're now ranked among the top 12 in every poll.

MacIntyre, of course, wants no part of that discussion right now.

"Somebody told me about it, but ... it's a credit to all of our players, our coaches, our whole organization," he said. "When you're winning, they say nice things, and when you're losing they want to fire you. That's just part of the territory.

"We just have to keep going. I'm so proud of these young men and these coaches, how they've fought through everything. We have one game we're worried about, with Washington State."

Notable

The Buffs announced on Wednesday that they'll wear a uniform combination on Saturday that they've never used: silver helmets, black jerseys and silver pants. ... As of Wednesday afternoon, CU had sold more than 44,000 tickets for Saturday, a jump of nearly 6,000 from Monday.

Brian Howell: howellb@dailycamera.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.