Pac-12 Conference South Division champions.

Three months ago such an opening sentence likely would have been ticketed for a work of fiction when discussing the long-suffering Colorado Buffaloes football program. Even in most best-case projections for an improved version of the Buffs in 2016, those scenarios didn't include visions of a division championship.

Yet on Saturday night the improbable became reality, as CU completed one of the most unlikely and exhilarating worst-to-first finishes in the state's rich sports history by holding off Utah for a 27-22 victory.

As has been the case for the Buffs throughout the second half of the season, the joyous celebration that once again swarmed over Folsom Field Saturday night didn't arrive easily. At this point, though, would Buffs fans believe it any other way?

While the scene at Folsom will go down as one of the program's all-time moments — and certainly counts as the program's greatest moment since the famous thumping of Nebraska in the 2001 Folsom finale — it wasn't the most picturesque of victories in a season that has seen its share of "winning ugly" moments down the stretch.

For the better part of three quarters the Buffs made the sort of mistakes that often turn favorites into heartbreak losers. Two fumbles from the tough and often heroic senior quarterback whose lack of turnovers generally has been one of his greatest strengths. Dropped passes and poor execution at the goal line that twice forced CU to settle for three points instead of seven. And the recurrence of special teams shortcomings that for much of the season lingered like a bad hangover, waiting to reignite and wreck havoc at any moment.


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Yet thanks in large part to a defense that once again was willing and able to pick up the slack, even scoring seven critical points of its own late in the fourth quarter on a Kenneth Olugbode fumble return, none of it mattered. After producing just five Pac-12 victories in five seasons after joining the Pac-12 in 2011 the Buffs, with an 8-1 league mark, will play for the conference championship.

And rest assured, the job isn't done.

If anyone believes CU will be happy to simply take the field against Washington at Levi's Stadium on Friday, they haven't properly taken the pulse of this squad. Afterward head coach Mike MacIntyre said his staff already has broken down Friday's Washington-Washington State matchup, and by the time the Buffs basketball team tips off at the Coors Events Center at noon on Sunday, the football team already will be well into its game-planning for the Huskies.

"It's time to really give Buff Nation what they deserve, and that's to win another championship out here in Colorado," senior defensive end Jordan Carrell said. "We're ready to get back to work at 9:30 a.m. (Sunday) after the banquet, and it's going to be another great one Friday at Levi's Stadium."

The Buffs have turned playing for one another and moving on to the next challenge — whether it's the next play or the next opponent — into an art form. Sure, CU likely will be considered a heavy underdog on Friday. And certainly a return to form by the offense while once again shoring up the team's kickoff and punt coverage teams will be required chores in order to knock off the Huskies.

Yet the intangibles surrounding this team continue to astound. Carrell recounted a story of how MacIntyre sent a text to his players on New Year's Eve 11 months ago, telling them how he couldn't wait to coach the 2016 Pac-12 champs. At the time those outside the program would've labeled such a boast more of an April Fool's joke than a New Year's resolution. Heck, even this guy predicted 5-7 at the season's outset, without hearing a single word of complaint from anyone in Buff Nation.

Few New Year's resolutions, if MacIntyre's zest counts as one, lasts 11 months. This one has. And there's still more to come.

Pat Rooney: rooneyp@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/prooney07