SAN ANTONIO — Considering Colorado's lack of success over the past decade, setting a goal of reaching bowl eligibility seemed like a natural target this season.
During the offseason, however, head coach Mike MacIntyre recognized that his team needed to aim higher.
"Everywhere they went, all anybody ever talked to them about or questions asked were, 'Are you going to a bowl? Is a bowl your goal?'" MacIntyre said. "The way I heard it and the way I thought about it, we're going to put so much pressure on going to a bowl where when it gets near that point, we'll be tight. I wanted them to see past that."
Aiming higher is what led the Buffaloes (10-3) to where they are today, preparing for Thursday's Valero Alamo Bowl against Oklahoma State (9-3).
At No. 10 in the College Football Playoff rankings and No. 11 in the Associated Press poll, the Buffs will finish the season in the Top 25 for the first time since 2002, and could land in the Top 10 for the first time since 2001.
It all started with a group that had the guts to tell everybody they could get here, despite 10 consecutive losing seasons and a 10-27 record the previous three years.
"For a long time, we've been wanting to go to the Pac-12 championship, but it's just been vocalized this year," senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said. "It was very important for the whole team to get on that same board, to make sure that we really focus and hone in on a single goal that we could work towards."
After just one game — albeit an impressive 44-7 win against Colorado State — some Buffs were adamant they didn't want to settle for simply reaching the magic six-win mark for bowl eligibility.
"It wasn't a concern at all," MacIntyre said of the confidence expressed publicly, "because this team's mentality, that's what we needed."
By aiming for the Pac-12 championship, MacIntyre figured that reaching bowl eligibility would take care of itself. Sure enough, when the Buffs achieved bowl eligibility with a 10-5 win at Stanford on Oct. 22, there was excitement, but not celebration.
While CU had struggled to beat their Pac-12 foes in recent years, they had closed the gap. That sprouted confidence as the Buffs went through the offseason.
"Last year we realized we could play with these teams that were blowing us out in years past, so with that in mind, we set our goal higher," linebacker Jimmie Gilbert said.
Safety Ryan Moeller likened the Buffs' goal to a student talking a test. Go in aiming for a C or D to simply pass the class, and there's a chance of doing even worse. Aim for an A and the chances of finishing with a high grade are increased.
"Just like anything else, if you set that bar low, you're probably not going to achieve very high accolades," Moeller said.
CU didn't achieve its ultimate goal of winning the Pac-12 championship, but the Buffs believe that setting the goal to do that played a significant role in them coming close. They won the South division with an 8-1 conference mark before falling to Washington 41-10 in the conference title game.
"We felt that we had the ability to win the championship, which didn't turn our way, but at the same time, you're not trying to limit your team to just something small, something that can be achieved easily," Gilbert said. "So by having these bigger goals, it really allowed us to push harder and do things that people didn't expect us to do."
After proving this season that they are capable of competing for the Pac-12 title, MacIntyre said that should always be the goal for the Buffs.
"We might end up 6-6 some years, which is fine, but we better be thinking past that, because that's where we are as a program," he said.
"Your team changes so much every year, but the legacy has been passed down. That's our standard now. Their standard is to go to the Pac-12 championship game. Really, our standard next year should be to win the Pac-12 championship game."