Colorado players and fans won't soon forget the remarkable turnaround season of 2016.

"The Rise" of the Buffaloes saw them climb from the basement of the Pac-12 Conference, where they resided from 2011-15, to the top of the South division.

The Buffs stopped 10 consecutive years of losing with their best campaign since 2001, going 10-4 and finishing at No. 17 in the Associated Press poll.

It was a season that made football fun again in Boulder. But that was last year, and the Buffs are now focused only on 2017.

"We're not last year's team anymore and I think everybody understands that," said sophomore quarterback Steven Montez, who takes over the keys to the offense from four-year starter Sefo Liufau. "It's less about maintaining (last year's momentum) and more about starting over and kind of writing our own book."

This volume will include many of the same characters, but quite a few players — including Montez — will be in more prominent roles. There are also plenty of new faces.

When the Buffs open the season against Colorado State on Sept. 1 at Sports Authority Field at Mile High in Denver, many of them will get their first taste of college football, or their first experience as starters.

"You don't really know how a guy is going to react to that environment until it happens out there on the field," said ShaDon Brown, in his first season as the Buffs' secondary coach. "Some guys live for those moments and some guys shy away from those moments. You just have to go do it and see."


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Last year's Buffs thrived in those moments and never lost sight of their goal to win the Pac-12, despite coming up one win short.

The goal to be conference champion is there once again, and to make a serious run at achieving that goal, the Buffs began this past offseason just as it began last offseason.

"Last year's team, it was an awesome experience," head coach Mike MacIntyre said. "But, we go back to square one and we start all over again, from every X and O, from every fundamental. It starts over every year."

Colorado’s Steven Montez takes over for four-year starter Sefo Liufau this season.
Colorado's Steven Montez takes over for four-year starter Sefo Liufau this season. (Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer)

After surprising the college football world a year ago, the Buffs won't sneak up on anybody this season, and that has motivated them to raise the bar even higher.

"I just think it comes from leadership," senior outside linebacker Derek McCartney said. "We've been through the fire; we've been through down times and the up times. The leaders are going to bring everyone with them. That's how it's going to continue to win games."

It took a decade for CU to finally learn how to win again, but maintaining the winning edge can be a bigger challenge.

In 2013, Mike Leach, in his second season as the head coach at Washington State, took the Cougars to their first bowl game in nine years. In 2014, the Cougars slipped back to 3-9, but have posted 17 wins the last two years.

"It can be (more difficult to maintain success), especially if you haven't had a lot before, or if it's been a while," said Leach, who enters his sixth season with the Cougars. "It's challenging as you lose a ton of seniors and that type of thing, because you have to break the new ones in."

That's the challenge ahead of CU this season, but Leach said he believes the key to a program maintaining success is to never lose sight of the basic philosophy.

"As your kids get sold on it and that type of thing, that does part of the work for you," Leach said. "Figure out your philosophy, figure out what you're going to do, and then stick with it. Man, it's hard at first because they don't know what you're after, and then when they start parroting it, it gets contagious and duplicates your efforts."

Going into this season, the Buffs appear to have a firm belief in the program's principles. The work ethic and discipline established by the players who have since graduated still remains. There is also, once again, a large group of experienced veterans stepping up as leaders.

"To me, we win at Colorado with older, good, experienced football players, and a lot of them will get drafted because they've had time to mature and grow," MacIntyre said. "That formula that I put in place, I see it working. I hope it wins 10-plus games again this year, we'll see, but I definitely think we'll be good."

Last year's team developed its identity along the way to the Pac-12 South title. This team hasn't quite established its identity, but the tools certainly appear to be in place for them to once again make a run at the top.

"People want to know was it one and done? Was it a fa├žade? Was it all smoke and mirrors?" senior safety Ryan Moeller said. "Well, you guys are just going to have to wait and see. I'm not going to sit here and make a promise, other than I know that the defense and offense, we're going to play as hard as we can.

"Are we the same team as we were last year? No, and that's just a fact. When new guys step up, new challenges arise, new problems arise, but also great things come and great things happen."

Contact staff writer Brian Howell at howellb@dailycamera.com or twitter.com/BrianHowell33.