Somewhere, Rashaan Salaam is smiling.
For the first time all season, the Colorado Buffaloes delivered the complete goods that critics and fans alike expected in 2017 on the heels of the program's best season in a decade. The end result, a dominant 44-28 homecoming win against Cal on a festive day at Folsom Field, gives the Buffs an opportunity to qualify for a bowl game for the second consecutive season.
Even a best-case scenario probably still sends the Buffs to a third-rate bowl. Yet getting there would be a commendable finish for a team that experienced a significant roster and coaching staff overhaul in the offseason, followed by a frustratingly inconsistent up-and-down ride so far through the season.
If the Buffs play as they did on Saturday, they will get the job done.
Whatever fire head coach Mike MacIntyre hoped to ignite under struggling quarterback Steven Montez with last week's benching, followed by the declaration of an open competition for the job this past week with Sam Noyer, it worked to perfection. The sophomore quarterback turned in his most impressive all-around performance of the year, going 20-for-26 for 347 yards and three touchdowns without an interception. Moreover, Montez ran the ball with more decisiveness as he has all season.
In a season that has left fans more often frustrated than jubilant, Saturday's display was a timely remedy on a number of fronts, from the retiring of the late Salaam's No. 19 to the 50th anniversary of the premier live mascot in college football to an appearance by CU's three decorated international track stars — Emma Coburn, Jenny Simpson, and Kara Goucher. It arguably was the most festive all-around day at Folsom in years, and the Buffs contributed to the celebration with their most complete performance of 2017.
Unless one is under the delusion CU could have recovered from a loss to win two of the final three games necessary to return to a bowl game, it basically was a must-win game for the Buffs. They delivered. Certainly the Buffs have the talent to win any of the final three games on the schedule, and after Saturday perhaps they will be able to rekindle the moxie that drove last year's return to prominence.
Yet Saturday's thrashing of Cal also was the first time this season the Buffs have put a complete game together. It was the ninth game of the season, and just one week after they generally sleepwalked their way through a shutout loss at Washington State.
Afterward, MacIntyre described some of the tweaks he utilized in practice this week, including allowing Montez more time in 7-on-7 drills (basically live passing situations without interior linemen) to better examine coverages without facing the pressure that sometimes has left Montez with happy feet. MacIntyre and his staff deserve credit for getting the Buffs turned around in short order following the program's most miserable performance in years. And for a game plan that kept the Buffs in control on both sides of the ball. Their challenge now is to get the Buffs to make Saturday's performance a template for the stretch run and not a one-game aberration.
That won't be easy, even if the Buffs play as cleanly as they did against Cal. On paper, the Golden Bears represented the weakest of CU's final four opponents. Arizona State arguably was the hottest team in the league heading into its late Saturday night date against No. 21 USC, and the Buffs have never fared well in the desert. The Trojans, meanwhile, haven't lived up to their preseason billing as a potential top 10 team but still will pose a monumental challenge in the home finale in two weeks. Utah in the regular season finale also is quite winnable, and the Buffs very well could go into that game facing a win-or-go-home scenario.
Can the Cal win prove to be a springboard? Perhaps, though it would buck the trend of the season on a whole. Yet given the dramatic turnaround in attitude and effort the Buffs produced in just one week, anything is possible in what has been an unpredictable Pac-12 Conference.