Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Game at a Glance
Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) at Arizona Wildcats (2-7, 0-6)
Kickoff: 8:05 p.m.
Where: Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz. Capacity: 55,675; Turf: FieldTurf
TV: Fox Sports 1
Radio: KOA (850 AM & 94.1 FM).
Odds: Colorado by 16
Coaches: Colorado – Mike MacIntyre (17-29, 4th season; 33-50 career); Arizona – Rich Rodriguez (35-27, 5th season; 155-111-2 career)
Series: Colorado leads 13-5, including 8-2 in Tucson
When the Colorado football team played Arizona in Tucson two years ago, one team was battling for a Pac-12 South division championship and the other was trying to avoid going winless in conference play.
On Saturday, the same scenario is on tap for CU’s visit to Tucson. This time, however, the roles are reversed.
No. 16 Colorado (7-2, 5-1 Pac-12) has its eyes on the South division title, while Arizona (2-7, 0-6) simply hopes to make life tougher for the Buffaloes.
“We know what we did with our season,” Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez said during his weekly press conference on Monday. “Now we’ve got to try to make somebody else’s season bad, try to at least put a dent in their season. That’s all you have to do.”
Just two years removed from going 0-9 in the Pac-12, the Buffs find themselves in brand-new territory as a team with a target on its back.
CU comes into the week ranked No. 12 in the College Football Playoff standings, No. 15 in the USA Today Coaches’ poll and No. 16 in the Associated Press poll.
The Buffs are alone in first place in the South division, with two monumental showdowns with No. 23 Washington State (7-2, 6-0) and No. 13 Utah (8-2, 5-2) on the horizon. A trip to the Rose Bowl — or better — is a realistic goal.
There is even talk that ESPN’s College GameDay crew could come to Boulder next weekend for a battle between the South-leading Buffs and the North-leading Washington State Cougars.
For the first time in years, the spotlight is shining on the Buffs, but they’re trying to block out the noise.
“We don’t feel pressure at all,” junior receiver Shay Fields said. “It’s just a matter of who is going to come out and do what they have to do, take care of business. No pressure at all, honestly. It’s just basically coming out and performing. If you don’t perform, you can lose.”
CU has been one of the most surprising teams in the country this season, and early on, the Buffaloes stunned everybody with how much they’ve improved. Coming down to the final stretch, CU is no longer a secret.
In previous years, as the Buffs went 5-40 in Pac-12 play from 2011-15, they often talked about how they had yet to learn how to win. Now that they’ve learned to win, the Buffs are learning how to handle winning.
“I think for the most part, we’ve been really good about it,” quarterback Sefo Liufau said. “There’s been some lulls a little bit within the team, and that’s the captains’ fault. It’s natural, too, when you’re so used to losing and then you come in and we’re 7-2 now and people kind of lose (focus) a little bit because you’re not used to the success.
“For the most part, we’ve done a really good job of staying hungry or striving to get those wins week after week.”
Sophomore cornerback Isaiah Oliver credits the veteran leadership in the locker room for keeping the team focused.
“We have a lot of seniors on this team – a lot of guys who have gone through everything this program has been through the last three years, with the downs and the losses, so they’re excited to be able to start winning and reach the goals we’ve set for ourselves,” Oliver said.
In addition to leaning on leadership, head coach Mike MacIntyre believes the Buffs need to simply take the approach that got them to this point.
“You alleviate pressure by your preparation,” MacIntyre said. “They’ve played in a lot of football games, so they understand that anybody can beat anybody. I definitely believe they’ll be ready in all of (the games).”
MacIntyre admits there is pressure, but it’s nothing the Buffs can’t handle, he said.
“There’s going to be pressure on them because (the opponents) are going to be really good football teams, and we’re playing on the road here (at Arizona), which adds more pressure always,” he said. “I think they are definitely ready for the challenge. I think they’re welcoming the challenge because they’ve never been here before.”
Although the Buffs haven’t been in this position before, they understand the other side of it. Two years ago, the Buffs came into Tucson with the exact record Arizona has this week, 2-7 overall and 0-6 in the Pac-12.
Arizona eventually won the Pac-12 South in 2014, but had to battle for a 38-20 win against the Buffs. It was a four-point game going into the fourth quarter before Arizona pulled away.
“I think everybody gives you their best punch,” Liufau said of being the hunted team. “Throughout the game they’ll give it to you.”
Ultimately, the Buffs know they are a hunted team, but they also realize they’re shooting for a target, too, and they’ve got a lot more to do to hit their mark.
“We wake up every day and know that we’ve been trying to be Pac-12 champions ever since before the season started in fall camp,” Oliver said. “That was before anyone believed that we could be able to do it, before anyone believed that after nine games in the season we’d be atop the Pac-12 South.
“We know that every day we come out to practice.”
Brian Howell: email@example.com, on Twitter: @BrianHowell33.