Rooney: Win at Nebraska could alter entire 2018 fortunes for CU Buffs

Colorado receiver Jay MacIntyre looks for room against Colorado State on Aug. 31.
Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado receiver Jay MacIntyre looks for room against Colorado State on Aug. 31.

The Colorado football team is diving head-first into the great unknown Saturday afternoon in the long-anticipated rivalry renewal at Nebraska.

It’s unknown just how good the Buffaloes are after an opening-week trouncing of Colorado State, a verdict that could prove more indicative of just how bad the Rams are than what sort of potential the Buffs have.

It’s unknown what new coach and Nebraska favorite son Scott Frost will bring to the table after leading Central Florida to a 13-0 mark in 2017 — a mystery that deepened after the Cornhuskers’ scheduled season-opener last week against Akron was scuttled by thunderstorms.

It’s unknown how the Buffs will react in a hostile environment in their first real road game, just as it’s unknown how Nebraska’s true freshman quarterback, Adrian Martinez, will react when the spotlight of 85,000-plus fans and a national TV audience are trained upon him.

What is known is this: If the Buffs can escape Lincoln with a victory, it will rewrite CU’s 2018 expectations.

Don’t take that as a declaration that a win Saturday will lead to the Buffs’ second Pac-12 Conference South Division title in three years. Nebraska remains a program that required regime change after a run of six losses in seven games to close the 2017 schedule. Though the Cornhuskers present the Buffs with a solid challenge, they aren’t Washington or USC. Any glance at Big Ten power rankings lists Nebraska squarely in the latter half of the 14-team league. The Arizona schools are likely to present more impactful hurdles for the Buffs than the emotion-fueled Week 2 showdown at Nebraska.

Still, Nebraska is Nebraska, and a win in the first true road test in a hostile environment could provide a timely spark for a Buffs team that, regardless of the outcome, will return to Boulder facing a favorable turn in the schedule.

After Nebraska, the Buffs play their first home game against New Hampshire, an FCS-level team. Following a bye week, the Buffs remain at home for their first two Pac-12 Conference games against UCLA, which looked terrible in an opening-week home loss against Cincinnati, and Arizona State. CU then plays its toughest two road games of the season in consecutive weeks against USC and Washington, programs that this week are ranked No. 17 and No. 9, respectively, in the nation.

Saturday’s outcome in Lincoln won’t change the fact the Buffs will be heavy underdogs in those road matches against USC and UW. Yet there’s also little doubt a win Saturday before 85,000-plus (mostly) red-garbed Cornhuskers fans would give the Buffs a much bigger jolt of confidence going into those demanding road tilts.

Most preseason prognosticators, including this one, had CU compiling a 2-1 mark in nonconference play, with the blemish occurring in Lincoln. As I stated in the weekly podcast with Brian Howell, I’m sticking with that scenario despite CU’s impressive showing against the Rams, though I’m of the belief escaping Lincoln with a victory is a much more viable conclusion than it seemed just a few weeks ago.

To channel some classic coach-speak, the Buffs of course have to take it one game at a time, and one game does not a season make. Yet a win in Lincoln would set the Buffs up nicely for a potential 4-0 start, and in that scenario even the more favorable predictions of a seven-win season becomes a far more realistic goal.

Saturday’s 70th edition of a rivalry that has been dormant for eight years won’t feature nearly the same stakes as when both clubs were top-five programs battling tooth-and-nail for the Big 8 Conference championship while harboring national championship aspirations. Yet for the 2018 Buffs, the potential to change the outlook of an entire season remains the same.

Pat Rooney: or