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Rooney: CU Buffs passing eye test amid Pac-12 South Division woes

  • Colorado receiver KD Nixon celebrates a touchdown catch on Aug....

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado receiver KD Nixon celebrates a touchdown catch on Aug. 31 against Colorado State.

  • Colorado linebacker Carson Wells celebrates against Colorado State.

    Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer

    Colorado linebacker Carson Wells celebrates against Colorado State.



No offense to the visitors. Especially when its a credible foe that has reached FCS playoffs for 14 consecutive years.

Nevertheless, if the Colorado Buffaloes match the effort and intensity they displayed during the season’s first two weeks in the home opener Saturday against New Hampshire, the Buffs will finish 3-0 in nonconference play with a bye on the horizon and a world of momentum on their sideline heading into Pac-12 Conference play.

A 3-0 start would have the Buffs needing just three wins in nine Pac-12 games to return to a bowl game for the second time in three seasons. Even with a 6-6 regular-season mark that would be a commendable feat, given how the Buffs have been to exactly two bowl games over the past 12 seasons.

Assuming CU takes care of business against New Hampshire, Buffs fans can be excused if they start getting greedy for something more. With apologies to Arizona State, no one in the South Division looks anything close to unbeatable. Unlike some of the cringe-worthy play that marked last year’s 3-0 nonconference run, through two weeks this season the Buffs have more than passed the eye test.

The same can hardly be said for most of the South.

College football’s opening weeks haven’t been memorable for the division beyond the Buffs’ win at Nebraska and ASU’s 2-0 start that includes last week’s home win against then-No. 15 Michigan State. The best two teams in the league so far clearly are Washington and Stanford, which reside in the North Division. And the Buffs don’t have to play Stanford.

UCLA, the Buffs first league opponent on Sept. 28 following the bye, has stumbled out of the gate in coach Chip Kelly’s first year at the helm with losses against Cincinnati and Oklahoma while being forced to turn to true freshman Dorian Thompson-Robinson at quarterback. Arizona and Khalil Tate, trendy preseason picks for the division title and Heisman Trophy respectively, have looked just plain lost so far under new coach Kevin Sumlin.

Washington State has looked solid in a road win at Wyoming and a home thumping of San Jose State, but the Buffs have the benefit of getting the Cougars at home in November. Utah, another darkhorse candidate to supplant USC as division champs, needed 10 points in the final five minutes (including a late pick-six) to hold off Northern Illinois. CU also gets Utah at home in November.

USC remains the team to beat in the division, yet the Trojans looked quite beatable in a listless loss at Stanford in the league’s opening game last week. USC also is relying on a true freshman at quarterback in JT Daniels. Certainly bigger games are in store for Daniels, but his first taste of a marquee matchup in a tough environment ended with a 16-for-34 showing with two interceptions and more sacks (4) than points (3).

Though USC’s stumble did occur in a top-25 showdown, no team within the division has looked better through the season’s first two weeks than ASU and CU.

Like 2016, little details already are falling into place for the Buffs. The drive to the division title two years ago was aided tremendously by a Stanford fumble on first-and-goal in a game the Buffs won in Palo Alto. Last week, a Nebraska personal foul kept the Buffs out of a 4th-and-forever situation late in the fourth quarter and set up the winning Steven Montez-to-Laviska Shenault touchdown. In 2016 the Buffs didn’t have to play Washington, their eventual opponent in the Pac-12 championship game. This year the Buffs get to avoid Stanford. And like 2016 (and unlike two prominent division foes this year) the Buffs are solid at the game’s most important position with Montez’s leadership abilities blossoming in tune with his immense physical talents.

Yeah, the season is only two weeks old. Things could change. The aforementioned freshmen quarterbacks might grow up in a hurry. Someone could (should) remind Sumlin how to best use Tate at Arizona. Yet with New Hampshire visiting for the 2018 Folsom Field christening and a bye to follow, it’s a good time to look ahead. So circle the Oct. 6 home date against Arizona State on the calendar. That early-October showdown in Colorado might go a long way toward determining the South Division entrant for the league title game.

Pat Rooney: or