A long time ago, seemingly in a galaxy far, far away, the Colorado football team was one of the best in the land.
The Buffaloes competed for national championships – and even won one – while taking on many of the top challengers. CU’s non-conference slate in its heyday included games – and wins – against nationally ranked foes such as Iowa, Illinois, Washington, Texas, Tennessee, Baylor, Wisconsin and Michigan.
In 1990, the year the Buffs won the national title, four of the five nonconference games were against top-25 opponents. All 13 games that season were played against Power 5 conference opponents or Notre Dame.
“That’s not for the timid and the weak,” CU athletic director Rick George said this week in looking back at that slate.
Neither is the schedule CU and George have crafted for the next decade.
CU recently announced future dates with Florida and Missouri, adding to what is already one of the most aggressive scheduling strategies in the country.
According to FBSchedules.com, CU is the only team in the country that has filled out its nonconference schedule for the next decade (though 2028). Seven times in the next 10 years, CU will play Power 5 opponents in 11 of its 12 games. No team in the country can match that and only three teams – Purdue, Stanford and West Virginia – have more than two such seasons scheduled.
New CU head coach Mel Tucker has brought a no-excuses approach to Boulder, but given the Buffs’ recent history, it’s fair to wonder if this program is ready for the type of schedule it has on the horizon.
Since joining the Pac-12 in 2011, CU’s nonconference schedule has been filled with Group of 5 and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS) opponents, going 16-7 (.696) against those teams. Against Power 5 teams in those years, the Buffs are 18-59 (.234).
Even with a relatively easy schedule, CU has managed one bowl appearance in the last 11 years.
Now, CU is replacing teams like Idaho State and New Hampshire on the schedule with Texas A&M, TCU, Minnesota, etc. There are only 13 G5/FCS teams on CU’s schedule for the next 10 years, compared to 107 against the Power 5 (counting Pac-12 games).
For a team that’s struggled to beat the big dogs, it seems foolish to pick on more of them, but CU and George have their eyes on the future and what the Buffs are doing makes sense.
Part of the strategy is based on competitiveness. George was at CU when the Buffs were at their peak and he wants them to get there again.
“We want to be challenged,” he said. “We want to win and we want to win at the highest level and to do that you have to compete against the highest level.
“With Mel’s leadership in that program, I have every expectation, and I know Mel believes in that as well, that we can be back to national prominence like we have been historically.”
Along with that, George has paid attention how the College Football Playoff (CFP) committee has selected teams in recent years. Schedule strength matters, and George doesn’t want that to be an issue if the Buffs do become nationally prominent again.
“I think our schedule as we move forward is going to be a competitive schedule that’s going to give us the national exposure we need to get in the conversations about the College Football Playoff and things like that.”
That exposure is another aspect to the strategy. George wants to bring the Buffs to their fans around the country – in the east, the Midwest and Texas.
No question, finances play a role, as well.
Pac-12 rival Utah, for example, can schedule just about anybody and know that Rice-Eccles Stadium will be full. The Utes have sold out 57 consecutive home games.
Residing in Denver Broncos country and in a city known for its outdoor recreation, CU is often an afterthought to local sports fans, especially when No Name State comes to Folsom Field. Inviting Nebraska, Texas A&M, Georgia Tech, Florida and Missouri to town will fill more seats.
“We hear from our fan base and they want o watch those games and they want to support those kind of games,” George said. “For us to create the kind of program that we want, we have to have an engaged fan base that comes out to the games and supports, to where we’re sold out and where we create an environment that’s really difficult to play in. I think having quality opponents that they know and will want to come out and see is really important for us.”
For CU, the strategy makes sense, but are the Buffs, on the field, ready to dive into a deeper pool?
“Yes,” George said. “I have no concerns about our ability to compete on a national level at the highest level.”
The Buffs better be ready, because there’s nothing timid or weak about the gauntlet in front of them.