Cliff Grassmick / Staff Photographer
Colorado linebacker Nate Landman said coach Mel Tucker has brought a championship mindset to the team.

Flip through most of the national preview magazines and you’ll find the Colorado football team in the same spot: Last place in the Pac-12 South.

When the Pac-12 releases the preseason media poll next week, the Buffaloes will likely be last there, too.

Frankly, it’s where the Buffs should be slotted.

Nobody has owned last place like the Buffs, who have finished at the bottom seven times in eight years in the conference, including the last two seasons. History suggests the Buffs will finish there again, so it’s an easy pick to throw them at the bottom.

That doesn’t mean the Buffs will wind up at the bottom, of course, but to get respect they’re going to have to earn it on the field.

“Obviously we see it and we see what people are saying, we know what people are thinking, but we don’t care about that,” junior defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson said. “We have something to prove.”

Yes, they do.

An epic collapse from a 5-0 start to a 5-7 finish in 2018 led to a coaching change. CU is the only team in the Pac-12 with a new head coach this season and Mel Tucker is not only in his first year with the Buffs, but it’s his first time ever in a full-time head coaching job. The Buffs also have no experience at running back, a lack of depth on defense and a schedule that’s viewed as one of the toughest in the country.

It’s no wonder the Buffs are taken lightly going into the season.

The 2016 Buffs were picked to finish last, too. That team, however, had a quiet confidence, a load of experience and great leadership that carried them to the South title.

Whether this year’s Buffs have the same tools remains to be seen, but there is a quiet confidence among several of the team’s top players.

“What I’m so excited about is the way we’re working now,” said receiver Laviska Shenault, who helped his high school team win a Texas state title in 2016. “(Players on the team) know when you step on this field you’re going to give it your all, 110 percent. It’s just reminding me of high school and the fun is getting there, too. I’m excited for the team.”

Asked how much of the team’s confidence has come from Tucker, Shenault shook his head and said, “All of it.”

“The energy and just making it be known every day, every second, in everything we do,” Shenault said. “At the end of the day, it’s a business. We know it’s a business, he knows it’s a business.”

For the most part, the preseason predictions are based on recent history, in addition to glancing at paper to see what’s coming back. What can’t be predicted are the intangibles: How will Tucker handle his first head coaching job? How will players buy in to a new coach? What type of foundation is being laid in the offseason? Which players have made significant strides since the last time they walked off the field in November?

Those questions won’t be answered until the season plays out, but several team leaders are encouraged by what’s going on this offseason.

“We’re not going to settle this year,” junior linebacker Nate Landman said. “Coach Tucker has put a championship mindset into this team and it’s starting to grow and blossom.

“No, I don’t care (about the preseason predictions). I care about one game at a time. All I care about right now is (the opener against Colorado State) and beating them, and also the end goal of winning a Pac-12 championship.”

Very few outside of Boulder believe the Buffs can actually challenge for a league title, but this team is ready to hit the field, battle for a title and fight for respect.