Perhaps lost in the excitement of Colorado’s fast start to the Mel Tucker era was the fact the Buffaloes are a work in progress with a long road ahead.
A 21-point win against rival Colorado State kick-started the season. A come-from-behind, overtime thriller that knocked out long-time nemesis Nebraska – ranked No. 25 in the country at the time – then created the idea for some that this CU team could be on the verge of something special.
Then came last week.
Former in-state rival Air Force, which hadn’t been to Boulder in 46 years, zipped into Folsom Field and pushed the Buffaloes around their own yard before leaving town with a 30-23 overtime win that has forced even the biggest CU fans to pump the brakes a bit.
“It was definitely a lesson that we’re not as good as we thought we were,” right tackle William Sherman said this week. “I’m glad we had our wakeup call before Pac-12 play.”
The Buffaloes (2-1) open the Pac-12 portion of their schedule on Saturday at No. 24 Arizona State (3-0). If the loss to Air Force was a wakeup call to the players and CU supporters, it was not one for Tucker.
Throughout his coaching career, Tucker has valued the step-by-step process, while also understanding that bumps in the road were inevitable and that success, especially in the first year of a new program, is not necessarily measured in wins.
“The goal is to win every game on our schedule,” he said early in preseason camp last month. “How many games are we going to win? I don’t know, but we’re going to prepare to win. The one thing that’s important to understand is that we don’t talk about winning that much as a coaching staff. We talk about the process and the things that it takes to win, what goes into winning: strength and conditioning, attention to detail, discipline on and off the field, competition, leadership, practice habits.
“It’s a process and it builds upon one step. There’s no shortcuts to it.”
Tucker often reminds the players that the process to achieving success is never ending.
“I told the players it’s hard, but it’s fair, because this is what it’s all about,” he said this week.
Three games into the season, many of the Buffs’ flaws are plain to see. They’ve had struggles on the offensive line (an issue that’s plagued CU for several years); the defense has given up big plays and too many points, especially early in games; and the offense is wildly inconsistent.
“We had tough moments for the entire squad,” Tucker said, “but I don’t see anything where I’m overly alarmed. If things weren’t correctable, where I felt like we were stuck and we weren’t going to be able to fix it or we weren’t going to be able to get any better and it was just going to be like that throughout the season, I’d be alarmed, but I don’t feel that way.”
So, as the Buffs look ahead to Saturday’s duel in the desert and a daunting schedule the rest of the way – five of the remaining nine opponents are currently ranked in the Top 25 – there is reason for concern and optimism.
“As we learn more about our football team in game situations, we’re getting more information on our guys as we go,” Tucker said. “That helps prepare for the next opportunity.”
That next opportunity comes Saturday night, where the Buffs face an opponent going through its own maturation process. ASU has thrown several freshmen to the fire this season – including starting quarterback Jayden Daniels – but has some dangerous weapons on offense and a defense that has been sensational.
“First and foremost, they’ve got great coaches, a great program,” Tucker said. “They know what they’re doing. They have playmakers on both sides of the ball and special teams.”
So do the Buffs, who hope to use their wakeup call as a turning point in their season.
“We have to move on, play better, fix our mistakes,” defensive lineman Mustafa Johnson said. “I think (the loss to Air Force) definitely humbled us more. Not saying we were overhyped, but it definitely made us see that anybody can win at any time, any day. We have to be prepared for any game, pretty much.”
Game at a Glance
Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (2-1) at No. 24 Arizona State Sun Devils (3-0)
Kickoff: 8:10 p.m. MT
Where: Sun Devil Stadium in Tempe, Ariz. Capacity: 55,000. Turf: Grass
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: KOA (760 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: ASU by 8.5
Series: ASU leads 8-2