The team that walks off of Folsom Field with a victory on Saturday will also claim sole possession of first place in the Pac-12 South division, at least for a week.
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez was rather unimpressed by that nugget of information.
“That’s just kind of one of those stats that like … it’s not really a huge point that (coaches) have been harping on all week,” he said. “To be honest, that was the first time I’ve heard that.”
Forgive Montez for shrugging off what would be a minor mid-season accomplishment. He and the Buffs were in sole possession of first place of the South five games into the 2018 season and didn’t win again, so, no, it would not mean much in the grand scheme of things.
There’s no question, however, that the matchup between the Buffaloes (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) and Arizona Wildcats (3-1, 1-0) is a big one for a CU team that harbors hopes of playing in a bowl game this season and making a run at the South title.
“It’s a really big deal,” senior safety Mikial Onu said. “You know, our goal is to win the conference, win the South. As long as we’re putting ourselves in position to do that we have a chance.”
Achieving the long-term goals requires the Buffs to take a short-term view, however.
“The first thing we want to do is we don’t want to look ahead,” Onu said. “That’s how you get in trouble; you look ahead. So take it day by day, get one percent better every day and go 1-0 every single day.
“As long as we’re focused on just trying to get each person better every single day, when Saturday comes the results will show on the field.”
So far, the results have been mostly good for the Buffs.
In their first season under head coach Mel Tucker, the Buffs have already knocked off two top-25 opponents – Nebraska on Sept. 7 and at Arizona State on Sept. 21 – and they routed in-state rival Colorado State to open the year.
Any of those three wins, let alone all of them together, are enough to give the Buffs a boost of confidence, but they’ve also got the constant reminder of what happens if they don’t play well. A 30-23 overtime loss to underdog Air Force on Sept. 14 – the last time CU played at Folsom – is the only blemish on the season so far.
“That’s why you play the games,” Tucker said. “You never know what’s going to happen on any given Saturday. College football is really exciting right now. There’s a lot of teams still in it and in the hunt. We just have to really focus in on what we have to do.”
This week, the Buffs have to figure out a way to beat an Arizona team on a three-game win streak. To do that, the Buffs have been forced to prepare for two different quarterbacks. Khalil Tate, the dual-threat star who has burned the Buffs the last two years, may not play because of hamstring and ankle injuries. If he doesn’t go, talented freshman Grant Gunnell, who has a good arm but not Tate’s speed, will start.
“It requires extra work because we’re not sure which guy we’re going to see,” Tucker said. “You’ve got to have a game plan for one quarterback and then maybe another game plan for another. A good part of the game plan is going to be comprehensive for both quarterbacks, but there are some things that will be unique depending on who’s in there.”
Who is in there for the Buffs remains to be seen, as well. Receiver Laviska Shenault and defensive end Mustafa Johnson – arguably CU’s best players on offense and defense, respectively – are recovering from injuries sustained at Arizona State on Sept. 21 and Tucker said it will be a game-time decision on their availability.
Injuries have hit the Buffs at various times through the first games, however, and they’ve managed to get through them because young players have thrived in their opportunities.
“What I’ve seen from our guys is that once they’ve gotten out there and they get a taste of it, then they have a different perspective when they come back to practice the next week,” Tucker said. “(Experience) is the best teacher. I love to see young guys play. It’s exciting for me to see guys that haven’t played get a chance to step up and get the job done. I think the more guys you play, the better morale you’re going to have on your team. More guys have a role.”
On Saturday, the Buffs will lean on their veterans, such as Montez, linebacker Nate Landman and others, but will likely need some of those young guys to fill a role here and there.
Those who step on the field for CU will be expected to perform and if the Buffs play well, yes, they can finish the day atop the South division. But, most importantly, they’ll go 1-0 for the week.
“We just kind of go out there and play ball play to win,” Montez said.
Game at a Glance
Matchup: Arizona Wildcats (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) at Colorado Buffaloes (3-1, 1-0)
Kickoff: 2:40 p.m. MT
Where: Folsom Field in Boulder. Capacity: 50,183. Turf: Grass
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: KOA (760 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: Colorado by 4
Series: CU leads 14-7 (Arizona 6-1 in last seven)