Time is running out on the Colorado Buffaloes. At least for this year.
Reaching bowl eligibility has been a difficult task for the CU football program for the past 12 years, with the exception of the magical run to the Pac-12 South title in 2016.
CU (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) enters November needing three wins in its last four games to hit the six-win mark for bowl eligibility, but the Buffaloes take a four-game losing streak into Saturday’s matchup at UCLA (3-5, 3-2).
“It’s extremely motivating,” said senior quarterback Steven Montez, who is on the verge of several CU passing records but has never led the Buffaloes to a bowl game as a starter. “We want to get that postseason and just kind of send the seniors out the way that we want to be sent out.”
As long as bowl eligibility remains a mathematical possibility, it will be a top goal for the Buffs, and head coach Mel Tucker would love nothing more than to send the seniors out with an extra game – in part because the extra practices would also give his team a jump on 2020.
Entering the final month of Tucker’s first regular season in Boulder, however, the long-term, big picture is most vital to the Buffs. Winning is the goal, but laying the foundation is priority No. 1, and that job is still in progress.
“We’re here to change the culture, to win football games,” Tucker said. “And we have to be going all out every day as a coaching staff to get this program where we want it and to keep it there. So there’s no end to it.”
The reality for Tucker is that he took over a program that really doesn’t know how to win. The 2016 season wasn’t long ago, but the main cast members of that crew graduated after that season. A few players remain – including Montez, who was the backup in 2016 – but the bulk of this year’s teams is made up of players who produced back-to-back 5-7 records the past two years, or newcomers in their first season at CU.
Given the youth, inexperience and injuries that have hit the Buffs in key spots, the inconsistent nature of this year’s team isn’t a surprise. There have been enough signs of progress, however, to give hope going forward.
A break here or there could have turned losses to Air Force, Arizona and Southern California into wins. That fact makes CU’s current record discouraging to some, but it motivates Tucker to crank up his coaching.
“The job of a coach is to teach, motivate and develop players and you have to capture their minds any way you can, every way you can, to get the message across, to get them to understand that you have to get better, you have to improve,” he said. “You’re always learning.”
In each of the close losses, simple things cost the Buffs. Jumping early before the snap; a receiver or defensive back dropping a ball; a defender failing to fall on a loose ball for a turnover; a running back losing balance for a split second to turn a potential explosive play into an average one.
Do the simple things better and CU could be in a better position in the standings.
“We just have to continue to find ways to get the message across to get those details executed,” Tucker said. “I have seen improvement in a lot of areas and that’s encouraging. There’s a difference between being disappointed and being discouraged. And so when I don’t see the execution at the level of the standard with what we need to have I’m disappointed but I’m not discouraged.”
Redshirt freshman nose tackle Jalen Sami said it’s encouraging to see the progress because he believes the culture is changing with Tucker and his staff. Sami doesn’t see a losing program; he sees one on the path to success.
“It’s motivating for us to get better because it’s really just little, small things that we could fix,” Sami said.
For Sami and so many other underclassmen that are playing key roles for the Buffs this season, there is plenty of time to work at the little things and get on a winning track in future seasons.
For Montez and his fellow seniors, however, time is running out – but there is still time.
“It’s encouraging because we are so close,” Montez said. “We’re a couple inches away from really having things pop for us. But it’s also frustrating because it’s a little bit past midway through the season. It’s a little late in the season, but better now to fix it than never. Hopefully we’ll do those simple things a lot better this week.
“Every single person in this building or that works with this program, they want to win. We want to win, so we’ve just got to do things a little bit better and hopefully we’ll get the end result that we want.”
Game at a Glance
Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (3-5, 1-4 Pac-12) at UCLA Bruins (3-5, 3-2)
Kickoff: 7:10 p.m. MT
Where: Rose Bowl Stadium in Pasadena, Calif. Capacity: 80,660. Playing surface: Grass.
TV: Pac-12 Networks
Radio: KOA (760 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: UCLA by 6.5
Series: UCLA leads 10-4