When he came to Colorado as head football coach 1982, Bill McCartney had no prior college head coaching experience, but he had been a defensive coordinator at a Power 5 school.
McCartney took over a CU team struggling to win, and he quickly realized the Buffaloes didn’t have a true rival. He pointed to a team in red, located in a neighboring state, and took aim at them. Over time, the CU-Nebraska rivalry became as good as any in college football.
Now in his first year with the Buffaloes, Mel Tucker came to CU with no prior head coaching experience, but he had been a defensive coordinator at a Power 5 school.
Tucker’s Buffs don’t a true rival in the Pac-12 conference, but guess which team is setting the standard in the South division? The team in red located in a neighboring state.
While Tucker has never publicly identified the Utes as rivals, as McCartney did with Nebraska, there’s no question the Buffs’ head coach sees in Utah what he’d like his Buffs to become.
“When you look at our league and people talk about the Pac-12 and talk about who are the most physical teams in the Pac-12, Utah is the first team that comes up,” Tucker said. “Big, strong, physical football team. Very well-coached. They play with a lot of confidence. They’ve got a lot of good players on both sides of the ball and special teams. They really don’t have weaknesses overall as a team, so it’s going to be a tremendous challenge for us.”
On Saturday, Tucker will lead his Buffs (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) into Salt Lake City for a showdown with the Utes (10-1, 7-1) and there is plenty at stake for both teams, who joined the Pac-12 together in 2011.
With a win, the Utes will claim their second consecutive Pac-12 South title and keep hope alive for a spot in the College Football Playoffs. Colorado is aiming for bowl eligibility.
“We’re hungry,” CU linebacker Davion Taylor said. “We’re really trying to push and give everything we’ve got this week because it’s really like do or die.”
To feed the hunger and get into a bowl game, the Buffs will have to beat Utah at its own game, by matching the physicality of the Utes.
“Of course we’ve got to play very physical,” CU receiver Laviska Shenault said. “It’s a very physical defense we’re going against. We’ve got to do the little things the right way. We just gotta execute when it’s there. We can’t really make mistakes and we just gotta do us.”
Or do Utah.
Under the direction of head coach Kyle Whittingham, who is in his 15th season, Utah has become one of the most consistent winners in the conference because of its tough, physical style of play. Annually, the Utes rank among the Pac-12’s best defenses and rushing offenses. It’s no secret why Utah is 54-23 since the start of the 2014 season.
“That’s a brand of football that is a winning brand in my opinion,” Tucker said.
It’s a brand that has helped CU win its last two games, 16-13 against Stanford and 20-14 against Washington. Like Utah, Stanford and Washington are known for their physicality and toughness.
Tucker, who has been around tough, physical football his entire life, is trying to build the Buffs in that mold. Right now, Utah is the standard bearer in that regard, but Tucker’s Buffs are in the early stages of getting there.
“You have to prove yourself every day, in terms of physicality,” he said. “It’s not something that’s automatic. It’s got to be a mindset, it’s got to be a way of life, as part of the culture, which is how we live and how we eat and how we sleep every day. It’s a physical mentality.”
Utah has it, and Tucker admires that when he watches the Utes on film.
“Tough, physical, hard-nosed football, I believe, is the way the game was meant to be played,” he said. “That’s the essence, that’s the purity of the game is just the physicality of it all. So, I have a tremendous amount of respect when I turn on the film and I see physical in the line of scrimmage with the offensive and defensive lines; running the ball; stopping the run. I think you can measure the toughness of your team by how your receivers block and how your corners tackle. When you turn on the film with Utah, that’s what you see. So I have a high level respect for them and the brand of football that they play.”
If the Buffs can match that brand of football on Saturday, they could get an opportunity to play in a bowl game, and perhaps take a step toward building that rivalry with the team in red.
“We’re excited about this opportunity,” Tucker said. “It’s our goal to finish strong. We’re not done yet. We’ll continue to work and prepare and we’ll take it on the road, and we’ll see what happens.”
Game at a Glance
Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (5-6, 3-5 Pac-12) at No. 6 Utah Utes (10-1, 7-1)
Kickoff: 5:44 p.m. MT
Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Capacity: 45,807. Playing surface: FieldTurf.
Radio: KOA (850 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: Utah by 28
Series: Colorado leads 32-30-3