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Rooney: Though still a longshot, possible bowl eligibility a different story for 2019 CU Buffs

Buffs have lost 10 games in a row with postseason berth in balance

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Colorado head coach Mel Tucker and the Buffs have a chance to reach a bowl game with a win over Utah.

Colorado has been here before. Ten times over the past two seasons, to be precise, and every time it has ended the same way for the Buffaloes.

Disappointment. In some instances, heartbreak. And, most frustratingly, without invitations to the postseason.

Over the past two years, the Buffs have played 10 games with an opportunity to seize bowl eligibility. Every time the Buffs have fallen short. Sometimes in embarrassing fashion (28-0 at Washington State in 2017). A couple times in road battles against ranked teams in which injury-battered Buffs teams couldn’t quite keep pace (at USC and Washington last year). And, most glaringly, one puzzling, gut-wrenching result that harkened the beginning of the end of the Mike MacIntyre era, when CU wasted a 31-3 third quarter lead in an overtime loss at home against Oregon State last year.

On Saturday night, the Buffs will have yet another chance to gain bowl eligibility for a possible postseason berth that would be just the second over the past 12 seasons for CU. It won’t be easy, to say the least. There have been tough draws during that 10-game losing streak with bowl eligibility on the line, but none more so than traveling to No. 6 Utah for a prime-time showdown that has the red-hot Utes still angling for a spot in the College Football Playoff.

But let’s fantasize for a moment. What exactly would a win and a potential bowl game mean for first-year coach Mel Tucker’s rebuilding project? Let us count the ways.

Perspective means everything, and in this space a year ago I stated a program in shambles going into the regular season finale at Cal not only didn’t deserve a bowl bid, but wouldn’t reap any benefits by knocking off Cal for that elusive sixth win of the season. I don’t track these things, but off the top of my head it generated as much reader feedback as any column I can recall over the past year.

I still believe that about the 2018 team. The 2019 squad is a different beast in another situation altogether.

While last year’s bunch stumbled to the finish line, this year’s Buffs are sprinting there. Last year’s late futility — the Oregon State loss at home, a combined 61-14 deficit in the final two home games against Washington State and Utah — proved the Buffs didn’t deserve a December game. If the young, improving Buffs can somehow pull off the improbable with a win in Salt Lake City, they certainly would deserve whatever December date they can get.

By the finale last year, CU was without a head coach, and those extra practices that come with bowl eligibility would have been conducted by a lame duck staff just as likely to be using their non-practice time polishing up their resumes and coaching contacts than breaking down video of the bowl opponent. While staff attrition is always a possibility, Tucker isn’t going anywhere. This group would get some meaningful work done in December.

As for those extra practices, I’m still of the belief they aren’t necessarily a springboard into the next season. Not as a blanket statement, anyway. Again, it’s a matter of perspective. And this year’s group has freshmen or first-year starters across the rotation. Many of them have improved rapidly down the stretch. A few were playing other positions as recently as August. Extra practices last year would’ve prolonged the misery. This year they would prolong and bolster the Buffs’ development.

Of course, all of this conjecture likely will remain just that. Utah is a four-touchdown favorite, and if the Buffs’ offense struggled to score on the road against poor defenses at Washington State and UCLA, scoring enough points to win against one of the best defenses in the nation probably isn’t in the cards.

Still, even being in this position it a testament to how far Tucker has brought this bunch in less than a full month, as after that Nov. 2 loss at UCLA the Buffs had the look of a team destined for another miserable season-ending losing streak. Chances are CU will finish with a 5-7 record for the third consecutive year. Chances are that losing streak with bowl eligibility on the line will extend to 11 games.

Maybe that losing streak gets extended a little next year. Yet chances are it also ends some time in 2020.