Four years ago, the Colorado football team came out of nowhere.
Annual residents of the Pac-12 South basement to that point, the Buffaloes were expected to once again finish at the bottom.
A determined and cohesive group of veterans helped CU build some early season confidence, however, and they stunned everyone by winning the South.
Sam Noyer is one of the few players remaining from that team. Now a fifth-year senior quarterback, Noyer is leading the Buffs (3-0, 2-0 Pac-12) to yet another surprising season and he sees similarities to 2016.
“The one similarity I see that really stands out to me – I mean, there’s a lot of them – but there’s one that really stands out to me and that’s just the chemistry with these guys,” Noyer said. “Everybody, from the freshmen up to the fifth-year guys like myself … we’re creating a family culture here and I think that’s really important. That’s something that we had in 2016.
“Another thing that stands out to me is the leadership of our group. We haven’t really had that type of leadership since 2016. I think that’s really important but there’s a lot of similarities in this team (and 2016) and I want to continue to keep that going throughout the next couple of games.”
The Buffs are scheduled to play at last-place Arizona (0-3, 0-3) on Saturday night in Tucson, Ariz., and they’ve got a chance to continue their pursuit of a second South title in the last five seasons.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, this has been a delayed and shortened season, and it’s created a situation where the Buffs could be undefeated, but not win the South. Southern California (3-0, 3-0) has an extra conference game in hand and that could help the Trojans take the division. If USC loses one of its next two, the door is open for Colorado.
CU head coach Karl Dorrell isn’t worried about the Trojans, however. He knows that for the Buffs to have a chance at the division title, they’ve got to keep winning.
“I like where we’re heading,” he said. “I think these next few games are really important. All of them are important, as we know, but we’re sitting in a pretty good position in the conference. We’ve got to start taking care of our own business and part of that business is taking care of what’s in front of us right now.”
What’s in front of CU right now is Arizona, which has lost 10 in a row, but has defeated the Buffs the last three years.
“I think Arizona is a much better team than their record indicates,” said Dorrell, who went 3-2 against the Wildcats when he was UCLA’s head coach from 2003-07. “It’s easy to fall into that trap, looking at they’re 0-3.
“I think it’s a tremendous challenge for us. They’ve been a thorn in our side, where we haven’t had much success, so we need to stay focused on what’s in front of us, doing the things that have given us this position right now and execute and play a great game.”
Staying focused on the task at hand was a trademark of the 2016 team, which was led by upperclassmen who bonded together through years of losing and rose up together.
CU has just eight scholarship seniors, but plenty of players who have gone through three consecutive 5-7 seasons before this year. They’ve also been through two coaching changes in the last 24 months.
Despite being hired in February and spending most of his first six months on the job connecting with the team virtually because of COVID-19, Dorrell has made team camaraderie a focus.
“It was really my biggest emphasis when I got here was to get to know these players at a level that will allow them to open up, share their concerns and share what they think are great elements to be successful,” Dorrell said. “Breaking through those barriers, being a new coach, that took some transition time to do. I had to earn their trust in going through the process.
“I think a big part of it is we did spend a lot of time in the summer really trying to cultivate what it takes to win. What’s our culture all about? What are the pillars we stand for? How do we move forward? How do we become successful? We talk about all those elements and I think it put us all on the same page.”
Dorrell is quick to admit that the chemistry isn’t perfect.
“We’ve still got issues, but those issues are minimal than prior to when I got here,” he said. “There’s always something that we need to work on to improve and I think our players know that. They’re willing to do the things that are necessary for us to be successful.”
So far, they have been successful. They’ve bonded as a group and go to Tucson with a chance to stay on track for something that hasn’t been done at CU since 2016.
“I know it’s an important game,” Dorrell said. “I think our players understand that and we’re just trying to keep the winning ways going in our favor.”
Game at a Glance
Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (3-0, 2-0 Pac-12) at Arizona Wildcats (0-3, 0-3)
Kickoff: 5:05 p.m. MST
Where: Arizona Stadium in Tucson, Ariz. Playing surface: FieldTurf
Radio: KOA (850 AM & 94.1 FM)
Odds: Colorado by 7.5
Series: CU leads 14-8 overall; but trails 2-7 since joining Pac-12