In a turn of events beyond anyone’s expectations, except perhaps the Colorado Buffaloes themselves, the Buffs are the talk of the Pac-12 Conference going into the final scheduled week of the long, strange trip that has been the 2020 football season.
CU has a chance to force the issue and demand the Pac-12 Conference alter the championship credentials it so far has clung to with curious resiliency. Or maybe it’s not so curious, given the league’s penchant for self-inflicted wounds. Yet it all will be for naught if the Buffs don’t uphold their end of the bargain.
All the speculation, all the potential gratification for a season that has been spent living on the edge of disaster since the summer, evaporates if the Buffs don’t win on Saturday against Utah. And if CU wins and improves to 5-0, it might justify for the Buffs’ players the many sacrifices they have pushed through in order to play this most unique of seasons.
Events of this past week, not just in football, made it easy to wonder if college athletics, already hanging by a tenuous thread, would make it to the finish line. At this point, there is no doubt football is going to push through, despite the COVID-19 pandemic running rampant across the country. College basketball already was a hot mess before opening night, and two-plus weeks later there is no end in sight to the scheduling circus.
Is it all worth it? Certainly it is for the universities looking to recoup whatever lost revenue they can via television contracts, but what of the players? Since the summer the top spokespeople out of CU athletics — athletic director Rick George, football coach Karl Dorrell, and men’s basketball coach Tad Boyle — have consistently reiterated the idea that all of their efforts begin with the drive to give their student-athletes the best experience possible.
On the gridiron, the Buffs’ unexpected rags-to-riches success story has made it easy to gloss over the sacrifices, from daily nose swabs to the complete erasing of any sort of social life to refraining from even seeing family members and loved ones. In basketball, it remains to be seen how exactly the NCAA will make its way to a Big Dance. The 2-1 Buffs have played as many games as they’ve had postponed, and CU has yet to play a game at full strength.
Coaches and administrators often speak of the mental health aspects of what their athletes are sloughing through. It’s fantastic that in 2020 those concerns are part of the conversation. Yet the constant testing and the living of life in near-lockdown status away from the playing fields no doubt is a mental drain difficult to quantify. On Thursday, Boston College took a team vote and opted to pass on playing in a no-frills bowl game their families would be unable to attend, deciding at this time it’s far more important to reunite with those families for the holidays. The Eagles won’t be the last football program to make that decision.
Against this backdrop, the CU football team has provided a feel-good story in a season likely to be remembered in the big picture for all the wrong reasons. One more win by the Buffs would put pressure on the Pac-12 to do the right thing.
The Big Ten altering its previous protocols to determine its conference championship game participants should serve as a template for the Pac-12, assuming Colorado and USC survive Saturday victorious. The Big Ten knows it needs Ohio State in its title game. Bending the rules in a year in which rules were made up on the fly wasn’t an issue. The Pac-12 undoubtedly feels the same about the USC brand, but the best story in the conference right now is the one being scripted by the Buffs.
Washington, the de facto winner of the North Division, undoubtedly will cry foul if it is left out of the Pac-12 title game. But you know what? If 2020 has proven one undeniable truth, it’s that life isn’t fair. The best matchup, never mind what’s best for the Pac-12, is an undefeated USC team squaring off against the upstart, undefeated Buffs in the title game.
And that, no doubt, will make every hurdle cleared in an unprecedented season more than worthwhile for the Buffs.