SAN ANTONIO — Just two weeks ago, there was a legitimate argument that the Colorado football team should have been in Los Angeles playing for the Pac-12 championship.
On Tuesday night, the Buffaloes were smacked with a dose of reality that the truncated season may have masked just how far they really have to climb.
In a season that was delayed and shortened by the coronavirus pandemic, the Buffs (4-2) took some steps forward in Karl Dorrell’s first season as head coach. Then, they crash-landed at the Alamodome with a 55-23 loss to No. 20 Texas in the Valero Alamo Bowl on Tuesday.
It was ugly enough that Dorrell didn’t allow his players to do postgame interviews — the first time in at least a decade that’s happened at CU.
Texas finished third in the Big 12, has placed higher than that just once in the last seven seasons, and head coach Tom Herman is on the hot seat for failing to meet the lofty expectations of the program.
CU, despite having the second-best record in the Pac-12, walks away from San Antonio aspiring to reach the Longhorns’ level.
“We still have a ways to go, there’s no question about that,” Dorrell said when asked about the gap between CU and Texas.
This wasn’t even a Texas team at full strength, as several of its top players opted out of the Alamo Bowl to prepare for the NFL. That alone is an indicator of the gap, as CU doesn’t have several players that are NFL ready.
It was young players with limited experience, such as backup quarterback Casey Thompson, that torched the Buffs. Thompson had thrown 19 career passes before Tuesday but played the second half after senior starter Sam Ehlinger went down with a shoulder injury. In two quarters, Thompson completed 8-of-10 passes for 170 yards and four touchdowns.
Of course, CU was depleted, too. Injuries, COVID-19 protocols and other issues left the Buffs with only 49 available scholarship players, seven of which hadn’t played a snap all season.
As the Buffs look forward, however, it’s going to take a lot more than simply getting their current roster healthy. Guiding Colorado to national relevance won’t be an overnight — or one offseason — process.
“We’ve got to get a couple good recruiting classes in, which we started to do (with the 2020 class),” Dorrell said. “It’s going to take probably two or three years to get to a level we need to be, to feel like we’re the type of program that should be on a national level.
“This was a good measuring stick about how far we need to go. That’s what it is. I know we didn’t have as many of our scholarship players here, but still we’ve got so much work to do in a number of ways.”
COVID-19 has impacted everyone over the past 10 months and continues to do so as the calendar is set to turn to 2021. Because of that, there is no telling what next season looks like.
CU didn’t get a chance to conduct spring football this year, and it’s unknown if it will get spring drills next year. The Buffs have 12 games scheduled for the fall of 2021, but there’s no telling if they’ll get to play those games.
What is known, however, is that CU can’t let up in its preparation.
“We just need to kind of put our head down and get to work in this offseason and keep improving week after week, day after day; continue to just build this team, to build their confidence, build their physical skill sets,” Dorrell said. “There’s a lot of things we need to do, but it starts with just working hard, having a good mindset going into this offseason.”
Washing away the memory of the last two games — a 38-21 loss to Utah and the blowout loss to Texas — and thinking of the first four, when the Buffs went 4-0, would be an easy way to get into a better frame of mind. Dorrell, however, would rather focus on the last two and learn from them.
“This game tells me how much further we have to go, for sure,” he said. “Tackling was poor, inefficiency on offense and we didn’t take care of the football. Things that really happened the last couple games, versus Utah and this, these are the things we’ve been preaching and talking about. We didn’t improve in those areas. It’s unfortunate. But we’ve got a lot of work to do.”