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Rooney: Nothing-to-lose CU Buffs embrace challenge, opportunity

Upset against No. 5 Texas A&M would put national spotlight on Buffs

University of Colorado Boulder junior safety Chris Miller (0) celebrates a tackle for loss against University of Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.(Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)
Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer
University of Colorado Boulder junior safety Chris Miller (0) celebrates a tackle for loss against University of Northern Colorado on Friday, Sept. 3, 2021, at Folsom Field in Boulder, Colo.(Timothy Hurst/Staff Photographer)

All it takes is one big win.

And with the possible exception of Oregon, depending on how a huge weekend unfolds for the Ducks, Colorado probably won’t have a chance at a bigger victory this season than on Saturday in Denver.

At Empower Field at Mile High, the biggest game of the still-unfolding Karl Dorrell era kicks off against fifth-ranked Texas A&M. One year after a shortened 4-2 season full of promise but devoid of signature wins, and one week after a ragged but one-sided opening win against Northern Colorado, the Buffs have an opportunity to send shockwaves across the college football landscape.

What exactly would an upset victory do for the national profile of the program? CU doesn’t play UCLA for another two months, but the Buffs can look to Westwood to answer that question.

Ten months ago, when the Bruins limped out of Folsom Field after a season-opening CU victory, former Oregon mastermind Chip Kelly was squirming on the hot seat at UCLA. Last week, the Bruins knocked off then-No. 16 LSU in the Rose Bowl, suddenly becoming the Pac-12’s national darlings.

Kelly entered the season with a storm of questions swirling around his job security. This past week, we were treated to these headlines:

  • “After Five Straight Losing Seasons as a Coach, Chip Kelly is Back.” (Sports Illustrated).
  • “Is UCLA Experiencing a Chip Kelly Renaissance?” (247Sports.com).
  • “Is UCLA Football Finally on Track With Chip Kelly?” (ESPN).
  • “Chip Kelly, UCLA Announce Return in Dominant Win Over No. 16 LSU.” (Also Sports Illustrated).

Obviously the situations aren’t exact parallels. The Buffs aren’t getting the fifth-ranked Aggies on their home turf at Folsom Field, as the Bruins did with LSU. And certainly there isn’t any sort of hot seat simmering around Dorrell. But in terms of abruptly altering the profile of an entire program, the opportunity is similar.

UCLA replaced LSU at the No. 16 slot in this week’s top 25. A win probably won’t vault the Buffs into the top 10, but it would undoubtedly push CU into the top 25 and suddenly change the complexion of the Pac-12 Conference race.

Of course, the Buffs’ most recent win against a top-five foe — a home victory against No. 3 Oklahoma on Sept. 29, 2007 in the second season under former coach Dan Hawkins — failed to do the same. CU did squeak out a berth in the Independence Bowl in a 6-7 season that fall, but the Buffs won only 11 games under Hawkins over the next three seasons. The feeling here is different. Dorrell’s pre-CU coaching pedigree is far superior to Hawkins’. Knocking off A&M almost surely would provide the catapult that didn’t arrive after that 14-year old upset of Oklahoma.

Alas, the deck is stacked against the Buffs. Rookie quarterback Brendon Lewis will have to perform well beyond his years, and well beyond what he showed a week ago in his first start against Northern Colorado. All the usual X-factors — the turnover battle, a big play on special teams, perhaps a fortuitous bounce or flag — all will have to tilt in favor of the Buffs. And, of course, the 118 yards on 12 penalties, almost all of them easily avoidable, collected by CU last week will have to disappear.

Impossible? No, but extremely unlikely. However, short of getting blown off the field, a clean and confident showing might set the stage for a run at a bowl berth.

“We know we have to play well. We know we can’t have the penalties that we talked about last week that would be the difference in a game like this,” Dorrell said. “Our players are excited about this opportunity to play and compete. I know our guys will be ready to play. They’ll compete hard. We expect to make great plays. We expect to do some really good things in this game. Bottom line, we’re going to have to go and execute in order for us to win.”