Rooney: In hot mess of Pac-12, CU Buffs have opportunity to climb past reeling rivals

Stability, momentum in short supply in Pac-12

BOULDER, CO - Nov. 6, 2021: ...
University of Colorado Boulder’s Oline members, Frank Filip, left, and Casey Roddick, in the Oregon State Beavers game on November 6, 2021. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

As the 2021 football season barrels closer to the finish line, maybe the problems surrounding Colorado’s football team are relative.

Take a glance around the league. The Pac-12 Conference is a hot mess.

Start at UCLA, which hosts the Buffaloes on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl. The fourth season under high-priced coach Chip Kelly started off promisingly enough, with the Bruins jumping all the way up to No. 13 after topping LSU in the second game of the season. The luster from that win wore off quickly. The Bruins lost at home the following week against Fresno State, the first of a still-active three-game home losing streak that has leveled heavy criticism upon Kelly for failing to deliver a program commiserate with his lofty salary.

Pull off the win on Saturday, and the Buffs might provide the final boost that would give Kelly a title he would share with CU’s Karl Dorrell: Ex-UCLA coach.

Then there’s Washington, the Buffs’ opponent next week in the home finale. Head coach Jimmy Lake already was on the hot seat before getting saddled with a one-game suspension following an on-field, physical confrontation with one of his players. The Lake clearly is running dry in Seattle. One can almost see a coach search on the horizon.

It doesn’t end there. The only semblance of big-time football Herm Edwards actually has brought to Arizona State is the stink of cheating amid an ongoing NCAA investigation. Cal’s recent COVID issues have the football program embroiled in a civil war with the city of Berkeley. USC hasn’t been USC in ages and will be looking for the next head coach vowing to restore the Trojans to their rightful glory.

Stanford is 3-6, a shell of its former self that got waxed at home by 45 points last week. Washington State deserves credit for persevering through the look-at-me, anti-vax theatrics of now-former coach Nick Rolovich, but the Cougars nonetheless will be in the market for a new coach. And Arizona already has proven the rebuilding project ahead in Tucson will be far more extensive than the one unfolding in Boulder.

While Oregon and Utah are setting a pace to make CU fans envious, sorting through the mess of the rest of the league leaves us the Buffs, whose sudden offensive resurgence has led to a thought that would’ve been unthinkable just a few weeks ago. Finish strong over the final three games, and the Buffs might go into the offseason with as much momentum as any Pac-12 team outside the division winners.

Given the Buffs could play well in the finale at Utah and still lose, any definition of “finishing strong” probably has to include wins against the Bruins and Huskies in the next two games. That would leave the Buffs with a chance, however thin, of securing a bowl berth in the finale at Utah, though it also would spark debate if moving on from former offensive line coach Mitch Rodrigue during the bye week might’ve changed the outcome at Cal. Regardless, after watching this club struggle just to convert first downs for a large portion of the season, the possible turn of fortune is somewhat astounding.

All this isn’t to say the Buffs suddenly have the inside track at a top-of-division finish next year. Finishing strong certainly is far from a given. CU just as readily could go winless the rest of the way. And however the final three games turn out, the most important ingredients for an improved 2022 will come from within, from player development to shrewd decisions with the transfer portal to Dorrell hitting home runs with any staff changes.

Still, the Buffs suddenly have a semblance of stability far beyond a big chunk of the Pac-12. Who saw that coming?