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Building CU Buffs face established Utah in finale

Buffs focused on future while Utes head to Pac-12 title game

BOULDER, CO - December 12, 2020: CU head coach Karl Dorrell and Utah HC, Kyle Whittingham. The Colorado Buffaloes and the Utah Utes play at Folsom Field in Boulder on December 12, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer
BOULDER, CO – December 12, 2020: CU head coach Karl Dorrell and Utah HC, Kyle Whittingham. The Colorado Buffaloes and the Utah Utes play at Folsom Field in Boulder on December 12, 2020. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)

There’s never much of a secret as to what type of team the Colorado Buffaloes are going to face when they meet up with Utah.

Every year, the Utes have a tough and physical defense, a tough and physical offensive line and a stable of tough and physical running backs.

Led by head coach Kyle Whittingham, now in his 17th season, Utah has the most consistent and reliable program in the Pac-12 South division if not the entire league.

Colorado head coach Karl Dorrell is 17 games into his tenure and is still trying to set the foundation that exists in Salt Lake City.

“That’s what we all aspire to do,” Dorrell said of Utah’s consistency. “Once we get a chance to get a foundation set in your program and start building with recruiting classes and start having the natural ascension through your program with seniors being able to help coach the younger players and it kind of rejuvenate itself year after year. We’re just in the beginning stages of that.”

On Friday at Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City, the established Utes will host the rebuilding Buffaloes in the regular-season finale.

A week ago, Whittingham became the winningest coach in Utah history (142-69) as his team wrapped up its third South division title in the last four years. The Utes will be playing in their 14th bowl game under Whittingham and they have posted 15 winning seasons under his watch.

“If you get a chance to be at a place for a long period of time, your foundation and what you are as a program gets really established, and you have years of classes that go through that program that have a great feel of what the expectations are and their systems of what they play defensively and offensively,” Dorrell said.

Whittingham also had the luxury of being a Utah assistant coach for 11 years – the last 10 as defensive coordinator – before taking over as head coach. He succeeded Urban Meyer, who went 22-2 in his two seasons as head coach.

About 21 months ago, Dorrell took over CU program without a recent history of winning, and he’s still laying a foundation that was difficult to set a year ago. Dorrell did win Pac-12 coach of the year honors in 2020 for leading the Buffs to a 4-2 record during the COVID-19 pandemic-shortened campaign, but Dorrell called that a “weird” year.

“(Last season) really doesn’t count, in my opinion, because it was a COVID year,” he said. “This year is kind of that year, really, you’re building that strong foundation now.”

A week ago, the Buffs knocked off Washington, 20-17, and while it wasn’t pretty, it was a victory that they believe can help set a foundation.

“It’s just definitely showing that we have what we need to have to win games,” cornerback Christian Gonzalez said. “We’ve just got to play together and play 60 minutes and not one half; put it all together and we’ve got what we need.”

They’re getting there, anyway.

Regardless of the outcome, Utah will head to Las Vegas next week for the Pac-12 championship game and then prepare for yet another bowl appearance. CU, meanwhile, will leave Salt Lake City with an eye towards the future – and the hope that it can be a game that sets the tone for the offseason.

“It absolutely can,” center Colby Pursell said. “Utah is a good team. They’re a very good measuring tool. If we can beat Utah, we know where we’re at now.”

Unlike Utah, CU is still trying to establish an identity and a winning culture. Dorrell doesn’t have the Buffs’ program rolling the way Whittingham has Utah going, but he’s encouraged as he looks ahead.

“The one thing I’m proud about this team is that they do have a lot of fight in them,” Dorrell said. “We’ve got to coach better, we’ve got to continue to bring them and develop them better so that they can do things at a higher level of consistency. And I think that’s coming, I really do. I feel we’re heading in the right direction.”

Game at a Glance

Matchup: Colorado Buffaloes (4-7, 3-5 Pac-12) at No. 16 Utah Utes (8-3, 7-1)

Kickoff: 2:05 p.m. MST

Where: Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City. Playing surface: FieldTurf.

TV: Fox

Radio: KOA (850 AM & 94.1 FM)

Odds: Utah by 24

Series: Tied 32-32-3