Buffs, Cougs trying to rediscover winning

September, 27, 2011
9/27/11
6:15
PM ET
A string of losing seasons? It wasn't always like this for Colorado and Washington State.

Sure, the Buffaloes haven't posted a winning season since 2005, which wasn't such a great year considering then-coach Gary Barnett was fired before the bowl game of a 7-6 finish. But they split a national title in 1990 and won the Big 12 in 2001.

Sure, the Cougars haven't posted a winning season since 2003. But that was the third of three consecutive 10-win seasons, and the Cougs played in the Rose Bowl after the 1997 and 2002 seasons.

[+] EnlargeMarshall Lobbestael
AP Photo/Chris ParkSaturday's match may hinge on Marshall Lobbestael and Washington State's passing game.
Both programs are trying to crawl out of the dumps, but both fan bases can recall what it's like to be on top. And they're ready to start climbing in a positive direction again.

And it's likely that when Buffs and Cougs fans went through the 2011 schedule in the preseason and registered in their mind's eyes most likely spots to record wins, both wrote a W by Oct. 1, when Washington State visits Colorado for the first Pac-12 conference game in Folsom Field (the California game, again, was a nonconference game and doesn't count in the Pac-12 standings).

Obviously, one team is going to be disappointed, and probably for good reason. It's hard to imagine the loser earning bowl eligibility.

While the Buffs have suffered, and they did go 2-10 in 2006, their fall was not as precipitous as Washington State's. Colorado has won 13 games over the past three years. The Cougars have won five over the same span. Still, new coach Jon Embree almost seems amused with the notion that his players might overlook the Cougs.

"First off, we've only won one game so we can't take anybody lightly," he said. "When I watch them on tape, I see how explosive they are on offense. I really felt like coming into this year, them and Arizona State would be the two most improved teams."

That's fair. While beating Idaho State and UNLV, as Washington State did before losing at San Diego State, doesn't announce a team as a Pac-12 contender, it's worth noting UNLV beat Hawaii by 20 points. That's the same Hawaii team that beat Colorado 34-17 in the season opener.

Last year, the Cougs transformed from grade-A FBS patsy to a competitive team. Now, in order for coach Paul Wulff to keep his job into 2012, the program needs to take the next step, which means winning some games.

"All the parts have improved but we are still nowhere near where we can be and we've got to keep growing," Wulff said.

That growth is best demonstrated by the Cougars not folding after starting quarterback Jeff Tuel went down in the opener with a broken collarbone. Senior Marshall Lobbestael has come off the bench and played well, ranking sixth in the nation in passing efficiency.

Said Embree, "That's a testament to Coach Wulff and him getting this program back to where he wants it."

Lobbestael and the Cougars deep receiving corps could be where the game turns. Entering the season, Colorado's biggest question was its secondary. That unit has been adequate, probably better than expected, even with some key injuries. But part of that is not playing good passing teams. While the Buffs haven't given up many passing yards -- 183.5 yards per game is the fewest in the conference -- they also rank only 10th in pass efficiency defense.

The Cougs rank No. 1 in the conference in passing efficiency.

That said, the Buffs front seven will challenge the Cougars offensive line. Colorado leads the conference with 14 sacks. It's likely Lobbestael will need to unload quickly, and it would helpful if he gets some production from his running game.

Speaking of running games, Colorado would prefer not to. Only miserable Arizona has prevented the Buffs from ranking last in rushing in the conference.

Playing at home should make things easier for that offense. In its only other home game so far -- against Cal -- Colorado rolled up 582 yards, including 108 yards rushing.

"If we are going to have any kind of successful season, we have to win home games," Embree said.

The opposite could prove true for Washington State: It must win on the road because a vast majority of its most winnable games on paper -- Colorado, UCLA, Oregon State (in Seattle), California and Washington -- are on the road. That list once included San Diego State, a game in which the Cougs imploded in the fourth quarter.

Washington State has had a bye week to shake off that loss and game plan for the Buffs. It's not melodramatic to say a lot is on the line for Wulff.

The Buffs and Cougs were the preseason picks to finish at the bottom of the South and North Divisions, respectively. The winner Saturday has a much better chance of avoiding that fate.

So, forget about the past, there's plenty of present urgency.

Ted Miller | email

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