Monday, August 13, 2012
Best case-worst case: Colorado
By ESPN.com staff
The nuttiness that is "Best case-worst case" is back.
This is the first in a series looking at potential dream and nightmare scenarios for all Pac-12 teams.
Understand: These are not predictions. They are extreme scenarios and pieces of fiction. You can read last year's versions here.
We're going in reverse order of my post-spring power rankings (which might not be identical to my preseason power rankings).
Up first: Colorado
Colorado coach Jon Embree gathers his players in a meeting room in the team hotel. It's Friday night. Tomorrow the Buffaloes open their season against Colorado State.
"Since last season ended, all you guys have heard and read is how bad you're going to be this season," Embree says. "Everybody thinks you'll finish last in the Pac-12. Tomorrow will be your first chance to answer back.
"Does anyone have something to say... Jon? I think you should go because your parents also forgot the 'h' in your name, just like mine, thereby connecting us for life."
Buffaloes linebacker Jon Major stands. He takes a deep breath.
"I am a swine flu survivor. I am a Pokemon trainer. I am Kung Fu white belt and a gardener extraordinaire. I am sweater enthusiast. And I'm not afraid to say that I cry every time I hear 'Someone like you' by Adele," he says. "And there is no freaking way we finish last in the Pac-12 and don't go to a bowl game this year.
"Shoulder to shoulder, baby, every single play."
Colorado wallops the Rams 42-28, with Jordan Webb throwing two touchdown pass and rushing for another.
The Buffs whip Sacramento State 44-10 and then win their second consecutive true road game outside the state with a gritty 28-24 win at Fresno State.
"Good teams have to win on the road," defensive tackle Will Pericak tells reporters. "We lost 24 games in a row on the road because we weren't a good team. We're different now."
The reporter asks a follow-up question: "Have you ever considered changing your last name to "Precheck" so folks would pronounce it correctly?"
"No," Pericak responds with a withering stare. We know it is a withering stare because the reporter actually withers.
The Buffaloes newfound stoutness on the road faces a tough test at newly energized Washington State. Both teams are 3-0.
From the Pac-12 blog: "You can't be much better than 3-0 after three games, but one of these long languishing teams will be just two wins from bowl eligibility by Saturday night." [Pac-12 blog wins Pulitzer the next day.]
The Cougars jump to a 14-0 lead in the first quarter, and it's 21-10 at halftime. Offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy strides across the halftime locker room and addresses his offensive line. "We're going to give it to Tony Jones. Every darn play."
Jones rushes for 160 of his 210 yards in the second half as the Buffs prevail 38-35. The key play is freshman cornerback Yuri Wright returning an interception 54 yards for a touchdown on the Cougs first possession of the third quarter.
"No," Wright says. "I'm not going to tweet about it."
Colorado suffers its first defeat at home the next weekend to UCLA, with Bruins quarterback Brett Hundley throwing three TD passes. The Buffs, after a bye week, regain their focus with a hard-fought 35-30 win over Arizona State. Linebacker Doug Rippy grabs a late interception to seal the win.
"I don't think anyone in that locker room isn't aware we are one win away from bowl eligibility," Rippy says. "But this team can't afford to think any further ahead than to practice on Monday."
The schedule, however, catches up to the Buffs. They lose 45-17 at No. 1 USC and 44-16 to No. 3 Oregon. They push Stanford to the brink before falling 31-28.
"No, I don't think the locker room is down," safety Ray Polk says. "We're 5-4 with three games to play. There is a lot to play for. There is no freaking way I'm not going to a bowl game my senior year."
The Buffs pick up their third road victory of the season with a 40-35 win at Arizona, and they shock Washington 30-28 when Major returns a fumble from Huskies quarterback Keith Price 44 yards for a late fourth-quarter touchdown.
Up next is the Buffaloes most bitter rival... Utah. On Monday, offensive tackle David Bakhtiari walks across the hushed locker room with a cherished piece of Buffs memorabilia: The vandalized bike of Embree's daughter.
Bakhtiari turns, "We will never, ever, forget the beautiful black and golden bike that was made red by our enemies to the West!"
Colorado beats the No. 19 Utes 28-20 and earns a berth in the Holiday Bowl.
The Buffaloes beat Texas 13-10, their fans serenading the Longhorns with chants of "Pac-12!" After the game, Major blasts "Someone like you." And everybody does, in fact, cry.
The Buffs finish ranked 24th. Just ahead of No. 25 Nebraska.
The snow comes early and often and is most righteous.
Jon Embree tells reporters that he's not afraid to use two quarterbacks, but neither Jordan Webb nor Connor Wood is terribly impressive against Colorado State and Sacramento State. Nonetheless, at 2-0 with the youngest team in the Pac-12, Colorado fans remain cautiously optimistic.
"Of course, we've got to learn to win consistently on the road to take the next step as a program," coach Jon Embree warns.
That doesn't happen. Colorado falls at Fresno State and Washington State, and the 2011 finale at Utah that ended a 24-game losing streak outside of the Buffs home state seems like it never happened. Further, it's hard to win with six true freshmen seeing regular action on defense.
UCLA bullies the Buffs 31-17, and Arizona State just has too much team speed on both sides of the ball in a 35-21 win. Those two losses, however, only preview the physical mismatches at USC and Oregon and when Stanford comes to town. The Buffs are outscored 137-10, giving up over 500 yards to each.
Without receiver Paul Richardson -- rumors of his return throughout the season start to feel like Bigfoot sightings -- the offense doesn't have a threat that taxes a defense. Webb and Wood and then Nick Hirschman each get opportunities at QB, but none of the three provides any consistency. All three struggle with accuracy and interceptions. But the defense is the biggest issue. While the linebackers are strong, the defensive front is physically outmatched, and the secondary is young and lacks depth. A couple of key injuries make things even messier.
Colorado steals at win at equally beleaguered Arizona, but gets pushed around at home by Washington and revenge-minded Utah, which earns a berth in the Holiday Bowl with a win in Boulder.
A second-consecutive three-win season has Colorado fans grumbling.
"They should grumble," Embree says. "I'm grumbling. Even in my sleep. We have to get this solved."
Nebraska beats Oklahoma for the national championship. Texas, using the argument, "Hey, we're Texas!" talks its way into the Rose Bowl, where it beats USC.
Larry Scott leaves the Pac-12 for the Big 12 and, after two days on the job, announces a mega-TV deal worth zillions. And with satellite carriers.
It rains all winter.