Chidobe Awuzie, veteran Buffs eyeball Pac-12 uptick

Colorado, desperate to right itself in the Pac-12 pecking order, is hoping that age comes before beauty this season.

What the Buffaloes' roster lacks in star power -- beauty -- it hopes to make up for with playing experience and veteran leadership. Colorado features 56 upperclassmen, 36 of whom have spent at least three years in the program. That includes 24 seniors (15 of whom are fifth-year players) and 32 juniors (28 of whom are fourth-year players).

Sounds like a good thing. But it also means time is running out for veteran players who know only losing. The program hasn't posted a winning season since 2005 and has won just five Pac-12 games in five seasons since joining the conference in 2011.

“We have our heels on the cliff right now and we can go forward or we can fall down," senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said. "We’re the first class that Coach [Mike MacIntyre] brought in so we have that mindset of whatever it takes."

Awuzie is the closest thing to beauty the team has. He earned second-team All-Pac-12 honors last year, the only Buff to earn an All-Conference distinction.

He led the Buffaloes in tackles (84) and tackles for a loss (12) last year primarily as a hybrid nickel back, and he added four sacks, two interceptions and a forced fumble.

He also was a leading part of a defense that yielded 11.5 fewer points in 2015 -- 27.5 points per game versus 39 ppg -- under new coordinator Jim Leavitt than it did the previous season. That defense went from surrendering 6.5 yards per play to 5.7. In terms of pecking order in the conference, the defense went from the bottom to the middle.

So even minor improvement in 2016, which eight returning starters suggests is possible, could yield something beautiful: A defense that could be termed "good." With 17 position players overall and both specialists back -- most returning starters in the conference -- Colorado brings more "maybe" to the season than it has done as a Pac-12 member.

The schedule doesn't offer many easy outs, though. If the Buffs are going to be bowl eligible, they'll almost certainly need to start 2-0 against Colorado State and Idaho State before things uptick severely with visits to Michigan and Oregon. A hosting of Oregon State on Oct. 1 looks like a must-win, too.

Awuzie, squarely on the NFL radar, is a guy the Buffs could line up behind. A business major with diverse interests, from rap to real estate, he wasn't considering Colorado during his 2013 recruitment, but the San Jose native liked coach Mike MacIntyre at San Jose State and he liked him even more when MacIntyre headed to Boulder.

He sees a shift in team culture. Players are simultaneously more serious and working harder and having more fun. Of course, winning is the thing. All competitors know that. Awuzie sees the losing in the past not as a negative but as a powerful motivating force.

“We’re competitive. It’s made us real hungry. We don’t back down to nobody," he said. "Losing, as bad as it’s been, it’s built a mindset that we don’t want to do this any more. We don’t want to lose any more. We want to do whatever it takes to win.”

After all, winning, at any age, is always beautiful.