Colorado eyeballing next step in Pac-12

Colorado was probably the worst major conference football team in 2012. It went 1-11, losing by an average of nearly 31 points per game. Last year, the first under coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes went 4-8 and only lost three games by more than 31 points.

So the Buffs were clearly much improved, climbing out of the Pac-12 basement after dispatching California 41-24.

Still, four wins -- and just one in conference play for a second consecutive year -- isn't going to goose anyone in Boulder. With the athletic department in the midst of a critical fund-raising project for new athletics facilities and upgrades to Folsom Field, the program needs another notable uptick in 2014. By most fair measures, that would be achieving mediocrity -- as in, going 6-6 and becoming bowl eligible.

But "mediocrity" isn't the sort of alluring goal that motivates most athletes, and it won't be employed by MacIntyre, who's instead asking his players to aspire toward becoming "uncommon," as in, he said, "uncommon effort, uncommon attitude, uncommon focus."

With spring practices in the books and the Buffaloes approaching an offseason when young players can fine-tune themselves -- or take to the sofa and get soft -- MacIntyre senses his team is turning a corner both in terms of talent and attitude.

"I saw a different intensity, a different focus in meetings and in practice [this spring]," he said. "I say, 'You have to believe it before you achieve it.' I definitely think they are starting to believe that they can beat anybody they play. I think we started getting that at the end of last season."

There are reasons to be optimistic, as many of those overmatched young players forced into action over the past two seasons are starting to mature.

A good start is QB Sefo Liufau, who's rubbed away some of the rawness and rough edges from being a true freshman starter in 2013. His mechanics are much better, which has translated to more zip on the football, an improvement with intermediate throws, a quicker release and a better command of the offense.

"He made the jump I was hoping to see," MacIntyre said.

It also helps that Liufau's backup, Jordan Gehrke, turned in a strong spring.

"It's always good to have two guys who can do it," MacIntyre said.

When asked who boosted their stock this spring, MacIntyre had a long list. On the defensive line, there's defensive ends Derek McCartney, Tyler Henington and Jimmy Gilbert. In the secondary, it's a pair of corners, Chidobe Awuzie and junior college transfer Ahkello Witherspoon. He also feels good about Kenneth Olugbode replacing the departed Derek Webb at weakside linebacker.

On offense, center Alex Kelley stepped up to replace Gus Handler, while running back Phillip Lindsay impressed enough at a fairly deep position to earn touches, at the very least in the return game. While no one is expected to comfortably fill Paul Richardson's shoes at receiver, junior Nelson Spruce and redshirt freshman Bryce Bobo look like two strong options in the passing game.

But it's not just about the naturally maturing personnel, it's about how those guys are progressing.

"We definitely got tougher as a football team this spring, more physical," MacIntyre said. "We were able a little bit more than last spring because everything had been installed."

The Buffs are not going to be the fastest or most physically imposing team in the Pac-12, and the South Division is much improved since Colorado made the jump from the Big 12. While the locker room message is to believe they are capable of winning any and every game, there also is the big picture for the program.

The Rose Bowl won't happen overnight. Or in MacIntyre's second year.

"It definitely is a process," MacIntyre said. "It's not something you can shake a wand at and fix. It's also not a one-game situation. Our kids have to have the right perspective. If we go out and win a Pac-12 game early, we can't think we've arrived because you can get beat by the next eight opponents. It's just so tough. You've got to bring it week in and week out."

The good news for Colorado fans is the Buffs seem ready to bring a little bit more to their weeks next fall than the previous two years.