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Colorado's defense has made huge strides, but is it enough?

"There are no more moral victories," said defensive back Chidobe Awuzie. "No more 'Coach Mac is still rebuilding.' We're right there. We believe we're right there." Scott Olmos/USA TODAY Sports

The questions are getting old; the answers, clich├ęd.

When, Mike MacIntyre, will your Colorado team breakthrough?

When, Mike MacIntyre, will the culture change be complete?

When Mike MacIntyre, will your team take the next step?

When? When? When?

But these are the wrong questions. And MacIntyre knows it, which is why he'll often respond with all of the pomp and verve of a paint-drying TED Talk.

Because while it might not be noticeable to the common observer, the Buffs have already broken through. The culture has changed. And the next step has already been taken.

The right question to ask is: When will all of the behind-the-scenes progress translate into wins?

Now, you can see MacIntyre's blood start to come up. His facial expressions shift from relaxed to shades of frustration. He knows the progress is there, but it's not necessarily tangible. He knows his team was competitive in almost every game last season with lost opportunities against UCLA, Utah and USC -- falling to the South's top three teams by a combined 13 points.

"Those are the things that wake me up every night," MacIntyre said. "We're right there. Players make plays, players win games and our kids understand that completely now."

As for the breakthroughs, culture changes and steps to be taken, the job is mostly complete on one side of the football. Make no mistake about it, Colorado is emerging as one of the tougher defensive outs in the conference.

Example: Stand up if you're a Power 5 program and forced a turnover in every game last season? Not so fast, Alabama. Or Washington or Utah or Stanford. That's right, the Buffs were the only Power 5 team to do it.

"We had good talent on defense and they matured," MacIntyre said. "They went from freshmen and sophomores to juniors and seniors. Now we have a high maturity level and a high experience level. I thought we'd be better on defense and we were. And I think we're going to be better again."

So what would be a "win" for Colorado in 2016? A .500 record? A bowl appearance?

"There are no more moral victories," said defensive back Chidobe Awuzie. "No more 'Coach Mac is still rebuilding.' We're right there. We believe we're right there. A win for this season would just be to win."

And if that's going to happen, the offense has to pick up some of the slack and the defense has to keep improving. Last season the Buffs shaved nearly 12 points off of their defensive scoring average. They finished in the black in turnover margin (plus-1) for the first time in the MacIntyre era and ranked 65th nationally in defensive efficiency -- their highest ranking since MacIntyre took over.

"We were so far down when we got there and I think the biggest challenge in the Pac-12 has been we have improved, but everybody else was so far ahead of us," MacIntyre said. "They're still driving 80 mph and we've been trying to drive 120 to catch them. I think we've gotten close. I think retaining and building the talent ... we've developed them and they've developed themselves and now they're really good players."

Case in point, the Buffs have nine defensive starters coming back and appear poised to make even more gains on that side of the football. And that doesn't even include nose tackle Josh Tupou, who was suspended all of last season but earned his way back on to the team.

"I think we've come to a point where [MacIntyre] tells us what to do and we know it's going to be good for the team," said Awuzie, a second-team all-conference performer from last season. "Our freshman year with him, there were still guys leftover from the old staff. But we've gotten better at understanding what he demands from us. We've closed the gap so much from then. We can see the progress of what he's preaching. Hopefully now we can start getting those Ws to back it up."

It won't be easy. According to ESPN's FPI, the Buffs are projected to be underdogs in eight of their 12 regular-season games. And they are the only Pac-12 team that has to play Oregon, USC and Stanford on the road this season.

There used to be a time when that would be daunting. No more, says MacIntyre. The hope is that the offense can play catch-up this season. Because the defense has reached Pac-12 quality.

"They have really rolled up their sleeves and worked hard to get to this point," MacIntyre said. "They believe they can beat anybody they play, and I want to see the fruit of their labor. ... We've truly reached a point where we believe we can beat anybody."