So, who saw this coming?
Colorado’s rise was one of the best, and most surprising, stories of the college football season. After winning just two Pac-12 games in the last three seasons, the Buffaloes rode a strong defense to an 8-1 conference record and an appearance in the Pac-12 championship. After going 1-8 in the conference last year, their season-over-season improvement was the biggest in conference history.
They head to the Valero Alamo Bowl with a chance to finish with 11 wins for the first time since 1994.
Team MVP on offense: QB Sefo Liufau. Early last offseason, Colorado pursued graduate transfer Davis Webb because it was unclear if Liufau would be ready to play this season due to a Lisfranc injury. Not only was he ready, but he captained the Buffs to their best season in years. Going into the Pac-12 championship game, Liufau was the owner of 87 school records and will leave as the most prolific passer in school history. He finished the season with 2,171 yards passing, 11 touchdown passes and six interceptions, and his ability to run was a key part of the offense. Liufau ran for 496 yards on 152 carries and Colorado was 8-0 when he ran for more than 20 yards in a game.
Team MVP on defense: CB Chidobe Awuzie. Colorado’s defense became one of the top units in the country thanks to several talented players and an excellent scheme, but Awuzie still stood out. He’s projected as a possible first-round pick at corner in the NFL draft, but played all over the secondary this season and, at times, at linebacker. He finished the season with 60 tackles, 13 pass breakups, four sacks and a pair of forced fumbles. The Buffs held opposing quarterbacks to a 98.0 efficiency rating, which was the third-best mark in the country.
Season highlight: Receiver Bryce Bobo’s one-handed touchdown catch from Steven Montez against Oregon was one of the plays of the year in college football -- and that’s before taking into account it became the game-winner. It turned out later that Oregon wasn’t very good, but that win at Autzen Stadium signified Colorado’s arrival and set the stage for the rest of the season. Ahkello Witherspoon sealed the win with an equally important interception in the end zone in the final minute.
Season lowlight: Colorado had a chance to punch its ticket for the Rose Bowl with a win against Washington in the Pac-12 championship game, but, instead, turned in its worst performance. Even a close loss might have been good enough to secure a spot in Pasadena, but a 41-10 loss allowed USC to jump the Buffs in the final playoff rankings, which gave the Trojans the Rose Bowl bid. Liufao was injured early and finished 3-of-13 with three interceptions.
Biggest reason for optimism heading into 2017: Coach Mike MacIntyre isn’t going anywhere. As he racks of national coach of the year awards, MacIntyre has made it clear he will remain in Boulder, where he has done a phenomenal job rebuilding what was a forgotten program before his arrival. Liufao and several others won’t return, but Montez should allow for a smooth transition on offense.
Biggest area of need heading into 2017: Part of what made the defense so formidable this year was its experience. Next year, that won’t be the case. The Buffs loses eight senior starters on defense, many of whom have started for multiple seasons.
Most memorable moment from 2016: As it became clear Colorado was going to beat Utah and claim the Pac-12 South title, the public address announcer at Folsom Field requested that fans wait one minute following the end of the game before rushing the field. They did not listen.
It was a memorable final scene as the Buffs completed their improbable worst-to-first turnaround.