After Colorado’s first spring practice last week, coach Mike MacIntyre recalled a lesson from his time working under the legendary Bill Parcells as an assistant with the Dallas Cowboys: Building off a championship season is not as simple as picking up where you left off.
“You go back and start from the bottom again,” MacIntyre said, channeling Parcells. “What you hope is that your foundation is built higher, and now you can just keep moving forward.”
That will be the approach this spring and into the fall as the Buffaloes try to build off a 10-4 season in which they won the Pac-12 South and rose as high as No. 9 before finishing at No. 17 in the AP poll. MacIntyre was the recipient of eight national coach of the year honors, including one from ESPN, after Colorado won seven more conference games than it did the previous season in becoming the most-improved team in Pac-12 history.
Now comes a different challenge: sustaining a high level of success. In the Pac-12 South, that hasn’t been easy. In fact, winning the division has been something of a curse.
The three programs that won the division from 2012 through 2014 -- UCLA, Arizona State and Arizona -- went a combined 5-22 in Pac-12 play in 2016 and filled the bottom half of the South standings. That isn't to say, of course, that Colorado’s division title means it will follow a similar course -- only that its recent success doesn’t necessarily indicate that more is on the way.
As MacIntyre looked out at his team last week, he couldn’t help but acknowledge the absence of some familiar faces, notably quarterback Sefo Liufao, the starter in each of MacIntyre's first four seasons. When MacIntyre arrived from San Jose State prior to the 2013 season, the roster was devoid of the talent necessary to compete in the Pac-12, and the result was a lot of playing time for young players early in his tenure.
The need to rely on those young players kept the Buffaloes from seeing much success -- Colorado went just 2-25 in Pac-12 play during MacIntyre's first three seasons -- but the experience proved invaluable in 2016, when more than 80 percent of the Buffs' starts were made by upperclassmen. Colorado hasn’t relied as heavily on upperclassmen since 2002, when better than 90 percent of its starts were made by seniors and juniors.
A significant chunk of those starts last season came from eight seniors on a defense that led the Pac-12 in scoring during conference play. Their departure makes it difficult to speculate with much confidence about 2017, particularly given the departure of defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt, who cashed in on the Buffs’ success to land the same job at Oregon. It should be noted, though, that even with that senior-laden group, Colorado was picked to finish sixth in the South last season.
One difference is that after establishing itself as a conference-title contender, Colorado won’t sneak up on anyone. People in the program believe they have earned the respect of their peers and that the Buffs will have a proverbial target on their backs.
“That’s good. That’s where we want to be,” MacIntyre said. “I don’t want to be on the other end again. I want to be on this end.”
If Colorado is able to remain among the top teams in the Pac-12, it will likely be because an experienced offense will make up for any regression on the other side. Yes, co-MVP Liufao is gone, but there wasn’t much drop-off last season, when Steven Montez, then a redshirt freshman, was needed in relief of Liufao.
After going 2-1 as a starter -- with victories over the Oregon schools and a close loss to USC -- with Liufao out due to injury, there was some speculation that Montez had done enough to keep the starting job once Liufao was fully healthy. It didn’t work out that way, but what’s telling is that it didn’t seem unreasonable at the time.
“Sefo and Montez were close, so they all kind of see the same things,” Colorado running back Phillip Lindsay said. “Now it’s Montez’s turn. Montez has a little different feel than Sefo. He’s a different person than Sefo. So now’s about getting him adjusted to the offense, and we just got to continue to win games.”
Montez is athletic, he has a big arm, and he benefits from the return of Lindsay, a second-team All-Pac-12 selection last season, and one of the deeper receiving corps in the country. There is every reason to believe the offense should be better.
While the football program tries to move forward, it is not without a dark cloud. The school's board of regents announced two weeks ago that it hired a pair of attorneys from the law firm Cozen O’Connor to conduct an external inquiry into the university’s handling of allegations of domestic violence against former assistant coach Joe Tumpkin. The same lawyers, Leslie Gomez and Gina Maisto Smith, recently conducted an investigation into Baylor's handling of allegations of sexual assault by members of the football team.
Gomez and Maisto Smith have a previous relationship with the University of Colorado system, having helped with reviewing and establishing Title IX offices and operations among the system’s four campuses, according to a CU spokesman.
It is not clear how long the investigation will last, but the regents will wait until its completion to vote to approve an agreed-upon contract extension with MacIntyre.