The Colorado Buffaloes, high from a last-minute win over Georgia, may well come crashing back to earth this week as the Missouri Tigers appear on the schedule.
An ugly return to reality? Or a golden opportunity?
No team in the Big 12 has owned the Buffs under Dan Hawkins more than Gary Pinkel's Tigers. Missouri is 4-0 over Colorado since 2006, and has won each game in convincing fashion.
Colorado fans are all too familiar with the numbers: a combined score of 177-40 (an average final score of 44-10); a 58-0 disaster the last time Colorado visited Columbia.
Last week, the stars were aligned for Colorado to upset Georgia...the Bulldogs were struggling; the Buffs were playing at home; Colorado had a bye week to prepare; the national championship team from 1990 was on hand to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Colorado's title run; a national television audience; and a "Blackout" in the stands to cheer on the Buffs.
This week, the stars are aligned for Colorado to get blown out by Missouri...the Tigers are 4-0; the Buffs are on the road; Missouri has had a bye week to prepare; there are daily stories about the 20th anniversary of the 1990 fifth-down game; a national television audience; and angry Tiger fans in the stands (it's tough for the Tiger Nation to accept the reality that Missouri lobbied to join the Big Ten but was left at the altar, while Colorado is moving on to greener pastures in the Pac-12).
It doesn't look good for the Buffs.
"It's like our kryptonite or something," said Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen. "They have our number. I don't know what it is."
Can the Buffs pull off the upset, or will Colorado fans be left with yet another reminder of how far the program is from national respectability?
This week's "T.I.P.S." for Colorado v. Missouri
T - Talent
In his first season as a starter last season, junior quarterback Blaine Gabbert completed 59% of his passes, going for 24 touchdowns and only nine interceptions. His 3,593 yards passing resulted in a total offense average of 292 yards per game, good enough for 11th in the nation.
This fall, Gabbert has picked up where he left off in 2009, with over 250 yards per game in total offense. Gabbert has thrown five touchdown passes, and did not throw an interception until the fourth quarter of the game against San Diego State.
So who is Gabbert throwing to?
Tired of hearing about A.J. Green? Try on these initials for size ... T.J. Moe.
The sophomore wide receiver is leading the nation in receptions per game, with 37 catches in just four games (the Buffs' leading receiver, Scotty McKnight, has 16 receptions in four games).
Moe is averaging almost 100 yards receiving per game, and has two touchdowns receiving and one rushing. It was Moe who caught a 68-yard touchdown pass in the final minute of play to rally Missouri past San Diego State, 27-24.
Tiger teammate Michael Egnew cannot be ignored, either, as the junior tight end has almost 300 yards receiving, including a 13-catch, 145-yard effort against San Diego State.
The running game for Missouri was supposed to be manned by senior running back Derrick Washington. However, Washington was kicked off the team the week before the season opener after being arrested on sexual assault charges.
In Washington's place, Missouri has had a running back by committee, with Henry Josey, De'Vion Moore, and Kendial Lawrence each averaging over 37 yards per game rushing.
"Obviously, (Washington) was such a big part of our offense, and the expectation of our offense this year," said head coach Gary Pinkel. "We have capable backups, but that's just something we've had to deal with. Really, I think we've done a good job."
The offensive line returns four starters from last season, and is producing an offense which is 32nd in the nation in total offense (431 yards per game) and 17th in scoring offense (37.7 points per game).
The rushing attack is averaging over five yards per carry, while the Tigers have given up a Big 12-low four sacks.
If there is an Achilles' heel for the Missouri offense, it is third-down conversions. The Tigers have been successful on only 39.6% of third-down opportunities, 10th-best in the league.
Colorado, meanwhile, is amongst the nation's best in third-down defense, surrendering first downs only 28.3% of the time.
On defense, Missouri has lived off of takeaways. The Tigers have 13 turnovers to their credit, compared to seven for the Buffs' defense. Missouri already has eight interceptions, matching the total for all of last year.
Missouri is 35th in the nation in total defense, and 10th in the nation in scoring defense, giving up only 14 points per game.
Still, the Tigers will be a little short-handed on defense Saturday against Colorado. The 2009 Defensive Freshman of the Year, defensive end Aldon Smith, will miss the game with a fractured fibula.
Smith had 11.5 sacks last year, including three against Colorado, and leads the team with three sacks in 2010 (despite missing the game against Miami (Ohio) on Sept. 25.
Also out of action is top defensive line reserve Jimmy Burge, suspended this week after being arrested during the bye week for driving with alcohol.
Safety Jasper Simmons, fourth-leading tackler in 2009, has also been suspended and will not play against Colorado.
Colorado fans will long remember sitting anxiously in the final minutes of the game against Georgia, watching the Bulldogs move into position for a game-winning field goal.
Even though Georgia was only at the Colorado 27-yard line, the game seemed well in hand for the Bulldogs, as 2009 Lou Groza finalist Blair Walsh was on the sideline, warming up.
Walsh didn't get his chance to kick the game-winner, though, as B.J. Beatty forced a fumble to save the Buffs.
If the Colorado/Missouri game comes down to a similar situation, Buff fans will again have every reason to be nervous.
Last season, junior Grant Ressel set an NCAA record for accuracy, hitting on 65-of-66 overall attempts, including 26-of-27 field goals.
In 2010, Ressel has picked up where he left off, hitting on eight-of-nine field goal attempts.
I - Intangibles
There are three large elephants in the room as Colorado faces Missouri.
The first is Colorado's woeful road record overall; the second is the Buffs' awful record against Missouri under Dan Hawkins.
The Buffs' road record speaks for itself: a 12-game road losing streak, dating back to Oct. 22, 2007.
Colorado head coach Dan Hawkins has won 72 games as a Division 1-A head coach, but has exactly two wins on the road against BCS conference teams (both coming in 2007, against Baylor and Texas Tech).
The last time Colorado faced Missouri in Columbia, the Buffs lost a record (a consecutive-game scoring streak which dated back to 1988), along with a good measure of pride, limping home humiliated with a final score of 58-0.
Some might see it as unfortunate that Colorado has to face Missouri after putting together a mild two-game winning streak.
If the Buffs had another home game, the reasoning might be, Colorado would have a chance at another good game, another chance to build some momentum before heading out to face an almost certain defeat.
I see it the other way. The Buffs, if there was another home game this week, might actually, as odd as it may sound, be too complacent (or at least complacent as any team with four straight losing seasons can be).
The last-minute win over Georgia was heady stuff, and the Buffs might suffer from the delusion that they have their multiple problems figured out.
Now, with Missouri on the schedule, the Buffs do not have that luxury. There are no laurels to rest upon. The Buffs need to stay focused.
"We've got to be road warriors," said linebacker Jon Major. "That's what defines a good team. I think this confidence, this swagger from this victory - it won't matter who we play, where we play."
Added quarterback Tyler Hansen, "We've just got to have the home attitude and mentality that we have at Folsom, and we've got to somehow find that when we're on the road."
The third elephant in the room...the legacy of the 1990 fifth-down game, which has a 20th anniversary coming up this week (Wednesday).
Colorado celebrated the 20th anniversary of its national championship last weekend against Georgia. Over 80 players and coaches were on hand for the celebration, and the Buff players were inspired by the presence of the title-holding Buffs.
Now, a week later, the 2010 Buff players are returning to the lowest moment of the 1990 season.
Though the players for Colorado were just as innocent as the Missouri players by the fifth down gaffe of the officials (I certainly invite you to watch the video of the last drive, and see for yourself how the final moments unfolded ... http://www.cuatthegame.com/1990/missouri-the-5th-down-game/), the Colorado players and coaches have been chastised about that game ever since.
The 2010 Buffs have a unique opportunity. Not only does this team have the chance to right the wrong of the 58-0 debacle of 2008, these Buffs have a chance to ride the momentum of the spirited meetings with the 1990 team, and to win perhaps the last game to be played by the Colorado Buffaloes against the Missouri Tigers in Faurot Field.
"They've been beating on us for as long as I've been here," said senior cornerback Jimmy Smith. "I definitely want to go out and win this one...I take it personal. I"m playing with a chip on my shoulder this game. There's no other thought in my head besides beating the Tigers."
It will take just that sort of attitude for the Buffs to have a chance against Missouri this weekend.
P - Preparation/Schedule
Colorado focused all of its energy for the past two weeks on defeating Georgia, with a bye week after beating Hawaii.
Missouri has been idle for the past two weeks, getting ready for Big 12 conference play after cruising through the non-conference portion of its schedule with a 4-0 record.
Missouri was undefeated in non-conference play last season (and for the fifth season in a row), but struggled the rest of the way. The Tigers opened 4-0, but went 4-5 the remainder of the 2009 campaign.
The Tigers in 2010 have yet to leave the state of Missouri to play a game, opening in St. Louis against Illinois, then taking out McNeese State, San Diego State, and Miami (Ohio).
Despite the lackluster list of opponents, Missouri trailed in the second half against both Illinois and San Diego State, and needed a 68-yard touchdown pass with :51 remaining to defeat the Aztecs.
Fresh off of a 51-13 pasting of Miami (Ohio) - in a game in which the Tigers scored :08 seconds in and never looked back - Missouri has had plenty of time to focus on the Buffs ...
... or on Texas A&M.
Missouri will take its first road trip of the season next week to College Station, and Tiger fans (and players) might be forgiven for looking past Colorado and focusing on the 3-1 Aggies.
After all, Colorado has not posed a threat to Missouri in recent memory, and the Buffs have not won a road game since 2007. In August, the schedule looked like a 5-0 start heading into a matchup against Texas A&M...and nothing has changed.
Meanwhile, the Buff players have everything to play for against Missouri. A win in Columbia, followed by two more home games in the friendly confines of Folsom Field? A victory over the Tigers could spell the return of Colorado to relevance in the Big 12.
"The last two games against Hawaii and Georgia, we had a mentality, an attitude," said quarterback Tyler Hansen. We have to create that somehow. I don't know what it is, but we have to do something different ... If we get out fast and maybe get a couple of scores early, I think we'll be fine."
"We'll see," said Jimmy Smith, "but I think our guys are feeling good about things."
S - Statistics
It's not a secret that Colorado, in putting together a pathetic road record over the past three seasons, have had trouble getting out of the gate. If the Buffs are to have a chance against the Tigers, a first quarter meltdown must be avoided.
This may be difficult against a team which leads the nation in first quarter rushing. In four games, Missouri has had 27 rushing attempts, going for 271 yards - a ridiculous 10.1 yards per attempt average.
The Tigers have also had five touchdowns rushing in the first quarter alone - Colorado has seven rushing touchdowns...total. Needless to say, the Colorado defense, which is ranked 18th in the nationally in rushing defense, must step up early.
Another stat to keep an eye on: penalties. Colorado, even with a well-played, three penalty game against Georgia, still has 31 penalties for 248 yards.
Missouri, meanwhile, has had 26 penalties for 286 yards. In terms of penalty yards per game, Colorado is ranked 82nd; Missouri 105th. May the least penalized team win.
Want more? Check out third downs. Colorado's offense has been efficient on third down conversions, moving the chains at a 50% rate (30-60; 17th in the nation), while Missouri has only stopped the opposition 41% of the time (25-61; 76th in the nation).
On the other side of the ball, Missouri is 67th in the nation in third-down conversion rate (21-53, 39.6%), but the Colorado defense is ranked 13th in the country at stopping its opponents on third down attempts (13-46; 28.2%).
Okay, there is not much to go on for Buff fans. There is no more relevant numbers than 4-0 (Missouri's record against Dan Hawkins) and 177-40 (the combined scores in those four games).
Colorado has one last chance at Missouri as a member of the Big 12.
One last chance at redemption for the 58-0 pasting in 2008.
Every play matters. Every series counts.
Colorado actually goes into Columbia playing with house money. The longer the Buffs stay within a score against the Tigers, the more their confidence will grow.
"This year, we just have to kind of notch it up a little bit more and play at the level that they've been bringing it to us," said senior linebacker (and Big 12 co-Defensive Player-of-the-Week) B.J. Beatty.
Bring it on, Buffs.
You've got nothing to lose.
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