By Arnie Stapleton, AP sports writer
ENGLEWOOD — Just like last year, Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre has declared that the Buffaloes’ goal is to play in the Pac-12 title game.
Only this time, nobody laughed.
A year ago, the Buffaloes were picked as cellar dwellers in the Pac-12 South and instead finished first, going 8-1 in league play before getting walloped by Washington in the conference championship.
The Buffs, who watched nine players leave for NFL training camps this summer, were picked to finish fourth this year, behind favorite USC, Utah and UCLA.
“We have a lot to prove,” MacIntyre said. “We’re still a team that people don’t believe in, and we’d like for people to believe in us. And the only way you do that is to put back-to-back-to-back things together. That’s what we plan on doing.”
His aims are actually higher than 2016, when the Buffs went 10-4 and earned their first bowl berth since 2007 .
“What we want to do is be in the Pac-12 championship game and not get our brains beat in like we did last year,” MacIntyre said. “So, we’d like to finish it better.”
The Buffaloes lost to Washington 41-10 and four weeks later were thumped 38-8 by Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl.
Fizzling at the finish, however, didn’t diminish the Buffaloes’ bounce-back season, their first winning campaign since 2005 under Gary Barnett.
What it did was provide them with fresh incentive for 2017 behind tailback Phillip Lindsay, whose 16 TD runs led the league last year, and outside linebacker Derek McCartney, grandson of Buffs coaching great Mike McCartney.
“They’ve been the backbone of our program as players and as characters,” MacIntyre said.
The Buffaloes are also led by sophomore quarterback Steven Montez, who played in 10 games as a freshman and went 2-1 as Colorado’s starter, beating Oregon and Oregon State and losing at USC, 21-17.
“I definitely believe we’re a good enough team to win the Pac-12,” MacIntyre said. “That’s our goal. We’ll see what happens from there. But we’ve got to go do it. You can’t just say it. You’ve got to work at it. Our kids are excited. They’re a good football team. We have a lot of good depth and good football players coming back.”
MacIntyre expects a more explosive offense to make up for a defense that isn’t quite as stingy.
“I don’t know how many games we’ll be favored in or that type of thing, but I think we can beat everybody we play,” MacIntyre said. “We’ve just got to find a way to do it.”
Defensive guru gone
The Buffaloes lost defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt to Oregon, which offered him more money, after last season and he’s been replaced by D.J. Eliot.
“When he told me how much he was making, I said, ‘Why are you even sitting here? Move on,'” MacIntyre recounted. “I hated to lose him, but D.J. Eliot ran the exact same defense at Kentucky. Kentucky made big strides here over the last year.”
Although the Buffs lost DBs Tedric Thompson, Ahkello Witherspoon and Chidobe Awuzie to the NFL, they have plenty of star power in linebackers McCartney and Rick Gamboa, cornerback Isaiah Oliver and safeties Ryan Moeller and Afolabi Laguda.
Better on offense
Even without longtime QB Sefo Liufau, “I think we’ll be excellent on offense,” MacIntyre said. “We have our best offensive line we have. We have an exceptional receiving corps. We have a great running back. We have young quarterbacks that we feel are very talented … So, I feel we’ll probably win a little different way early. Instead of maybe 24-10 or 17, hopefully it will be more like 42-25 or 28 or something like that.”
Colorado State opener on Sept. 1: Always a yardstick. Washington, Sept. 23: The Buffs jump right into Pac-12 action against the Huskies at Folsom Field. USC, Nov. 11: If all goes well for CU, this game could decide the South Division title.
The barometer of a program’s success is sustainability and the Buffs should at least get to another bowl game this year and show they’re not a one-year wonder.