A week ago, the Colorado Buffaloes and Washington Huskies both played what amounted to division championship games.
Colorado wasn’t playing a “pure” title tilt, since Utah had no chance to advance to this Friday’s Pac-12 Championship Game, but the reality remained simple for the Buffs: Win and you’re in, lose and stay home. Washington did play a “pure” division championship contest. The winner of the latest Apple Cup got a ticket to Santa Clara, the loser a barren weekend. The Huskies prevailed.
The pressure of those situations was immense for CU and U-Dub, strictly within the confines of this season: Championship games are their own cauldrons of anxiety and aspiration. However, the weight of the moment was magnified in Boulder and Pullman because neither Colorado nor Washington had ever won a Pac-12 division title in football. Last weekend’s games were significant in 2016, but even more meaningful in much larger contexts.
The Buffaloes and Huskies are very happy to be in Santa Clara. Washington is surely feeling very good about itself, given that it played a high-level game when so much of its season — and how it would be remembered — hung in the balance against Washington State.
Counterintuitively, though, the fact that Washington rolled to victory while Colorado labored to an inelegant 27-22 win over Utah shouldn’t necessarily lead observers to assume this will be a straightforward game for Washington.
Colorado could benefit from a pendulum effect that is seen all the time in sports.
Since Levi’s Stadium is the site of the Pac-12 Championship Game, let’s use the San Francisco 49ers’ home ballpark as an example of the pendulum effect.
The Denver Broncos inched past the Pittsburgh Steelers and New England Patriots in two razor-close AFC playoff games this past January. Meanwhile, the Carolina Panthers destroyed the Seattle Seahawks and Arizona Cardinals in two NFC playoff contests. (Seattle mounted a furious second-half rally against the Panthers but never came particularly close to winning, or even tying.)
Based on form or what many in the sportswriting business call “momentum,” the Panthers were supposed to win Super Bowl 50. A significant percentage of those who picked Carolina likely thought the NFC champions would drill the offensively impotent Broncos and noodle-armed Peyton Manning.
We all saw what happened instead — the veteran Broncos rattled Cam Newton. A Denver team which had tasted the bitter pill of defeat in Super Bowl XLVIII two years earlier was able to handle the immensity of the occasion, while the Panthers never found a steady hand or a firm sense of control over the proceedings.
Patterns operate in different ways: Some teams — think 2002 Ohio State — feel a lot of pressure to reach the final showdown but, once there, become liberated by the big stage and the closeness of ultimate triumph. Other teams — think 1993 Florida State (a national champion, but an imperfect one) — breeze through their schedule but, when finally confronted by a tough opponent, lose poise as the Seminoles did versus Notre Dame that season. (Notre Dame, in 1993, conquered Florida State and — immediately upon being thrust into the role of favorite, lost composure against Boston College.)
Pendulum effects exist around every turn.
Colorado could become the beneficiary on Friday.
Though Washington did defeat Washington State by 28 points, this game easily could have been close in the fourth quarter. Washington State twice got stopped on fourth and goal inside the 2. The Cougars also drove inside the 10 on a third possession and threw an interception in the Washington end zone.
Colorado failed to score touchdowns on two separate red-zone trips against Utah. One of its failures came from George Frazier dropping the easiest pass one could imagine, a feathery-soft toss from Sefo Liufau on third and goal. Colorado could have had a much easier time against the Utes, while Washington could easily have been tested by Wazzu — just a few yards and a small number of pivot points turned the Pac-12 South’s defining game into a five-point contest, while the Apple Cup for the Pac-12 North title became a 28-point laugher.
Colorado — which needed four separate red-zone defensive stops to fend off Utah — played with the unsettledness of a team which hadn’t faced severe pressure before. The Buffs play at a high altitude… but not the high metaphorical altitude of a big-stakes Week 13 in a college football season.
Able to escape last week’s crucible, Colorado knows it is playing with house money against Washington. The Buffaloes have already exceeded expectations and made history. Washington owns all the pressure of the moment in Santa Clara.
For Washington, playing a rival — one it usually dominates — brought out U-Dub’s best ball a week ago. That comfort zone won’t exist this Friday night.
College football has been known to produce wild variations in quality from one week to the next.
This is Colorado’s big hope before a date with destiny… and Washington.