ANN ARBOR, Mich. — Michigan and Colorado meet for only the fifth time in the history of the schools’ programs on Saturday at Michigan Stadium. But while many remember Kordell Stewart’s Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook in 1994, which gave the Buffaloes one of college football’s most memorable victories, the programs are in different places.
Colorado began Pac-12 Conference play in 2011 but has struggled to be competitive in the conference in its first five seasons.
Michigan went through a stretch of lean years that tested the identity of the program, before the hire of Jim Harbaugh at the end of 2014.
Brian Howell, who covers Colorado for Buffzone.com, offers some insight on the 2-0 Buffaloes. You can read more of Brian’s work and more on the Buffs here.
Follow Brian and his coverage on Twitter: @brianhowell33
Q. Are we finally seeing a turnaround at Colorado? Since 2011, they’ve been in the Pac-12 basement and haven’t won more than four games in a season.
Howell: No question, this team is much better than it’s been at any point since joining the Pac-12. Of course, they still need to show it on the scoreboard, but this team is more equipped to handle the Pac-12. The talent level has increased dramatically, the attitude is different and the work they’ve put in during the past couple of offseasons really shows. You always hear “bigger, stronger, faster,” and it applies to this team. This year’s squad also had a lot of really good leaders. Given all of that, I’d be surprised if this isn’t their best year since joining the Pac-12.
Q. What are Colorado’s expectations for this season, and what will they gain from playing Michigan?
Howell: Considering the growth they’ve made as a program under coach Mike MacIntyre, and the fact that this is their largest group of upperclassmen in 15 years, they expect big things. The players are not shy about publicly stating their goal of being Pac-12 champions. It’s a lofty goal, but it’s one they truly believe they can achieve. In my opinion, this game against Michigan will tell us — and them — if they really have the ability to compete with good teams. I don’t think they necessarily need to win this game to prove to people they are a better team, but this game will be a good barometer for where the program sits right now.
Q. Colorado entered the week leading the nation in total defense (160.5 yards) — what can that be attributed to?
Howell: For one, they have really good players on defense. Their secondary, led by corner Chidobe Awuzie and safety Tedric Thompson, is one of the best in the Pac-12, and they are much more stout up front. They’ve got a ton of experience back on defense this year, and it shows. They’ve also got a really good defensive coordinator in Jim Leavitt. He completely changed the attitude of that defense when he came in last year. Players love playing for him, and he’s put them in positions to succeed.
Q. Who is one player on offense and one player on defense Michigan needs to pay attention to when it faces Colorado?
Howell: On defense, it’s definitely Awuzie, who is the best player on this team. He is one of the most underrated players in the country, in my opinion, but I think he’s a guy that’ll get picked early in the 2017 NFL Draft. He’s a bit like Michigan’s Jabrill Peppers, in that they’ll use him all over the field and he’ll make plays in a variety of ways. Offensively, it’s a bit cliché to go with the quarterback, but Sefo Liufau is the main man on that side of the ball. He’s CU’s all-time leading passer and he’s off to a great start this year. He’s a big quarterback (6-foot-4, 230 pounds) who has a strong arm and can hurt teams with his legs. They run a lot of read option, and he’s already got 120 yards, averaging 6.0 yards per carry.
Q. Do people in Boulder/Colorado fans still talk about the “Miracle at Michigan” — Kordell Stewart’s Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook in 1994 in Ann Arbor? And how seminal of a moment do you think that is in college football? (OK, that’s six questions!)
Howell: Obviously when a game like this is on the schedule, people are talking about it. It was one of the great moments in CU football history, so a trip back to the Big House evokes those memories. Players on the team have seemed disinterested in talking about it this week, though. I think they are more interested in trying to win this game, rather than talking about that game. As for college football in general, I don’t think it was a seminal moment. It was one of many great and phenomenal plays in college football history, but certainly is a bigger moment for CU than for the sport in general.