Winning the Pac-12 Championship Would Punctuate Colorado’s Improbable Season

The Buffaloes were the media’s consensus pick to finish dead last in the Pac-12 South Division. Here’s why they now have a shot at a conference title and, perhaps, a playoff berth.

At the 2013 SEC Media Days, Nick Saban delivered a message like only he can. That year, Saban’s talking points included a zinger to media covering college football’s most hyped conference.

You stink at predictions.

To be fair, Saban had a point, and the numbers to back it up. Going into the 2013 season, the SEC media had only correctly predicted the SEC winner 4 times in the last 21 seasons.

Saban famously summarized, “If I was 4-17 as a coach, I'd be back in West Virginia pumping gas at my daddy's gas station.”

The preseason prognostications business is never easy. There will be misses, no doubt. But every now and again, there is a team that emerges, seemingly from thin air, that not only proves everyone wrong but it makes everyone look foolish.

In 2016, that team is the Colorado Buffaloes.

To call their run to the Pac-12 South Division Championship improbable would be like calling Andre the Giant big-boned. In their previous three seasons under head coach Mike MacIntyre, the Buffaloes limped to a 2-25 record in league play.

At Pac-12 Media Days this July, reporters who cover the conference didn’t expect much better. Not a single one of the 33 members of the media voted Colorado to win the South, and the Buffaloes were ranked last -- and by a wide margin.

The media was hardly alone. Of the four major metrics systems I analyzed this preseason, the Buffaloes came in as the consensus 76th-ranked team, behind the likes of Bowling Green, Georgia Southern, and Virginia. ESPN’s Football Power Index (FPI) rated Colorado the highest at 55th. Brian Fremeau’s FEI ranked them 87th.

Today, Colorado is numberFire’s sixth-best team, according to our nERD efficiency rankings, and is ranked in the top 15 by three of the four aforementioned systems.

Here is how MacIntyre’s team made the massive leap into college football’s elite class in 2016 and what may be left in store for the Buffaloes.

Recipe for Success

Colorado has vaulted into the Playoff Selection Committee’s top 10 based on a simple formula: steady on offense and dominant on defense. In fact, Colorado’s defense isn’t just one of the best in the Pac-12 -- it is one of the top units in the entire FBS.

The Buffaloes allow only 18.8 points per game, which is good for 13th in the nation and 9 points per game better than their 2015 performance.

Yards/PlayPoints/GameRZ ScoringTurnovers Created
Colorado D4.6718.869.4%26
FBS Median5.6227.883.7%19

It all starts with the Buffaloes’ ability to stifle the conference’s pass-happy attacks. According to numberFire’s efficiency rankings, Colorado is fourth in the nation against the pass. The Buffaloes currently hold the country’s best yards per attempt rate -- just 5.4 -- along with Ohio State and Michigan.

A key for Colorado is an aggressive, physical defensive backfield which is tops in the FBS in creating “havoc” plays -- forced fumbles, defected and intercepted balls, and tackles for loss. The practical results are Colorado being particularly stingy when opponents get into scoring territory (seventh in the country in points per trip inside the 40-yard line) and in the red zone (fourth in the FBS, yielding scores on just 69.4% on red zone trips).

With the defense keeping opponents out of the end zone, quarterback Sefo Liufau has delivered solid, but not spectacular play. Behind the dual-threat quarterback, the Colorado offense ranks a pedestrian 68th in the nation in yards per play. The offense at times has sputtered a bit because the rushing game is both largely inefficient (88th in yards per carry) and lacks explosiveness (113th in IsoPPP).

But the passing game has been significantly more efficient at 7.9 yards per attempt, even if the big play has not been there consistently. Where the Buffaloes have excelled is on passing downs, where Liufau has Colorado performing at a top-30 level in efficiency.

In short, the Buffaloes’ offense has gotten the team out to leads early, and they turn it over to a superior defense that has repeatedly suffocated opposing offenses when they are forced to pass.

Pac-12 Championship Game

Colorado’s playoff hopes encounter a massive obstacle in the Washington Huskies, who hold the fourth spot in the Playoff Committee’s current rankings.

Look no further than Bill Connelly’s “win expectancy” measurement -- which projects how likely a team is to win based on the game’s key statistics -- to spotlight how dominant Washington has been. In Washington’s 11 wins, the Huskies have had a perfect win expectancy, 100%, in 9 of them. Washington isn’t just winning -- they are running the other team out of the stadium.

Friday night’s Pac-12 Championship will be strength on strength, as Washington’s Heisman hopeful quarterback, Jake Browning, powers a passing game that is both efficient and explosive.

The Huskies do have, however, a clear advantage when facing the Colorado offense. Washington is one of the best-coached teams in the nation, and they may be able to take advantage of the Colorado offense’s penchant to fade late in games.

In fact, according to S&P+, Colorado’s offensive play gets worse with each quarter, from being ranked 25th in the first quarter production to 118th in the fourth. Only 10 teams in the entire FBS have had a worse offense in the 4th quarter this season.

That could be especially problematic against a Washington defense that is among the nation’s best in preventing big plays, stopping opponents in scoring territory, and generating turnovers (+18).

If there is another obvious weakness for Washington to exploit, it is Colorado’s inability to win the field-position battle. The Buffaloes’ special teams are ranked a lousy 117th by ESPN’s FPI, and both the offense and defense fail to break the top 80 in Connelly’s field position metric.

The advanced metrics systems do not like Colorado’s chances against the Huskies. Among numberFire’s, FPI’s, and S&P+’s game projections, none give Colorado better than a 35% win probability.

It’s easy to understand why when you examine the balance Washington possesses -- both the passing and rushing games rank in the top 10 nationally in key efficiency metrics -- and their sizable advantage in special teams.

But if Colorado has taught us anything this year, it’s that projections can and will be wrong.

Playoff Chances

If Colorado can upset Washington, the widely accepted thinking is that MacIntyre and company will need some additional help to get into the playoffs.

If we assume that Alabama and Ohio State are safely in, Colorado’s greatest ally right now is Virginia Tech. If the 10-point underdog Hokies shock the Tigers in the ACC title game, Clemson becomes a huge question mark for the Playoff Selection Committee.

Failing to win a conference championship won’t help Clemson, nor will holding one of the worst losses of any of the playoff contenders: a home defeat to the hands of Pitt.

Win ProbabilitynumberFireESPN FPIS&P+
ACC ChampionClemson 82%Clemson 84%Clemson 80%
Big 12 ChampionOklahoma 82%Oklahoma 73%Oklahoma 70%
Big Ten ChampionWisconsin 61%Wisconsin 53%Wisconsin 51%
Pac-12 ChampionWashington 69%Washington 73%Washington 65%

If Clemson loses, a third playoff spot would almost certainly go to the Big Ten, be it the conference champion -- Penn State or Wisconsin -- or stathead darling, Michigan. A second Big Ten team sneaking into the Final Four would, in theory, leave the Committee choosing among two-loss conference champions Oklahoma (or Oklahoma State), Clemson, and Colorado, to fill the remaining spot, if you assume the Committee will be loath to put in three teams from the Big Ten.

The argument for Colorado is its schedule -- the Buffaloes rank 12th according to FEI, with Oklahoma 41st and Clemson 44th -- and their only two losses came against stiff competition, at Michigan (3rd in nERD) and at USC (10th in nERD).

Colorado would also feature a series of quality wins, including against both Washington schools who are both currently ranked inside numberFire’s top eight.

It’s hardly a clear path, but based solely on the numbers, Colorado would have a compelling case for the Final Four with a Pac-12 championship in hand and a Clemson loss. A playoff berth for the Buffaloes would cap one of the most remarkable turnarounds in the BCS or CFP era.