Colorado is one victory away from finishing a worst-to-first season.
If the ninth-ranked Buffaloes (9-2, 7-1) can defeat visiting No. 21 Utah in the final game of the regular season in Boulder on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, FOX), they will win the Pac-12 South, just one year after finishing last with a 1-8 conference mark.
A victory by Utah (8-3, 5-3) means USC advances to the conference title game. The Trojans have finished league play at 7-2 and hold the head-to-head tiebreaker against Colorado.
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“We are very happy to be in the position that we are in,” said Buffaloes quarterback Sefo Liufau. “We're very happy to be able to go out there and grind one out and get a good win.”
Colorado had lost 23 consecutive games to ranked foes before defeating No. 20 Washington State 38-24 last Saturday.
“We have something called the gold games and we have gold bricks,” running back Phillip Lindsay said. “So any time we beat a ranked team, we get a gold brick. This is our first time since we've been ranked that we get a gold brick so it's a pretty big deal for us. We're excited and we're happy and we have to continue to ride this wave and get ready for the next game.”
Utah was also in contention for the South title until it was upset 30-28 at home to Oregon on Saturday. The Utes will have to be on guard against an emotional letdown.
“It's a concern when you have an emotional game like that and it ends like it did with so much disappointment,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham.
“There was a lot of frustration in our locker room, which was different than after the UW game (a 31-24 loss), where there was a lot of anger. This was frustrating. There is concern, but this team has shown the ability all year long to bounce back and play well, so we expect that.”
Two of Utah's seniors reached milestones last Saturday — defensive Hunter Dimick set the program's career sack record with 29, and Joe Williams became the 13th Utah player to rush for at least 1,000 yards in a season — despite missing five games due to a temporary retirement.
When asked about the achievement, all that Williams could say is: “Colorado.”
Colorado and Utah joined the Pac-12 in 2011, but the “Rumble in the Rockies” — something of a forced rivalry between the schools — has never been for much in terms of real stakes. The Utes have been in contention for the South title late in the season, but the Buffaloes won a mere five conference games in their first five seasons.
Colorado, which is 9-2 overall for the first time since 2001, has surged this season behind a veteran team and the steady play of Liufau. He became the second player in school history to throw for 300 yards and run for 100 when he had 345 passing yards and 108 rushing yards with three scores in the win over Washington State.
The Buffaloes have no obvious week links.
They can run the ball — Phillip Lindsay has 1,051 rushing yards and a Pac-12 high 15 rushing touchdowns — and they have the top-rated defense in the conference (322.4 yards per game allowed) and yields only 18.5 points per game, second in the league. Colorado has a plus-8 turnover margin on the season; linebacker Jimmie Gilbert has forced five fumbles.
Utah counters with a stout defensive line, led by Dimick and defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei, a first-round NFL Draft prospect. Marcus Williams is one of the nation's top free safeties. But the Utes still allowed Oregon to run for 251 yards, while being burned for 324 passing yards by Ducks freshman quarterback Justin Herbert.
Offensively, the Utes rely on Joe Williams and quarterback Troy Williams, who has thrown for 14 touchdowns with only five interceptions. He was solid last week in the loss to Oregon, going 20-of-30 for 235 yards, including a 30-yard touchdown pass. He also tallied 40 yards on 10 carries.
Utah has won the last four in the series but can only be a spoiler as Colorado looks to go 6-0 at home and win the Pac-12 South.
“Our young men are performing well under pressure,” coach Mike MacIntyre said. “They don't get stressed out.”