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A make-or-break season for Colorado

July 26, 2016

The Buffaloes have finally grown up.

Colorado has struggled since joining the Pac-12, going 3-15 in conference games under Jon Embree (2011-12) and 2-25 with current coach Mike MacIntyre (2013-15).

Entering what figures to be a make-or-break fourth season for MacIntyre, the Buffs return 18 starters. More than half of the roster consists of juniors (34) and seniors (24), upperclassmen who are sick and tired of losing.

Despite the optimism inside Colorado’s opulent new football facility, Colorado was predicted to finish sixth in the South Division in the preseason media poll. The Buffs open the Pac-12 schedule Sept. 24 against Oregon at Autzen Stadium.

“It’s going to take a whole lot of fight,” senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said on the subject of ending Colorado’s nine-year bowl drought. “Every week is going to be a fight. Last year we could have went to a bowl game easy, if we would have finished games.

“We did not finish games, and that’s on us players, not on the coaches. The players have to finish games.”

Colorado had a verbal commitment from Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb throughout the offseason, but the senior quarterback had a change of heart and is expected to be California’s starter this fall.

Three-year starter Sefo Liufau, cleared to play after recovering from a Lisfranc injury to his left foot that ended his 2015 season early, shrugs his shoulder pads about the coaching staff pursuing an insurance policy.

“Whatever is best for the team is how I always kind of looked at it,” Liufau said. “That’s how my dad has raised me. For the most part, it’s a team sport. If you want it to be all about yourself, you can go play golf or tennis or sports like that.”

In 29 career starts, Liufau has completed 62.9 percent of his passes for 7,397 yards with 49 touchdowns and 29 interceptions. He has also rushed for 445 yards and five touchdowns.

MacIntyre was the only coach to bring a quarterback to the Pac-12 media day event in Los Angeles. The 6-foot-4, 230-pound Liufau is the conference’s most experienced signal-caller.

“I think he can be special,” MacIntyre said. “He’s broke 75 records at our school without our team really being as high as he’s been. Now we are. He has the tools surrounding him.”

Liufau loses his favorite target, Nelson Spruce, the Pac-12 record-holder for career receptions (294) and Colorado’s all-time leading receiver (3,347 yards), but Shay Fields, Devin Ross and Bryce Bobo are all reliable options.

Tailback Phillip Lindsay rushed for 653 yards and six touchdowns last year and will be featured even more this fall with the graduation of Christian Powell.

“I think with the experience I have, especially with a lot of seniors in this class, we’ll be able to do some things this year,” Liufau said. “Especially on the offensive side, I take that on myself.”

Colorado’s offensive line returns four starters and adds redshirt freshman Tim Lynott, who could be the best of the bunch. During a summer practice, one of the big guys in the trenches stepped on Liufau’s recently healed foot.

“I was a little scared, but everything went well, I kept practicing after that,” Liufau said. “So I’m pretty excited to go out there and play the game I love again.”

Ten upperclassmen enter fall camp on top of the defensive depth chart, including Awuzie (90 tackles, two interceptions) and senior strong safety Tedric Thompson (80 tackles, three interceptions) in the secondary.

The Buffs have a strong tradition at linebacker, and this year’s group could prove to be a memorable one with the return of Kenneth Olugbode, Addison Gillam, Rick Gamboa, Jimmie Gilbert and Derek McCartney.

Josh Tupou (6-3, 325), who was reinstated by MacIntyre after being dismissed from the team in 2015, will be a handful at the line of scrimmage in Jim Leavitt’s 3-4 defense.

“He’s back doing what he’s supposed to and doing well, he’s going to graduate,” MacIntyre said. “He’ll be a really good nose tackle for us and he’ll be able to sustain for us against the run and also push the pocket.”

Senior placekicker Diego Gonzalez was 18-for-29 on field goals last season, including 2-for-3 from 50 or more yards.

Colorado lost five Pac-12 games by a touchdown or less last season.

“We’ve been here for four years, we’ve been through the struggles, the lows of college football and Pac-12 football,” Awuzie said. “We feel like since we have that under our belt, it’s time for us to win.”

If the Pac-12’s most seasoned group can survive playing four of its first six games outside of Boulder, including a road trip to Michigan, the Buffs should have a chance to play their way into a bowl game in November.

“My freshman year, everyone was scared of great teams. Sophomore year, junior year, we started to see we could play with these teams,” Liufau said. “We know we can beat these teams now. It’s just a matter of going out and proving it. ...

“I don’t just want to play in a 6-6 bowl game, I want to go for it all. If you’re not going for it all, then it’s kind of pointless. You want to go out there and win every game that you play.”