Barnett's Buffs are bowl-eligible, but will they ever return to elite status?
Posted: Wednesday November 17, 2004 2:00PM; Updated: Wednesday November 17, 2004 2:33PM
Gary Barnett has CU contending for the Big 12 North title.
Some questions shouldn't be asked. From the start of the 2004 season, that was the message that coaches, players and members of the Colorado athletic program sent to reporters who were visiting Boulder to write about the Buffaloes. Parties, scandals, investigations were forbidden words, likely to be countered with a stony silence. As the refrain went: "We all just want to move on."
In one of the bigger surprises of the season, Colorado has moved not just onward, but upward as well. With an improbable 64-yard touchdown pass from junior quarterback Joel Klatt to senior receiver Ron Monteilh with five seconds left against Kansas State on Saturday, Colorado has become the dark horse in the Big 12 North title race. That scoring toss sealed a 38-31 victory, the Buffs' second in a row and sixth (one more than '03) for the season, which makes them eligible for a bowl. With a win over Nebraska on Nov. 26, they have a chance to represent the division in the conference championship on Dec. 4.
Two days later, Colorado received more good news, courtesy of a release by the CU chancellor's office. According to the statement, a university audit found no evidence the program had used escorts or strippers to entice football recruits. Although an earlier investigation by a CU board of regents-appointed commission had concluded players did arrange sex, drugs and alcohol for prospects, the recent report further discredited allegations that coaches "knowingly sanctioned" these activities.
While far from representing total redemption for the tarnished program, the recent on- and off-the-field news has made for the most positive week for Colorado football since January, when allegations first surfaced about the Buffs' recruiting practices. Given the media circus in Boulder, not to mention Gary Barnett's enforced leave of absence after he criticized the athleticism of former Buff and alleged teammate-rape victim Katie Hnida in the spring, Colorado was pegged to finish in the bottom half of the Big 12 North. At times this season, when Colorado's offense seemed frozen and the defense had gaping holes up the middle, those expectations seemed appropriate. But in consecutive wins over Kansas and Kansas State, the Buffaloes proved resilient.
For this upward move, Colorado has to give partial credit to a Big 12 North that has been disappointing this season. Kansas State won't be going to a bowl for the first time since '92, while Nebraska, which is undergoing a major offensive overhaul by new coach Bill Callahan, needs one more win to be eligible. But there are signs Colorado is more talented than prognosticators might have thought.
"We knew our defense would improve, and people failed to realize that our offensive line was returning," said Klatt. "We've laid some real eggs this season, but this week we felt like we turned a huge corner."
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But can Colorado turn the corner that takes them from mediocre bowl team to national contender? Can the Buffs pull in blue-chip recruits under a new, university-dictated policy that shortens recruiting visits from 48 to 36 hours and moves up curfew from 1 a.m. to 11 p.m. -- regulations that could diminish prospects' chances "of really hanging out and getting to know the guys," according to freshman linebacker Jordan Dizon?
Barnett, who declined to answer specific recruiting questions, is vague when discussing his hopes for Colorado's immediate future.
"Everyone's got to sit down and figure out what it takes," he said. "With parity, the college football world's not what it was 10 years ago. I'm not saying we have a plan. We have more challenges than most schools, and we have to find that silver lining, whatever cliché you want to use."
Colorado has plenty of silver linings when it comes to recruiting. The Buffs offer a dream campus, impressive facilities, and, off-field troubles notwithstanding, a proud football history. Recruiting under such strict mandates will be the Buffs' primary challenge -- early reports by Rivals.com rank the school 49th in the country in commitments thus far -- but the school has a lot to sell, all NCAA-approved.
"Every man in this program -- coach, player, staff member -- learned two valuable lessons by [the scandals]," Klatt said after practice on Tuesday night. "One, that your actions are going to have an effect. And two, that when you come across a tough situation in life, you can let it get the best of you, or you can stand up, be a man and face it."
An outlook like that is a silver lining in itself.
Sports Illustrated writer-reporter Kelley King covers college football for the magazine and is a regular contributor to SI.com.