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The Colorado Buffaloes are college football’s 2016 dream-season team

There’s a loose script to this kind of a miracle turnaround. After being picked to finish last in their division and then winning it anyway, the Buffs have only a few pages left to write.

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Utah v Colorado Photo by Justin Edmonds/Getty Images

It happens every year. That we didn’t expect it makes it even more alluring.

College football is mostly staid and oligarchical, with a well-defined ruling class and continuity atop the rankings. This is the case even when Alabama isn’t establishing a damn dynasty.

The top seven in the preseason AP poll were Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma, Florida State, LSU, Ohio State, and Michigan. Thirteen weeks into the season, Alabama, Ohio State, Clemson, Michigan, and Oklahoma still rank seventh or better, and FSU is 12th. The top usurper is No. 4 Washington, which began way down at ... 14th.

Washington appears to be well positioned for a spot in the College Football Playoff if the Huskies can win Friday night’s Pac-12 title game.

But as predictable as this sport may be, UW’s next opponent is a reminder of the other college football.

Most of us aren’t fans of a top team. Most don’t have memories of countless championships. For many of us, the defining moment of our fandom comes from something we never saw coming.

From 2009-12, Colorado went 10-36. From 2013-15, the Buffaloes went 10-27. This once-proud program produced five top-10 finishes in an eight-year span from 1989-96 and nearly reached the BCS Championship in 2001, but hadn’t been to a bowl since 2007 or had a winning season since 2005. A generation of young CU fans had no memory of success. Attendance hadn’t averaged over 40,000 since 2012.

Head coach Mike MacIntyre was building toward a third-year breakthrough in 2015, but his Buffs were obliterated by injury and went just 4-9, falling from 77th to 98th in S&P+. They were unlucky from a turnovers perspective, they lost a lot of close games, their starting quarterback was hobbled, and their two-deep at linebacker and defensive back was a smoking crater.

In 2016, they got healthy.

The injuries that hurt in 2015 had created depth for 2016.

The Buffaloes fielded one of the most experienced two-deeps in the country.

Second-year defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt finally had the pieces.

But we could only see it in hindsight. It was the Buffs’ turn to make a run. And they checked every box on the dream season checklist along the way.

The spring optimism

NCAA Football: Southern California at Colorado
Sefo LIufau missed the last portion of 2015 with a foot injury.
Chris Humphreys-USA TODAY Sports

With injured players working their way back into the fold, CU suddenly had exciting options at linebacker on the first and second string, and with starting cornerback Ahkello Witherspoon still working back toward 100 percent, sophomore Isaiah Oliver got reps with the first string.

Quarterback Sefo Liufau was still on the sideline. The senior from Tacoma had thrown for 3,200 yards with 28 touchdowns in 2014 but slumped to 2,418 and nine in 2015. His season ended early against USC, and neither Cade Apsay nor Jordan Gehrke took advantage with the first string.

In 2016, however, he was going to get a push. Not only was Texas Tech graduate transfer Davis Webb scheduled to arrive that summer, redshirt freshman Steven Montez was making waves with the first string. Webb would choose California instead; he would throw for 4,295 yards and 37 touchdowns.

Liufau would return healthy in the fall, but when he got hurt again in late-September, Montez, the spring star, made sure the Buffs only briefly missed a beat. He struggled in a loss to Michigan but completed 71 percent of his passes in explosions against Oregon and Oregon State, and while he couldn’t quite make enough plays in a 21-17 loss to suddenly awesome USC, he steered the ship well enough that CU still controlled its own destiny when Liufau returned.

The fall camp buzz

NCAA Football: Colorado at Stanford
Chidobe Awuzie entered the season as one of CU’s known entities.
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado’s Week 1 depth chart announced this squad was loaded with experience. Nine of 11 spots on defense were filled by juniors and seniors; the only underclassmen were linebacker Rick Gamboa (a starter for part of 2015) and Oliver.

On offense, right guard Tim Lynott Jr. was the only underclassman. Junior veterans like Phillip Lindsay, Bryce Bobo, and Shay Fields were leading at skill positions.

“Retention” is the August watchword. Nineteen of 23 signees from MacIntyre’s first class were still with the program, and they would account for about half of the starting lineup.

"We came here expecting to change everything," all-conference corner Chidobe Awuzie says. "That's the motive behind it. We saw a program that had been great at one time. They'd had a couple down years, but we wanted to take it back to the level of being great.”

Liufau: "The class I came in with, we kind of brought it upon ourselves for this final year to go out there and leave a lasting legacy, a foundation to be built upon. We understand how good we can be. ... We want to be remembered for winning this year."

Plenty of teams develop those talking points as a new season dawns. If you’re not excited about your chances a week before the season, just cancel the season.

Sometimes, however, fate plays out as you envision it.

The statement win

NCAA Football: Colorado State at Colorado
Colorado stiff-armed Colorado State all day in Denver.
Ron Chenoy-USA TODAY Sports

Colorado and Colorado State had alternated wins over the last seven games in the series. The Buffs had narrowly survived in 2015, 27-24.

The 2016 battle isn’t so much a football game as a statement of intent. Alex Kelley scores on a fumble return five minutes in, Liufau and Ross connect for a 17-yard score two minutes later, and the rout is on. The Buffaloes lead 31-0 at halftime, outgain the Rams by a 578-225 margin, and cruise, 44-7.

Liufau completes 23 of 33 for 318 yards, and the game's only drama comes when he is slow to get up after a second-half scramble.

This is the most decisive CU victory in the series since 1956, when Dallas Ward's Buffaloes won 47-7 on their way to an Orange Bowl win.

The Buffaloes don't slow down until Liufau gets hurt. They stomp Idaho State, 56-7, then throw a major scare into fourth-ranked Michigan in Ann Arbor. Liufau and Ross connect for a 37-yard score, then Derek McCartney returns a fumble 18 yards. Colorado leads 21-7 after one quarter, and while Michigan comes back, the Buffs surge ahead in the third quarter on a 70-yard Liufau-to-Fields strike.

Liufau gets hurt, Montez goes 0-for-7, and Michigan eases to a 45-28 win thanks to a Jabrill Peppers punt return score. But this serves as a statement loss to go with the statement win. And Montez rights the ship against the Oregon schools.

The setback

NCAA Football: Colorado at Southern California
USC was one of the only teams to move the ball well on Jim Leavitt’s defense.
Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

Following the wins over Oregon and Oregon State, the Buffs found themselves ranked 21st in the AP, their highest rank since 2003. But as is so frequently the case, their first game as a ranked team results in a setback. Bryce Bobo both throws and catches touchdown passes in the second half to tie USC at 14-14 in the Coliseum.

Alas, USC turnovers are the only reason the game is close; the Trojans lost fumbles three times in CU field position in the first three quarters. With the game in the balance, they slice through the CU defense, driving 70 yards in six plays for a touchdown. CU responds with a field goal to make the deficit 21-17, but USC runs out the clock.

Most dream seasons don’t result in undefeated title runs. There is almost always a setback, and your response defines how far you go.

Colorado decided it wanted to go far. The Buffs pummeled Arizona State, 40-16; then, as offensive injuries mounted, they showed they could grind. They beat defending Pac-12 champion Stanford, 10-5, in California. Then, on a nationally televised Thursday game in Boulder, the tense Buffaloes gutted out a 20-10 win over UCLA.

Needing to win out to hold off USC and Utah in the Pac-12 South race, they scored 35 in the second and third quarters of a 49-24 win at Arizona, and their increasingly nasty secondary held Luke Falk in check in a 38-24 win over Mike Leach’s Cougars.

That set the table for the biggest game in Boulder in 15 years.

The moment

For the first time in more than eight years, Colorado's storied Folsom Field was sold out. A full 52,301 would see if the ninth-ranked Buffaloes could seal the deal.

On Colorado's first drive, Liufau lost a fumble. The second drive was a three-and-out that resulted in a 55-yard Boobie Hobbs punt return touchdown. With a chance to go up 10, Utah missed a 45-yard field goal. Liufau plunged in for a second-effort touchdown on the final play of the first quarter to tie the game.

The second quarter was all about missed opportunities. Drops plagued the Buffs, who twice drove inside the Utah 10 and settled for field goals. Despite outgaining the Utes by 100 yards, they led by only 13-7 at halftime.

The tables turned in the third, with Utah twice settling for chipshot field goals to tie. But once again, CU scored on the final play of the period. Liufau hit Fields in the right corner of the end zone.

Utah returned the ensuing kickoff 93 yards, but Awuzie tracked it down at the 3, preventing a touchdown. On first-and-goal, Jimmie Gilbert wrangled a two-yard loss, then both Witherspoon and Tedric Thompson broke up passes to force a field goal. It was Utah's last chance.

With 11:05 left, Gamboa stripped the ball; leading tackler Kenneth Olugbode scooped it up and took it 10 yards for the touchdown and a 27-16 lead. Utah scored with 1:34 left, but Kabion Ento recovered the onside kick, and the party was on.

Colorado 27, Utah 22. Pac-12 South champs. Scenes.

PAC-12 Championship here we come!!! #cubuffs #boulder #football #therise #buffaloes #colorado

A photo posted by Kristal (@kristales) on

Bring on the Huskies!!! #southdivisionchamps

A photo posted by mike reichenbach (@dangerthechamp) on

The final chapter

1996 Arizona State came within a couple of plays of the national title. So did 2013 Auburn. 1993 Wisconsin, 2000 Oregon State, 2005 Penn State, 2007 Kansas, 2013 Missouri, and 2014 TCU won major bowls. 2001 Maryland and 2006 Wake Forest lost major bowls.

The ending of a dream season doesn’t follow a script. Sometimes it’s great. Sometimes it’s less than great. Sometimes the teams continue, and sometimes it’s a one-off season.

Colorado’s moment in the spotlight has been assured. The Buffs are the 2016 Dream Season team no matter what happens, but they could take this a couple of steps further.

A win over Washington probably wouldn’t get them in the Playoff unless there are some downright chaotic moments, but it would hand them their first Pac-12 crown and nearly assure them of their first top-10 finish since 2001.

But even if the season ends with losses to Washington and a bowl opponent, big-time football has returned to Boulder. Those who stuck it out through a miserable decade of CU football were rewarded with an autumn of bliss. And those who checked out a while ago got to hop back on in time to storm the field.

The dream season is why most of us keep coming back.