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Buffs History In A Fictional 12-Team Playoff

Jun 15, 2021

BOULDER-An Alabama-Clemson-like rivalry with … Miami?  No CU-Notre Dame bowl matchups? A 1994 rematch with Nebraska?  A greater potential for three (if not four or even five) National Championships?  A 2016 rematch in the Big House?  These are all scenarios that could've happened had the 12-team format proposed by the CFP working group been the norm in college football over the past 75-80 years.  

And with that recommendation from the CFP working group to the CFP management committee to potentially move to a 12-team playoff, we thought we'd look back in CU history to figure out when the Buffs would've been part of the playoffs.  Is this 100 percent accurate?  Absolutely not.  Just some fun thoughts as we await the 2021 season with fall camp just over 50 days away. 

For the purposes of this, we will abide by the theory that the top six ranked conference winners get an automatic bid and the next six highest ranked teams will fill out the bracket.  The top four seeds will be the top four ranked conference winners.  We will also use the AP poll at the end of the regular season (not the final poll) to determine each season's seeds.  Certainly there were more conferences before consolidation and power conferences became the norm, but we'll still use that method for purposes here, and most of the seasons the Buffs would've made it, the number of conferences wouldn't have made a huge difference other than seeding. 

One other issue is many teams over the years were still ranked highly but on probation and a postseason ban.  We won't speculate or go down that rabbit hole.  Lastly, we will look at the Buffs from 1948 on, just after World War II and when the Buffs moved away from the Mountain States Conference and joined what was then known as the Big Seven, perhaps one of the most important moves that led the Buffs into a Power 5 conference today.  

Prior to 1948, there are certainly teams to consider, in fact the Buffs won 19 conference championships prior to 1948, including the Colorado Football Association in 1894, 1895, 1896, 1897, 1901, 1902, 1903 and 1908, the Colorado Faculty Athletic Conference in 1909, the Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference in 1911, 1913, 1923, 1924, 1934, 1935 and 1937; and the Mountain States Conference in 1939, 1943 and 1944.  Perhaps the best chance of the Buffs making a run in that era was the Byron White led team of 1937, and while that team peaked at No. 16 in the AP poll, certainly having the player that finished second in the Heisman voting and being undefeated at 8-0 at the end of the season would've garnered merit for a 12-team playoff had that system been in place at the time.

That said, we'll focus on the post 1948 teams and begin our discussion there.  

The last sidenote is the 1956 team that certainly made noise nationally, finishing 7-2-1, forcing No. 1 Oklahoma to score 21 unanswered points in the second half to beat the Buffs, beating Nebraska 16-0 and topping Clemson in the Orange Bowl, 27-21 for the school's first bowl win.  That team finished second in the Big 7 and should've been ranked higher than the No. 20 final ranking.   Whether or not in a playoff mindset or perhaps an east coast bias that's bigger than today's, the 1956 team would've been the first that Buff fans were thinking playoffs even though it may not have happened.


The 1961 team is the first team that would've been a lock for a 12-team playoff.  The Buffs were Big 8 champs at 8-1 and ranked No. 6 in the final regular season AP poll.  The Buffs would've been the No. 4 seed that season behind Alabama (No. 1), Ohio State (No. 2) and Texas (No. 3).  The other seeds would've been LSU (No. 5), Mississippi (No. 6), Minnesota (No. 7), Michigan State (No. 8), Arkansas (No. 9), Missouri (No. 10) and while the AP poll only went 10 deep that season, likely Penn State and Rutgers would've rounded out the final two spots as the top two receiving votes in that poll. 

The Buffs would've had the bye and played the winner of LSU and Rutgers.  The Tigers were ranked No. 3 in the poll but second in the SEC behind Alabama.  Ironically, the Buffs did face LSU that season, falling to the Tigers 25-7 in the Orange Bowl.  Known for its defense, the 1961 team went into Lincoln and held the Huskers to zero first downs in a 7-0 win and also rallied from a 19-0 deficit to beat Kansas 20-19 in week two.  That team also traveled to Miami and beat the Hurricanes 9-7.  That game didn't mean a ton at the time but in our fictitious world would be a foreshadowing of things to come.


Exactly one decade later would've been the Buffs second appearance in the playoff, and while the 1971 team finished third in the Big Eight, they also finished third in the final AP poll, still the only time the top three teams from one conference finished 1-2-3 in the final AP poll.   The Buffs moved up to No. 3 from No. 7 after beating Houston in the Bluebonnet Bowl.  

The seeding that season would've been (1) Nebraska, (2) Alabama, (3) Michigan, (4) Arizona State (5) Oklahoma, (6) Auburn, (7) Georgia, (8) Colorado, (9) Tennessee, (10) Penn State, (11) LSU and (12) Texas.  The Buffs would've needed to beat Tennessee for the right to play Nebraska for the second time in the quarterfinals.  The Buffs opened the 1971 season by beating LSU on the road and two weeks later went into Columbus and beat Ohio State to burst onto the national scene.  

At Nebraska that season, the Buffs fell 31-7, but on a neutral surface in the quarterfinals, who knows what would've happened with the likes of Charlie Davis (1,386 rushing yards) and Cliff Branch (11 total TDs) leading the charge.  Now, had the Buffs got past Nebraska in the quarterfinals, they still would've had to likely beat either Arizona State or Oklahoma in the semifinals and potentially seen Alabama or Michigan in the title game.  Given how the season ended, this CU team is probably the first that fans would've considered national championship contenders, and how the team played that season, anything could've happened in a December run. Fun to think about, but about the only thing we can say for sure is that it's unlikely the Big Eight would've had the top three spots in the final poll that season in a playoff format.  A small concession for a potential run at a national title.


The 1975 team would've given the Big Eight three playoff teams for the second time in five seasons, as the Buffs sat at No. 10 in the final regular season AP poll with a 9-2 record.  Colorado moved into the AP poll at No. 19 after a 3-0 start and then actually moved up six spots despite losing to Oklahoma 20-19 in week 4.  A setback at Nebraska left the Buffs third in the Big Eight but still in the top 10 nationally by season's end. 

Seeding that season would've been (1) Ohio State, (2) Texas A&M, (3) Oklahoma and (4) Alabama for the byes with (5) Michigan, (6) Nebraska, (7) Arizona State, (8) Penn State, (9) Texas, (10) Colorado, (11) UCLA and (12) Georgia rounding out the field.  The Buffs would've faced Arizona State in the first round, the then WAC champions were 11-0, but the Buffs could've potentially given the Sun Devils some fits.  There were two common opponents that season.  The Sun Devils struggled against Wyoming, beating the Cowboys 21-20 at home in November while the Buffs handled Wyoming 27-10 early in the season.  The Sun Devils did beat Nebraska in the Fiesta Bowl that season while the Buffs had their worst game of the season against the Huskers, losing 63-21 in Lincoln.  If the Buffs would've topped the Sun Devils, they would've faced off against Texas A&M in the quarterfinals. 


The 1976 Buffs would've given CU its first back-to-back appearance in the playoffs on the strength of a Big Eight Championship.  CU, Oklahoma and Oklahoma State were all 5-2 in league play that season, but the Buffs beat both the Sooners (42-31) and Cowboys (20-10) that season.  

Seeding would've been (1) Michigan, (2) USC, (3) Maryland, (4) Georgia, (5) Pittsburgh, (6) Houston, (7) UCLA, (8) Oklahoma, (9) Texas Tech, (10) Texas A&M, (11) Ohio State and (12) Colorado.  

Despite beating Oklahoma and being named Big Eight champions, the Buffs would've been seeded lower than Oklahoma, who was ranked No. 8 in the AP poll.  Who knows how the computers would've ranked teams, but this would've been the Buffs hardest path to the national championship game yet, having to play at Pittsburgh in the first round.  Pitt was the top ranked team at 11-0 but an independent so not qualified for one of the top four seeds.  Had the Buffs beat Pitt, they would've then faced Michigan, ranked No. 2 in that AP poll, in the quarterfinals and theoretically could've had to beat the top four teams in the AP poll to win a title, an anomaly only available because of the top four seeds being conference champions rule.

Still, the Buffs could've given any team a tough game, with Tony Reed leading the way with 1,210 rushing yards, Jim Kelleher scoring 15 total touchdowns and Brian Cabral leading the defense with 88 total tackles that season.  The 1970s saw the Buffs have more NFL players than any team nationally, and with that kind of talent it wouldn't have been out of the question for a playoff run or two regardless of the seedings.


In 1986, the Buffs beat Nebraska 20-10 and the dominance of CU under coach Bill McCartney had planted its first seed. Did Buff fans actually believed in three short years, the Buffs would burst back into the playoff scene for the first time in 13 years by earning the top seed in the field? Probably not, but certainly some dreamed of such a scenario that easily could've been a reality. 

It's hard to imagine the 1989 season not playing out differently had there been a playoff under the current rules.  While on paper CU was No. 1 and Notre Dame No. 4 in the AP poll to determine seeding, those two likely wouldn't have played each other and it wouldn't have worked out that way as two independents (Miami and Notre Dame) finished in the top four and the fourth-highest conference champion was Arkansas at No. 10 in the poll.  

The seeding would've been (1) Colorado, (2) Michigan, (3) Alabama, (4) Arkansas, (5) Miami, (6) Notre Dame, (7) Florida State, (8) Nebraska, (9) Tennessee, (10) Auburn, (11) Illinois and (12) USC. 

The Buffs would've played the winner Nebraska and Tennessee in the quarterfinals and then potentially Miami or Arkansas in the semifinals and would not have been on the same side of the bracket as Notre Dame.  Miami, who was No. 2 in the final poll but an independent, would've been a good semifinal match up, but at 11-0 after one of the most dominant regular seasons in college football history and with some of the best college football players in history on both side of the ball, had the Buffs easily get past Miami for a potential championship game matchup with Michigan, Notre Dame or Florida State in the title game.  


The Buffs would've earned the top overall seed for the second straight season in 1990.  Despite starting the season 1-1-1, Colorado was 10-1-1 by regular season's end had 79 more points in the final poll than did 10-0-1 Georgia Tech.  One thing that would've happened for sure in 1990 is the coaches poll wouldn't have been able to pick one team over the other, or it wouldn't have mattered and the two teams potentially would have decided the game on the field. 

Seeding would've been (1) Colorado, (2) Georgia Tech, (3) Texas, (4) Washington, (5) Miami, (6) Notre Dame, (7) Florida State, (8) Penn State, (9) Houston, (10) Tennessee, (11) Florida State and (12) Michigan.  The Buffs would've played the winner of Penn State and Houston in the quarterfinals and then likely Washington, Miami or Michigan in the semifinals.  Notre Dame again would've been on the other side and not faced the Buffs until the championship game.   And had CU-Miami again taken place, building that across-nation rivalry, think of the 1993 game at Folsom Field and the intensity it brought had the Buffs knocked off the Canes in the playoffs in both 1989 and 1990, not to mention a meeting in 1961 with potentially more to come in 1994 and 2001.  

And had the 1989 team won the title, would the 1990 team have done what it did?  Who knows, we'll say yes, because this is our fantasy.  Still with some of the most famous names in CU lore on both sides of the ball, the Buffs had the talent to pull off the back-to-back title run. 


The 1991 season may have been a disappointment under the current rules.  Would the Buffs have gone away from the triple option after winning back-to-back titles with Darian Hagan at the helm?  Or would Coach Mac have let Hagan have one more ride trying to get a third title with one of the best QB's in college football history?  As it turned out, the Buffs did win the Big Eight and had a 8-2-1 record in the final poll, CU was ranked No. 15 and was the seventh conference champion in the poll, likely missing out of the playoffs.  But aside from a change of offense, why we think the 1991 team would've made the playoff is the Buffs 19-19 tie with Nebraska.  Nebraska was No. 11 in the final poll and had the Buffs beat the Huskers in OT, certainly they would've been in the top 12.  Also, Nebraska was ranked No. 11 and ahead of the sixth conference champion (Clemson at No. 13).  So while this is pushing fantasy to the farthest, we'll pretend that the Buffs sneak in because of all that.  We know it's as stretch, but m many things have been a stretch over the history of college football.

As it were, in our fantasy, the seeding would've been (1) Miami, (2) Washington, (3) Florida, (4) Michigan, (5) Florida State, (6) Penn State, (7) Iowa, (8) Alabama, (9) Texas A&M, (10) Tennessee, (11) Clemson, (12) Colorado.  And perhaps the Miami rivalry would've grown even bigger had the Buffs knocked off Florida State to face the top ranked Canes in the quarterfinals.  With Darian Hagan at the helm of the offense, and the defense led by Greg Biekert, Chad Brown and Co., anything could've happened, especially with a rivalry factor with Miami factored in.


With Colorado's transition to a pro-style offense in season two and complete, the 1992 team would've given the Buffs four straight playoff appearances.  The seeding this season would've been (1) Miami, (2) Alabama, (3) Florida State, (4) Texas A&M, (5) Notre Dame, (6) Syracuse, (7) Michigan, (8) Georgia, (9) Washington, (10) Colorado, (11) Nebraska, (12) N.C. State.  

Colorado would've matched up against Michigan in Ann Arbor two years before the Miracle at Michigan in the 7-10 matchup for the right to play Alabama in the quarterfinals.  Michigan was undefeated heading into the playoffs but had three ties at 8-0-3.  A young Colorado team featured many weapons on offense including Kordell Stewart, Rashaan Salaam, Lamont Warren, Michael Westbrook, Charles Johnson, and a lot of good talent on defense including Greg Biekert, Ted Johnson, Chad Brown, Ron Woolfork, Deon Figures, Chris Hudson and more.  Perhaps the young Colorado team could've made a run just two years removed from  back-to-back titles. 


We're not giving the 1993 team a playoff appearance, as the Buffs finished 7-3-1 in the regular season and were ranked No. 17 in the final regular season AP poll.  But, one loss was at home against Miami, a heated affair that included a bench clearing brawl, and another was a 16-16 tie at K-State.  In the real world, OT wasn't around until 1996, but in a playoff bracket there can't be ties so it would be hard to imagine in a playoff system where OT wasn't put in place earlier than 1996.  Had the Buffs won at Manhattan in OT, they may have snuck in.  And who knows how the Miami game may have been different at Folsom Field had both teams met multiple times the previous few years.  Nonetheless, we'll say this season broke the streak, but not for long.


After not making the playoffs for the first time in five years the previous season, the Buffs enter the 1994 playoffs as a potential favorite, fielding a team where nearly every starter enjoyed a lengthy NFL career and what many Buff fans argue was the most talented team in program history.  Regardless, the Buffs would've been able to meet the Huskers for the second time to potentially settle the score off a regular season defeat in Lincoln.  

The Buffs were ranked No. 4 but would've been the No. 5 seed, as (1) Nebraska, (2) Penn State, (3) Miami and (4) Florida take the top four spots as conference champions.  Behind the Buffs in fifth would've been (6) Alabama, (7) Florida State, (8) Texas A&M, (9) Auburn, (10) Colorado State, (11) Kansas State and (12) Oregon.  After the Buffs beat the Ducks, they match up against Florida in the quarterfinals before getting their second chance at Nebraska in the semifinals and likely facing Penn State or Miami in the championship game.  Getting a rematch with Nebraska would've been a huge motivation to beat Oregon and Florida and after beating the Huskers, the Buffs roll to three titles in the past five years over either Penn State or Miami, we'll say Miami just for the sake of our new fictitious rival with the Canes. 


The Rick Neuheisel era begins with the program's sixth playoff appearance in the last seven seasons, and the Big Eight comes up with a third of the playoff field and is undoubtedly the best league in the country this season.  And with four teams from the Southwest Conference joining with the eight from the Big Eight to form the Big 12, that made the number five with Texas also in the mix.  

The seeding is (1) Nebraska, (2) Florida, (3) Northwestern, (4) Florida State, (5) Ohio State, (6) Tennessee, (7) Notre Dame, (8) Colorado, (9) Texas, (10) Kansas State (11) Kansas, (12) Oregon.  Colorado faces off with Texas in the first round as a preview of things to come in the newly formed Big 12 Conference.  Side note: Would a playoff have changed conference realignment or made it happen sooner?  Given a lot of power teams were independent (Miami, Penn State, Florida State), it's hard to imagine it not being different. Would the Buffs have been in the Pac-10 sooner?  Would the Big 12 have even happened?  A story for another time.

We'll say the Buffs beat the Longhorns to officially welcome them to the Big 12 and then get a rematch with the Huskers in the quarterfinals.  The Huskers were undoubtedly a powerful team in 1995 (thanks in a large part to the Buffs dominance the previous decade), winning their second straight title in real life (but not in our playoff world), but a rematch would've pushed the rivalry into an extra gear, especially as the Big 12 started and the Huskers and Sooners rivalry started to fade being in different divisions.  Remember, the Huskers and Buffs didn't meet post-Thanksgiving until after this meeting in quarterfinals, and this meeting in 1995 would've potentially pushed the rivalry into an accelerated mode ahead of the Big 12 formation.  


Neuheisel's second team makes it seven playoff appearances in the last eight years as the 1996 squad powers through the new Big 12 Conference with a 9-2 record (7-1 in conference play) and No. 8 ranking in the final regular season poll with the only season setbacks a loss against Michigan at home and loss at Nebraska to close the regular season. The Buffs moved up to No. 5 after beating No. 9 K-State 12-0 in the penultimate game of the regular season. 

Seeding would've been (1) Florida State, (2) Arizona State, (3) Florida, (4) Ohio State with the first round byes and (5) BYU, (6) Nebraska, (7) Penn State, (8) Colorado, (9) Tennessee, (10) Virginia Tech, (11) Northwestern and (12) North Carolina rounding out the field.  The Buffs would play Tennessee in the 8-9 match-up for the second time in the playoffs and some 25 years after the first such meeting in 1971, but just five after the program's 31-31 tie in the 1990 opener in the Disneyland Pigskin Classic.  Winner of that would get undefeated Florida State in the quarterfinals with both Ohio State and BYU on the same side of the bracket.  


There are two scenarios to look at the 2001 season, the AP poll and the "computer" poll that actually was used that seasons to compute who played in the National Championship game.  We'll use the AP poll for a few reasons.  First, the proposed 12 team field where the top four seeds have to be conference champions validates CU fans arguments about what happened in 2001.  Nebraska should never have been in contention to play Miami in the first place with both Colorado and Oregon winning conference championships while the Huskers didn't even with their division.  Second, it's fictitious, we can pick what we want here. Should Nebraska have been in the playoffs, no doubt, should they have been the No. 2 seed in the playoff system, absolutely not. Perhaps it would've turned out better for the Huskers, they wouldn't have been throttled by Miami after they were throttled by Colorado and perhaps the end of a decades long era of dominant play wouldn't have seen the beginning of its end.  See, silver linings even for the Husker faithful. 

Seeding on the AP poll would've been: (1) Miami, (2) Oregon, (3) Colorado, (4) Florida, (5) Nebraska, (6) Maryland, (7) Illinois, (8) Tennessee, (9) Texas, (10) Oklahoma, (11) Stanford, (12) LSU. 

Buffs get the bye and face the winner of Maryland and Stanford. Still with four of the 12 teams in the field, the Big 12 was clearly the top conference this season. Had the Buffs got by the Maryland/Stanford winner, the Fiesta and Rose Bowl match-ups could've taken place, assuming the Huskers beat Florida State, which may have been a reach.  Regardless, then the winners of those bowls would've met for the title game.  Would the Buffs have fared better against the Ducks in a playoff format vs. the Fiesta Bowl.  We'll say yes, again, our story.  A CU-Miami national title game would've been fun, especially in this fictitious world where the Buffs and Canes have met multiple times in the playoffs in the past dozen years.  There certainly would've been a heightened meaning to the game then just your average Big East-Big 12 match-up. 


After a nearly decade long bowl absence and 15-year stretch out of the playoffs, the 2016 season that was so special would've been even more so with the Buffs qualifying for the 12-team field.  And all the politics that led to a USC team that didn't even win their division going to the Rose Bowl would've been off the table, as well.  USC would've been seeded higher than the Buffs, again despite not even playing in the Pac-12 title game, but the Trojans wouldn't have been a thorn in Buff fans sides because both teams would've made it and three Pac-12 teams in all would've advanced. 

Seeding would've been (1) Alabama, (2) Ohio State, (3) Clemson, (4) Washington, which was the playoff match ups, although Clemson was the two seed and Ohio State the three.  Others: (5) Penn State, (6) Michigan, (7) Oklahoma, (8) Wisconsin, (9) USC, (10) Florida State, (11) Colorado, (12) Western Michigan. 

And how about that?  A return trip to the Big House?  Granted the Buffs didn't have the best ending to the 2016 season, but after being able to mend some wounds after the Pac-12 title game loss, would the Buffs have given Michigan a game?  Prior to Sefo Liufau's departure from the game, the Buffs were leading No. 4 Michigan in week three.  How would it have played out, with the winner of that game then going on to face Clemson in the quarterfinals?  Who knows, but the senior-laden team would've been fun to watch in a playoff format.  

Had there been a 12-team playoff for the last 75-80 years, would college football look the same today?  Decidedly not. Can we dream of what it would've been like for the Buffs to win National Championships in 1989, 1990, 1994 and perhaps 1971 and 2001, and maybe another team would've made a Cinderella run through the field.

If nothing else, it's fun to think about.  

Fictional CU All-Time Playoff Results 

Quarterfinals: (4) LSU 28, (5) CU 17

First Round: (8) CU 38, (9) Tennessee 14
Quarterfinals: (8) CU 34, (1) Nebraska 31
Semifinals: (8) CU 39, (5) Oklahoma 35
Championship: (8) CU 47, (2) Alabama 33

First Round: (10) CU 28, (7) Arizona State 24
Quarterfinals: (2) Texas A&M 24, (10) CU 21

First Round: (5) Pitt 34, (12) CU 31

Quarterfinals: (1) CU 42, (9) Tennessee 21
Semifinals: (1) CU 17, (5) Miami 14
Championship: (1) CU 35, (2) Michigan 27

Quarterfinals: (1) CU 42, (8) Penn State 23
Semifinals: (1) CU 39, (3) Miami 27
Championship: (1) CU 55, (2) Georgia Tech 24

First Round: (5) Florida State 35, (12) CU 34

First Round: (10) CU 33, (7) Michigan 31
Quarterfinals: (2) Alabama 31, (10) CU 28

First Round: (5) CU 47, (12) Oregon 14
Quarterfinals: (5) CU 31, (4) Florida State 17
Semifinals: (5) CU 52, (1) Nebraska 49 (3OT)
Championship: (5) CU 37, (3) Miami 31

First Round: (8) CU 39, (9) Texas 37
Quarterfinals: (1) Nebraska 45, (8) CU 42

First Round: (8) CU 31, (9) Tennessee 24
Quarterfinals: (1) Florida State 31, (8) CU 29

Quarterfinals: (3) CU 31, (6) Maryland 14
Semifinals: (3) Colorado 31, (2) Oregon 21
Championship: (3) Colorado 28, (1) Miami 27

First Round: (10) CU 42, (7) Michigan 29
Quarterfinals: (2) Ohio State 31, (10) CU 30