BOULDER, Colo. – A large sign at Folsom Field offers a bold reminder that the Colorado Buffaloes were national champions in 1990.
These days, though, the Buffaloes are coming off back-to-back losing seasons, and the days of national prominence and dominance are gone.
While a new day isn't here yet, after Thursday night's 17-14 overtime victory over No. 21 West Virginia, the Buffaloes are 3-0 and look to be on the rise.
"Nobody wants to be close, but we're a lot closer than people think and realize," third-year Colorado coach Dan Hawkins said. "You win a couple of games, you get a little bit of confidence, you catch fire and it's on. I do think all of these guys are sold on how we lift, how we discipline, how we practice and what we ask of them.
"We're definitely going in the right direction, and I think we're getting really, really, really close. If this group keeps hanging together and doing things right, we'll have some things to say by the end of the season."
They made a bold statement with the victory over West Virginia, which crushed Big 12 champion Oklahoma 48-28 in last season's Fiesta Bowl. West Virginia features quarterback Pat White and running back Noel Devine, two of the most explosive players in college. They combined for 281 rushing yards against the Buffaloes, but only reached the end zone twice.
The Buffaloes also came up with some big stops – the biggest when linebacker Jeff Smart threw Jock Sanders for a 2-yard loss on third-and-1 at Colorado's 4 in overtime. That forced the Mountaineers to settle for a short field-goal attempt, which bounced off the upright.
"They tried to establish the run on us," Smart said. "They definitely got some plays on us. It's like old-school, smashmouth football out there. We knew they were going to run the ball and we just had to rally and stop them.
"We kept them out of the end zone for the most part, and that's what matters."
Colorado might matter in the Big 12 race, too. Beating a ranked opponent – especially one that has been successful as West Virginia in recent seasons – shows the Buffaloes need to be taken seriously in the Big 12 North.
"It was good to get a 'W' against a team of their caliber," free safety Ryan Walters said. "It just shows we can match up against anybody, and when we stick to our game, we can do great things."
How great remains to be seen.
Colorado is replacing both of last year's starting cornerbacks, and the Buffs entered Thursday night's game ranked 91st in the nation in pass defense. And that was after facing Colorado State and Eastern Washington.
They could glean encouragement from limiting West Virginia to 43 yards passing and a long completion of just 18 yards, but that only goes so far. Derailing West Virginia's pedestrian passing attack is one thing. Containing Big 12 quarterbacks is quite another.
That makes contending for a Big 12 championship this season seem a bit too ambitious for Colorado. Rather, 2009 would appear to be when the Buffs will be ready to seriously challenge for a conference championship.
Hawkins assembled a 2008 recruiting class ranked No. 15 in the nation. The group was led by heralded running back Darrell Scott, who rushed for 35 yards on 10 carries against WVU. But Scott has been overshadowed by fellow freshman Rodney Stewart, who sliced through the Mountaineers' defense for 166 yards.
"You have seen glimpses of him and you knew that was coming," Hawkins said. "You never know when those freshmen are going to grow up, but you know it's going to happen because they have too much talent not to."
Hawkins has a lot more young talent, too.
The Buffaloes have seven non-senior offensive starters. That includes two freshmen and sophomore quarterback Cody Hawkins. The coach's son threw two touchdown passes against WVU. Colorado also has five non-senior starters on defense.
The future looks good in Boulder. But Hawkins sees players buying into his system and philosophies and believes the future could be closer than some might think.
"That's what you live for; when that light bulb comes on and they start connecting the dots on how you win football games, graduate, have this magical existence and how it all comes together," he said. "That's the cool thing, when a guy takes something away from this thing bigger than just winning a football game."
That's probably true. But on Friday morning, the win over West Virginia was big enough.