It’s been a pleasantly surprising fall for the University of Colorado football team. The Buffaloes are off to a 4–1 start, are ranked for the first time in 11 years (No. 21 by the AP; No. 23 by the coaches poll), and have impressive back-to-back wins over Oregon and Oregon State–the program’s first Pac-12 winning streak since joining the conference in 2011.
While there’s little room for contentment given CU’s upcoming Saturday showdown at University of Southern California—against whom the Buffaloes are 0–10 all-time—early indications are that yes, “The Rise” is real in Boulder.
The mantra began as an often-tweeted hashtag by Buffaloes co-offensive coordinator Darren Chiaverini, and now those two words have now come to define the upward trajectory of a program that set lofty goals—a Pac-12 South title and a spot in the conference championship game—heading into 2016. “When I first got hired, I used to tweet about how it was time for the rise of the Buffaloes again,” says Chiaverini, a former CU wideout who joined the staff from Texas Tech in the offseason. “The fan base took off with it, the coaches took off with it, and even the video department really liked it, but to me it’s all about Colorado getting back to the elite level of college football.”
“The Rise” is more than a marketing slogan or a catchphrase to lure in-state recruits; over the past few weeks it’s become the CU program’s ethos and war chant, beginning with its loss at No. 4 Michigan and continuing during its (then-) upset win at Oregon a week later. “For us to [use the phrase] when everybody thought that we had no chance in either game—and to have played well in both games but only won one of them—I think shows our guys have stepped up to believe that they can truly beat anybody,” said head coach Mike MacIntyre in a press conference on Sept. 27. “In their minds and in their hearts it is a signature statement to them that we can stand toe-to-toe with heavyweight programs.”
The way the Buffs have been winning so far is even more evidence that “The Rise” is real. They’ve done it with two capable quarterbacks: Senior Sefo Liufau earned the trust of the coaching staff and fan base with his play through the first several weeks before going down with an ankle injury in the Michigan game, but freshman Steven Montez stepped in and has gone 2–0 as a starter, playing so well that this weekend’s QB choice will be a game-time decision between Montez and the nearly healed Liufau.
Junior Phillip Lindsay and sophomore Kyle Evans power a steady running game, and CU”s defense (led by senior linebacker Kenneth Olugbode) is coming off a 47-6 beatdown of Oregon State, the first time in 11 years CU prevented a conference foe from reaching the endzone. The team’s recent success even has Buffs fans responding in ways they haven’t in years. “[Returning home from Oregon] was ridiculous—I’ve never seen anything like that before,” senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie said at the Sept. 27 presser. “It was like 12:30 at night and everyone came to show their support, and everybody on the team gave the fans handshakes and daps. It really felt good that the fans are really sticking behind us and that they believe that ‘The Rise’ is real. We really appreciate that support from everybody.”
The Buffs hope to have a similar reception when they return from Los Angeles after their game this weekend, but they’re facing a tough competitor in the Trojans, who battered previously undefeated Arizona State 40–21 last weekend. “They’ve watched USC on film, and they see how talented they are and how athletic they are,” MacIntyre said. “Also, our work ethic has gotten us to this point—they’ve done well and they want to keep doing well, and that’s motivating them going into USC because they know there’s a lot of season left to play.”