BOULDER, CO - SEPTEMBER 10: Head coach Jon Embree leads the Colorado Buffaloes against the California Golden Bears at Folsom Field on September 10, 2011 in Boulder, Colorado. The Bears defeated the Buffaloes 36-33 in overime. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
You could say Colorado's initiation to the Pacific 12 Conference was harsh. But then, you would also run the risk of being much too kind in your description of the Buffaloes' their first six Pac-12 games by a combined 175 points.
And then along came Arizona on its inaugural conference trip to Boulder. The Wildcats became the answer to the trivia question, who was CU's first Pac-12 win? The Buffs finished just 3-10 last season, but 67 percent of their victories came at campaign's end.
After rolling up 48 points on UA -- quick aside, to give a sense of just how porous the Wildcat defense was, the Buffaloes did not break 30 against any other conference foe, much less flirt with 50 -- CU closed 2011 with a road defeat of Utah.
CU closed with some momentum, suggesting a less brutal second season both for its tenure in the Pac-12, and in the Jon Embree era.
But the Buffs once again face substantial change. Gone is running back Rodney Stewart, a key contributor to the offense all four years he was in Boulder, The undersized but speedy Stewart produced over 800 yards for the third time in his career in 2011. Replacing him is Tony Jones, another third down size back who rushed for a little less than 300 yards a season ago. He's the most experienced of the Buff ball carriers, along with Josh Ford and returning from injury is Malcolm Creer.
Embree also signed a pair of California prospects, Davien Payne and Donta Abron, both of whom offensive coordinator and former CU running back great Eric Bieniemy said would have a lot of responsibility.
There's uncertainty at the position, and yet it should be relied upon heavily, at least early.
Stud wide receiver Paul Richardson's status is still unknown, which takes away the top target for recently named starting quarterback Jordan Webb. The Kansas transfer beat out Connor Wood for the honor.
"All offensive linemen like when we get a run play [called]," said offensive lineman David Bakhtiari at last month's Pac-12 Media Day, seemingly welcoming the challenge of taking a more ground based approached. He added: "It's going to be interesting for this year."
Interesting is an accurate description for the year ahead. There's a lot of change with the loss of 28 players, continuing off the underlying theme of a season ago. That should prove to be the momentum carrying into 2012, more than the November defeats of UA and UU. CU is still a program rebuilding.
Should it become an effective rushing team, it would ultimately benefit Embree's efforts to improve. CU will want its defense off the field as much as possible, coming off a year in which it surrendered 36.5 points per game. That was worst in the conference, behind even UA -- though only slightly.
Buffalo safety Ray Polk summed up defending Pac-12 opponents well, saying: "You've got so many good players in one conference that it's a different ballgame."
That entails one week trying to contain the talented receiving corps at USC, the next keeping pace with the quick attack Chip Kelly employs at Oregon. CU does in fact draw the Trojans and Ducks in consecutive weeks, then hosts Stanford before its trip to Arizona.
UA hosts CU in the Buffaloes' first trip to Tucson on Nov. 10. CU is the Wildcats' Homecoming opponent for 2012.