The 1996 Colorado Buffaloes had every reason to expect a fun year, and that’s exactly what they go. In 1995, the Buffs went 9-2 and then won the Cotton Bowl in their first year under new head coach Rick Neuheisel. It was a time of change in their conference, as the old Big Eight was expanding to become the new Big 12, and Colorado football was a regular contender.
Colorado opened the year with an easy win over Washington State. After beating Colorado State, the Buffs were at #8 in the polls and hosting #11 Michigan.
Two years earlier these teams had played to one of college football’s great finishes. Colorado turned defeat into victory when Kordell Stewart threw a 64-yard Hail Mary pass to Michael Westbrook. It almost happened again. Michigan had a 20-13 lead and needed to run just one play from their own 39-yard-line to kill the clock. But it was fourth down and they didn’t use enough time to end the game.
A second miracle finish was possible, as Colorado quarterback Koy Detmer, brother of BYU’s 1990 Heisman Trophy winner Ty, fired one more pass into the end zone. This one was batted away and Colorado dropped to #12 when the polls came out the following week.
The Buffs paid a visit Texas. At this time, the Big 12 was split into North and South Divisions. Colorado’s North Division was better than Texas’ South, but the Longhorns were still the team that would represent their division when December in St. Louis rolled around.
Texas jumped out to a 10-0 lead, but in the second quarter Detmer found All-American receiver Rae Carruth on a 54-yard touchdown strike. The Buffs still trailed 24-21 in the fourth quarter, but Detmer led a 90-yard touchdown drive that scored the game-winner with 3:10 to play.
Colorado came out of the Texas game and took care of Missouri and then had to survive a defensive letdown as they outlasted Iowa State 49-42. Now it was time to for it in the Big 12 North. Kansas State and Nebraska, both ranked in the Top 10, awaited to close the regular season. If the Buffs won both, they would advance to the conference championship game and still have a real shot at a national title.
The defense did a complete about-face from the Iowa State game, as the unit led by All-American linebacker Matt Russell shut down K-State 12-0, a game where the wind chill was (-5) degrees. It didn’t affect freshman Damien Wheeler as the young corner picked off two passes to key a win that moved his team up to #5 in the polls.
Directly ahead of Colorado at #4 was Nebraska. The top two teams, Florida and Florida State, still had to play each other. With the winner of that game expected to meet the winner of Colorado-Nebraska, the only thing the Buffs didn’t control in the national title race was the fate of #3 Arizona State.
The Sun Devils would lose the Rose Bowl to Ohio State, and that’s an outcome that surprised no one. What this meant was that when the Buffs and Huskers met on Black Friday, college football fans were already seeing this as a de facto national semifinal game.
Weather was a factor again, as it rained hard in Lincoln and Colorado could get nothing going offensively. While Detmer threw for 226 yards, it came on 11/39 passing. He was sacked three times and pressured constantly, with no running game to help.
Still, the Colorado defense played its second straight good game and Nebraska led only 17-12 in the second half. The Buffs forced two turnovers in the third quarter, but couldn’t convert. Detmer pushed the team inside the Nebraska 30 with less than three minutes to play, but a fourth-down pass finally fell incomplete.
It had been a noble effort, but the Colorado season would end at 9-2 (for their part, Nebraska couldn’t cash in their opportunity, being stunned by Texas in the Big 12 title game and throwing the national title picture into chaos). The Buffs accepted a bid to the Holiday Bowl to play Pac-10 runner-up Washington.
The Washington-Colorado matchup was one of the more significant minor bowl games. With Colorado ranked #8 and Washington #13, it was realistically a battle where only the winner would finish in the Top 10. The Huskies had a future NFL mainstay in Corey Dillon in their backfield, along with a solid quarterback in Brock Huard.
Dillon rushed for 140 yards and Huard completed his first eight passes, as the Buffs dug themselves a 14-0 hole. Then, just as had been the case at Texas, Detmer found Carruth on a long touchdown pass and closed the gap to 21-14 by halftime.
There was still no running game, but no longer battling inclimate weather in San Diego, Detmer was able to open up. He threw for 371 yards on the night. The Buffalo defense eventually clamped down and the final was 33-21. Colorado concluded the season still at #8, a second straight Top 10 finish for a program that was very much a regular part of the national discussion.