BOULDER - It was only 11 months ago that the 'Rise' was at its peak in Boulder. A 10-2 regular season had culminated in a conference championship game and awakened football fans in a small town in Colorado where basketball had been king for over a decade. The whole city was awash in black and gold, and buffalo-adorned fans regularly filled Folsom Field to the rafters for the first time in a generation.
A defense led by three NFL draft picks and an offense manned by record-breaking CU quarterback Sefo Liufau in his best season dragged a struggling program to unexpected heights. Equipped with their newfound motto - 'the Rise is Real' - a dream was born in Boulder.
A season removed from their astonishing revival, the Buffs sit at 5-4, desperately grasping for bowl eligibility with their preseason dreams of championship redemption long gone. It is the last quarter of a disappointing season of football - but only if you just showed up to the fight.
Before last year, CU had not managed more than five wins since 2007, put together a winning season since 2005 or recorded double-digit wins since 2001. Basically, it had been a very, very long time since the Buffs were good. Until last year, when they exploded from the Pac-12 basement back into the national spotlight.
Before the 'Rise,' Buffs fans would have happily taken a five-win season. They would have cheered CU on to dominant victories over in-state rival CSU and Cal, and they would have lauded hard-fought close calls to UCLA and Arizona. But now the fans and more importantly, the program, expect more - and that's a good thing.
Because the 'Rise' was not necessarily about winning now. It's about the future of the program, about setting the Buffs up to become a destination for talent and CU becoming contenders for years to come.
So even if the Buffs lose out this season, even if they can't manage a win in their last three matchups and fall just short of a bowl game, it does not take away from what they built in 2016. It is the foundation for everything that is still to come, for the teams of the future that will lead CU back to national contention.
That could come as soon as next year because the Buffs are built to knock your teeth out in 2018. CU is holding on to the bulk of their top-tier players and adding a new wave of young talent. This past recruiting year was one of the best for the Buffs in recent history, and that winning season will start to pay dividends next fall. CU houses a handful of redshirt freshmen who will become immediate contributors and an incoming class that could fill even more of their pending voids.
Though senior receivers Bryce Bobo, Shay Fields and Devin Ross are departing as one of the best wideout corps in recent memory, the Buffs true receiving talent is likely waiting in the wings. Kabion Ento and Juwann Winfree would both likely have won starting jobs this year had they not owned more years of eligibility than the seniors. Laviska Shenault has flashed huge play potential, K.D. Nixon is a dynamic addition and transfer Tony Brown is rumored to be quite a threat. Together, they should make a dangerous new version of the 'Black Out Boyz.'
Quarterback Steven Montez has struggled in his first season as the starter, but he has also demonstrated incredible capabilities. His mistakes have largely been the result of youth or inexperience, and he has the makings of a great quarterback for the Buffs. Montez's best years at the helm are almost certainly ahead of him.
On the other side of the ball, the Buffs have young talent at most of their positions. In the secondary, CU hangs on to Nick Fisher, Trey Udoffia, Dante Wigley and Evan Worthington, and retains Rick Gamboa and others along the line. Holding on to Drew Lewis and Isaiah Oliver, both potential early departures to the NFL, would be an enormous boost but isn't guaranteed. They also have an incoming class that houses striking athletes and players to fill key voids on both sides.
That new talent is a direct result of the 'Rise,' which facilitated an important shift in recruiting for CU. A successful season and national ranking brought higher caliber athletes and nationally recruited options to the program, jumpstarting the cycle of winning football that has been absent from CU for years.
The in-state recruiting was perhaps the most influenced, with the Buffs emerging as the clear-cut destination for homegrown Colorado talent in a state that boasts several D1 options. A chance to compete in the Pac-12, attend a bowl game, fight for a conference championship or an actual college postseason berth - those opportunities exist at CU now, and they are a major draw. If the Buffs can compete for the top talent in their conference, against USC, UCLA, Washington, it could be a game-changer.
Head coach Mike MacIntyre said last season the Buffs arrived a year early, but maybe he was wrong. CU arrived exactly when they needed to because they had to win last year to win in the future. The Buffs want to be contenders, but they have to build a legacy to get there - that's what the 'Rise' is.
If the Buffs lose the next three games and drop to 5-7 on the year, it will not be an indictment on the program, but a slip in a potentially great ascension to prominence and contention. This year only matters if it is the start of a decline - but it won't be. Win out or lose out, CU has laid the foundation for success in the future.
The 'Rise' has been a long time coming, and it won't happen overnight. There will be pitfalls and missteps, highs and lows, but it's not about a team, it's about a program. It's about the Buffs returning to their full potential and contending with the rest of college football each and every time they step out on the field. The 'Rise' is about the process, and there is still a long way to go.