IRVING, Texas - Forget last season's loss to Colorado State? Forget that. The Rams' 23-17 season-opening win in Boulder has stuck with the Buffaloes like an 11-month infection. Putting it behind them has been as easy as ditching the IRS.
But this has been self-inflicted misery, pain by design. If those toxic green memories provide what it takes to re-route CU onto a fast track into September and beyond, then the Buffs are going about preparing for the 2010 season opener in the right way.
Their prep work began long before preseason camp opens on Aug. 5. During winter conditioning, the first thing they saw upon entering their practice bubble was a sign reminding them of the 2009 score. If that didn't turn their heads, strength and conditioning coach Jeff Pitman tossed his whistle during the winter work, instead shouting "green" (CSU's colors are green and gold) to begin or end a drill.
If he screamed another color and players errantly responded, a punishing series of "up-downs" awaited.
Moral: Think green - and not in an environmental sense.
"The coaches wanted him to burn green into our heads," senior receiver Scotty McKnight said. "It's all about added motivation and focusing on CSU . . . they took it to us on the field."
Moreover, it happened on Folsom Field, and if it happens at Invesco Field in Denver on Sept. 4 . . . well, the Buffs and their followers say it simply can't be allowed to happen again. For a variety of reasons, the stakes this season are w-a-a-a-y too high.
McKnight succinctly calls this opener "the most important CSU game I've ever been a part of," and he has good reason for making that assessment.
CU needs to start refilling its tank with confidence on Opening Day 2010. The Buffs finished 2009 with the needle stuck on empty. A three-win season (and nine losses) doesn't promote a healthy psyche, not to mention good will in the fan sector. Dan Hawkins' fifth Buffs team needs something good to happen to it - fast.
"Coming off the field last season for the final time, being 3-9 and having that nasty feeling of a failure for a season and also being so close in so many games, you ask yourself what you have to do to get better?" senior cornerback Jalil Brown said. "The seniors and some of the leaders on this team decided we had to get ready for this season (in December). We couldn't wait until the end of the summer."
Added McKnight: "The way things ended last year - it's definitely stuck with us. Getting off on the right foot in an in-state rivalry game, it's everything we're working for and all we talk about is Colorado State, all day every day."
Hawkins, facing a pivotal season as CU enters what likely will be its final act in the Big 12 Conference, contends he and his staff have "always put a huge importance" on CSU. Nonetheless, he has a .500 record (2-2) against the Rams as well as in his season-openers at CU.
The importance of winning Game 1 in any season isn't lost on Hawkins, who told the assembled Big 12 media here Wednesday, "If you win your opener, stats will tell you that win about 70 percent of (the rest) of your games. There's a huge amount of momentum gained and lost in that first game. That's big, really big. Then you put your rival in there and it's even bigger.
"You've got the whole year to prepare for the first game and you put a huge emphasis on it."
But characterizing the opener as a season-maker/breaker isn't always accurate. Even if it was a pretty fair barometer for the Buffs in 2009, it did little to point the Rams in the right direction. After opening 3-0, they lost nine consecutive games to match their rivals' dismal mark.
Also, CU opened 3-0 under Hawkins in 2008 before managing only two more wins in the season's final two months and finishing 5-7. If starting a season with a 'W' heavily outweighs the alternative, it still guarantees nothing.
"Just because you win that game or lose that game, that doesn't a season make," Hawkins said. "That's a certain element to it, but even though the outside world might be overjoyed or depressed, I don't think you can allow that to affect your day-to-day process. You still have to keep going."
I asked McKnight if there was a danger in packing so much emphasis into winning the opener. Of course, there was emphasis on beating CSU in 2009, but the six-point loss sent the Buffs on a downward spiral into Toledo, which embarrassed them 54-38. That game was played on the Friday night after the previous Sunday's loss to CSU, but Hawkins wouldn't say the quick turnaround was a factor.
Back to McKnight and the possible pitfalls of possibly overemphasizing an opening opponent . . . he doesn't believe this one can be overemphasized.
"I don't think so," he said. "I think if guys understand the severity and how important it is, then they'll take it seriously. But, obviously, we've got to worry about ourselves and that's the biggest thing.
"If we stop beating ourselves I think we're going to be a very, very tough team to beat. No matter who we play - Colorado State, Oklahoma, whoever it is. We've just got to fix things on ourselves."
What's on the fix-it list? "Little things," said McKnight - pass protection by the O-line and running backs, picking up blitzes, receivers running the right routes, etc. Last season offered proof that "little things" done poorly equals huge problems.
Although McKnight remembers enough of the 2009 opener to still taste its disappointment, most of the third and all of the fourth quarter against CSU is a blank tape.
After catching a pass over the middle, he suffered a concussion after "one of the worst hits I've ever had." It came at a critical juncture in the game, with the Buffs driving for what might have been another quick second-half touchdown as they attempted to rally from a 20-3 halftime deficit.
But instead of a reception, the call was overturned after a review and McKnight was saddled with the only fumble of his career. CU's momentum took a gut shot and CSU, limited to a fourth-quarter field goal, held on.
McKnight recalls having no recollection of anything after the helmet-to-helmet collision: "I remember some of what happened in pregame, then my parents being at my house that night," he said.
Since then, though, he's seen enough tape of the game to fill in the hard-to-watch gaps. If the video doesn't take him all the way back and underscore what the loss did to CU's season, buds such as Brown are there to rewind it all for him.
The Buffs are 6-5 in their most recent 11 games against the Rams. "Obviously, it's not a walk in the park," Brown said. "We've got to take it seriously."
Maybe more seriously than ever.
QB NON-UPDATE: No proclamations for the conference media; the QB situation remains status quo. But Hawkins did say that junior Tyler Hansen had a "slight edge" coming out of spring drills and entering August camp. He then added that Hansen's competition with senior Cody Hawkins remains close: "Really on any given day, you could probably split them with a razor . . ."
Naming a No. 1 likely will come after "a couple of scrimmages . . . a couple of weeks out" from the opener, Hawkins said. "It's very tough to get through a season with one guy . . . good chance we'll need them both."
However, in several interviews Tuesday, McKnight said Hansen has taken most of the summer 7-on-7 snaps with the No. 1 offense and appears to be on track to be named the starter.
CALL IT THE EXIT BOWL: CU ends the 2010 season at Nebraska with its traditional day-after-Thanksgiving game on Nov. 26. It could be the end of the road for the Buffs-Cornhuskers series. CU is exiting the Big 12 for the Pac-12, Nebraska for the Big Ten. Both schools likely will begin competition in their new leagues in 2011.
McKnight, for one, will miss playing the Huskers: "That's probably the (Big 12) game I'd miss most. It's huge. It's been a great rivalry, a great series, for us. It's one I'll always remember."
SNIFF, SNIFF: The oddest Big 12 media day question, in the CU seniors' opinion, came from ESPN, which wanted to know "what game day smells like."
OK . . . but was the reference to the Game Day set, the Game Day talent (apologies to Fowler, Herbstreit and Corso) or, well, game day itself anywhere across the land?
It was the latter, and the intrepid Buffs trio offered variations on the theme of freshly cut stadium grass, with left tackle Nate Solder also musing, "Sweat? Hot dogs? I don't know."
Can't wait to see how that's worked in some Saturday morning.
NO MAGIC NUMBER: Hawkins, who is 16-33 in four seasons at CU, was asked if he believes he needs a certain number of wins this fall to remain employed.
"No, and I don't every worry about that, I really don't," he answered. "I was down in the Rangers locker room (Tuesday) and their No. 1 goal is not to worry about winning or losing. Again, it's chasing this personal excellence and if you can do that in your life, you're going to be the very best you can be. And the rest of it you can't really control."
HAWK A PAC-10 FAN? Not so much - at least in his younger years.
"I grew up in the sticks (Fall River Mills, Calif) in the era of three TV stations and PBS," he said. "The (college) game of the week might be Oklahoma-Nebraska . . . it wasn't always Pac-10. Even though I was in California, I was seven hours from Eugene and probably close to that from Cal. I didn't go to a lot of Pac-10 games."
BUFF BITS: To speed up the assimilation process, CU's seniors invited USC transfer Travon Patterson to a seniors' barbeque Wednesday night at Pitman's house. Hawkins called Patterson, a receiver, "very explosive . . . he's played some snaps against some great competition. He'll help us." . . . . Hawkins isn't voting this season in the ESPN/USA Today coaches' poll . . . . Solder, a Playboy preseason All-America pick, believes the Buffs "are going to bring it every week, no matter what happens. I kind of feel that every win we get is going to be a bonus."