It’s one of the eternal questions in team sports: Is it harder to attain success or sustain it?
Based on recent events, the Arizona Wildcats would lean toward the latter. So would Colorado, their opponent on Saturday.
The programs have followed similar paths. Arizona won the Pac-12 South in 2014 and largely has labored since. Colorado won the division last year but has started 0-2 in league play this season.
The Buffaloes, who are 3-2 overall, view this game as an absolute must-win. UA coach Rich Rodriguez sees it the same way for his squad. The Wildcats (2-2, 0-1) also are seeking their first conference victory.
“As we know, you can win the division with two losses, maybe even three in this kind of year,” Rodriguez said. “But the games are so important, especially the intra-division games. Both teams are going to have a sense of urgency, I would think.”
Rodriguez knows exactly what it’s like to be in the position Colorado finds itself in now.
After a pair of good but not great 8-5 seasons under Rodriguez, Arizona surged to 10 wins in 2014. Expectations rose to a new level, and Rodriguez was OK with that. “I was glad they were high,” he said this week.
The Wildcats started the following season 3-0. They were ranked No. 16 in the country entering Week 4. ESPN’s “College GameDay” came to Tucson. No. 9 UCLA handed Arizona a reality check.
The Bruins blistered the Wildcats 56-30. Star linebacker Scooby Wright got hurt. Arizona would stumble the next week, and finish the regular season 6-6.
“I think that was the year we lost four or five middle linebackers in a hurry,” Rodriguez said. “It was a freaky year with that. Our guys battled. We played average a lot of times, but they never gave up. They hung in there and won the bowl at the end.”
Arizona won the New Mexico Bowl to finish 7-6. The program continued to trend downward last year. Injuries again ravaged the Wildcats, who finished 3-9. Arizona really hasn’t been the same since 2014, struggling to regain respect and relevance.
Colorado hopes to avoid a similar fate — to prove that last season’s rise wasn’t a one-off but the start of a prosperous run.
The parallels, however, are inescapable.
The 2016 Buffs finished with a 10-4 record — same as the ’14 Wildcats. Just like Arizona, Colorado started 10-2, got blown out in the Pac-12 Championship Game and lost its bowl game.
Just like the Wildcats, the Buffs started this season 3-0 before losing a one-sided home game to a league rival ranked in the top 10 — 37-10 to No. 7 Washington. Colorado followed up with a four-point loss at UCLA.
“We played one really excellent team and had a tough, tough game the other night,” CU coach Mike MacIntyre said. “You just have to find a way to win games.”
There are some differences between the programs’ paths. Before last year, Colorado hadn’t had a winning season since 2005. Despite last season’s finish and this season’s 3-0 start, the 2017 Buffs never were ranked in the AP Top 25. And their loss at UCLA was competitive, unlike Arizona’s at Stanford in 2014.
Colorado could have beaten UCLA. This is where the Buffs’ and Wildcats’ current trajectories intersect. Players on both sides believe their records should be better than they are.
Arizona’s losses have come by three points to Houston and by six to Utah. The Wildcats turned the ball over five times against the Utes and still had a chance to win in the final minutes. Quarterback Brandon Dawkins summed up the game as “us beating us.”
“When we look at the film,” UA receiver Tony Ellison said, “it’s more Arizona beating Arizona. We shot ourselves in the foot. It’s a positive in the sense that if we don’t turn the ball over, control what we can control, we can win games. It’s not like last year; in some games, we were getting blown out and couldn’t really do anything about it.”
Colorado quarterback Steven Montez threw three interceptions in the loss to Washington, one of which the Huskies returned for a touchdown. The Buffs basically played the Bruins even. Dropped passes and third-down conversions (4 of 16 vs. 9 of 16 for UCLA) prevented Colorado from closing it out.
“We’ve kind of been shooting ourselves in the foot,” Montez said, practically echoing Ellison word for word.
But wait. There’s more.
“There’s really no team we’ve played so far that’s beat us; I think we’ve just kind of beat ourselves,” Montez continued. “I think that’s how everybody sees it. It’s extremely frustrating.”
Will the Buffaloes take out their frustrations on the Wildcats, as so many league foes did last year? That seems unlikely. Despite having the same record as last year through four games, Arizona is healthier and its defense is playing at a higher level.
Still, the Wildcats should expect to get the Buffs’ best shot. MacIntyre said his team had an exceptionally focused practice Tuesday. Safety Evan Worthington said the workout featured “a couple fights,” a sign that the losses have put Colorado in an ornery mood.
The Buffs seem to have a firm grasp on what’s at stake Saturday night in Boulder.
“I think we’re really motivated right now,” Montez said. “This is a very important game. Obviously nobody wants to start Pac-12 play 0-2, and you definitely can’t start 0-3.”