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SAN ANTONIO (AP) — Colorado put its faith in Mike MacIntyre and put its patience to the test.
Both decisions have paid off in a big way.
The No. 11 Buffaloes rumble into the Alamo Bowl to face No 13 Oklahoma State (9-3) riding their best season in more than a decade — 10 wins and a Pac-12 division championship behind MacIntyre, The Associated Press college football coach of the year now in his fourth year in Boulder.
It's the patience to stick with MacIntyre that seems the most remarkable part of it all. Colorado's previous three seasons produced 10 total wins before the Buffaloes (10-3) ripped through the regular season, briefly flirted with the College Football Playoff and played in the Pac-12 title game. Their improbable season even comes with a nickname: The Rise.
Few programs are so willing to wait. About 75 miles north of where MacIntyre will lead his team on the field at the Alamodome on Thursday night, Texas dumped coach Charlie Strong after three losing seasons (he had more wins than MacIntyre did the previous three years).
"We were so bad when we got there," MacIntyre said Wednesday. "People were asking if they could just stay until halftime ... We kept building. Our president, our chancellor our athletic director have been phenomenal. I just hit at the right time, when everybody understood where we were going and striving to be successful."
Colorado players who went through all that losing — 2-25 in conference play the previous three years — are savoring the wins now.
"I think we're definitely anxious to leave a legacy, to leave the legacy we want to leave," Colorado defensive back Ryan Moeller said. "We recognize the previous years that it's unfortunate when you lose and when you can't send seniors out right."
MacIntyre can feel a surge of history behind the season. The program's first bowl game since 2007 means even more to some of the fans who stuck with the program through all the losing.
Oklahoma State coach Mike Gundy has had his program humming along for years. The Cowboys have been among the Big 12's best in recent seasons, and missed the chance for the league title with a season-ending loss to Oklahoma. A victory Thursday night would earn a fifth 10-win season in the last seven years.
Here are some things to watch when the Buffaloes and Cowboys play:
Oklahoma State got a big boost for 2017 when quarterback Mason Rudolph and wide receiver James Washington announced together on Tuesday they'll return for their senior seasons instead of entering the NFL draft. Washington was an all-Big 12 selection with 1,209 yards this season. Rudolph passed for 315 yards per game and 25 touchdowns.
"We know we can compete at that level. If we made the jump this year I think we would have both been ready, but we also know just what college means to us," Rudolph said. "And we know the tremendous talent and opportunity we have next year coming back."
DEFENDING THE PASS
To stop Rudolph and Washington, Colorado brings a defense loaded with talent in the secondary. Senior cornerback Chidobe Awuzie and senior safety Tedric Thompson were all-Pac-12 selections, and so was senior linebacker Jimmie Gilbert. And calling the plays will be safeties coach Joe Tumpkin, who gets those duties after coordinator Jim Leavitt left for Oregon.
"This is best back end that we faced all year," Gundy said. "They have range. They're long. They'll attack you. We've got a few receivers who can make some plays."
SETTLED WITH SEFO
Colorado's only two regular-season losses were without starting quarterback Sefo Liufau, who will be looking for a big game in his career finale. The senior has started 39 games and holds 98 school records, including 9,568 passing yards despite battling injuries the past two seasons.
The Oklahoma State coach introduced his '80s-style mullet haircut — short on top, long in back — at the Big 12 conference media days over the summer and has kept it since. The style has gone from the silly to sublime as it become a thing all its own. It even has a Twitter hashtag: #gundymullet.
So, if the Cowboys win, will he cut it or keep it?
"I think I'll make that decision based on my 12-year-old's grades," Gundy said. "If he improves on his math classes, I'll cut it. Otherwise, I may antagonize him another month or two."
REMEMBERING RASHAAN SALAAM
Colorado had barely accepted its bowl bid when the former Buffaloes running back and 1994 Heisman Trophy winner was found dead in a park near the school on Dec. 5. He was 42. The Buffaloes will wear black helmet stickers with Salaam's initials and his No. 19 to honor him.
"He always had a great smile. He was very, very humble," MacIntyre said. "I really appreciate what he did for the CU program."
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