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CU's real tests start now 

End Zone

So far this football season, the University of Colorado has carved out a respectable 3-1 record. Notice the use of that adjective, "respectable." Because anything more superlative than that would not be appropriate. Some college teams that have been struggling in recent years, as the Buffaloes have, might describe a 3-1 start as rewarding, confidence-building, even inspiring.

Colorado can't talk like that. Not with head coach Dan Hawkins still facing an uncertain future. Not with CU still not having played a conference game yet. And not when the Buffs' only legitimate test so far, also their only trip outside the state, turned into a despicable 52-7 humiliation at California.

Let's give Hawkins credit for making the right choice in quarterbacks, going with junior Tyler Hansen over the coach's own son, Cody Hawkins. Without having to worry about alternating or losing his position, Hansen has blossomed into a productive leader. Colorado also really does have a much better group of receivers now — led by Scotty McKnight, Toney Clemons, Travon Patterson and tight end Ryan Deehan — while runners Rodney Stewart (402 yards) and Brian Lockridge are looking better and better. Perhaps the most encouraging statistics so far have been CU converting 50 percent of its third downs (30 of 60) and scoring seven touchdowns in eight goal-to-go situations.

Defensively, the Buffs have made progress (except in the Cal nightmare), and they have totaled 26 tackles for losses in four games.

But now it's time for the Buffs' final Big 12 season, with the three toughest challenges all on the road, all against teams that stand 4-0 today: Saturday at Missouri (5 p.m., FOX Sports Rocky Mountain), Oct. 30 at Oklahoma and Nov. 26 at Nebraska. The other five league games — against Baylor, Texas Tech, Kansas, Iowa State and Kansas State — could be considered winnable at this point, mainly because none of those teams could be considered title contenders. And the conference's rotating schedule is kind to CU for its going-away season, because the Buffs don't have to face Texas, Texas A&M or Oklahoma State.

In other words, we could put extra pressure on Hawkins and say Colorado must finish at least 7-5 and play in a decent bowl, or he won't deserve to lead the program into the Pacific 12 Conference (as it will be renamed next July) starting in 2011.

But my guess is that 7-5 might not even be good enough for Hawkins, unless he can prove that the Buffs are ready to face stronger competition in their new league, even away from Folsom Field in Boulder. Hawkins' three remaining chances to make that statement are against Missouri, Oklahoma and Nebraska.

Missouri, in particular, has outclassed Colorado during Hawkins' years, winning all four meetings including blowouts of 58-0 two years ago at Columbia and 55-10 in 2007 at Boulder. The Tigers also breezed to a road win there, 36-17, last year.

This Missouri team has similar firepower, and the Tigers' coaches surely have salivated over the CU-Cal video. Colorado even had its troubles trying to slow down Georgia (now 1-4), which was driving toward a game-winning field goal until fumbling in the final minutes last Saturday. Beating Georgia (29-27) would have meant much more in any other recent year, but not so much this time.

As if Mizzou needed other motivation, history is providing that. This week marks the 20th anniversary of Colorado's infamous fifth-down victory at Missouri in 1990, when game officials lost track of downs just before CU's winning touchdown. It wouldn't happen in today's world of replays and challenges, but the Buffs scored on fifth down that day and charged onward to the national championship. Missouri obviously has different coaches and players now, but that game hasn't been forgotten.

The question this week for Colorado, though, has nothing to do with the past. It's simply whether the Buffaloes can slow down Missouri enough to have a shot despite being 13-point underdogs.

Let's put it this way: In Hawkins' four years, CU's Big 12 record is 2-14 on the road (winning only at Baylor and Texas Tech in 2007) and 10-22 overall.

That needs to change soon, before Hawkins runs out of chances.

routon@csindy.com

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