You wonder how Colorado ever got so screwed up.

The setting in Boulder is not only one of the most beautiful in college football but in all of academia. Denver is 30 miles away. There are smart, accomplished people walking across the campus of an elite university.

The move to the Pac-12 fit culturally and athletically. There should be 85 guys somewhere wanting to breathe in mountain air.

You can have all the peaks you want. But if no one cares about the football front porch of a university, the valleys are deep and vast.

"When we got here, it was in bad shape, very bad shape," coach Mike MacIntyre recalled this week. "We had to dig down for a while."

It's hard to believe, then, the one and only playoff Cinderella wears black this week. Of all the College Football Playoff scenarios you can imagine, few of them include Colorado 1) beating No. 4 Washington Friday in the Pac-12 title game and 2) advancing to the Football Four.

The Big Ten alone has four playoff contenders. The Buffs have won 10 games for the first time since 2001. The Pac-12 South-clinching win over Utah on Saturday was the program's biggest since that year.

These are unique times in the Flatirons.

"The Cubs won, [Donald] Trump got elected and the [Oakland] Raiders are in first place. That's it," former Colorado coach Gary Barnett summed up this week.

So why not the Buffs?

It's not like it hasn't been done at CU. Bill McCartney, Rick Neuheisel and Gary Barnett had succeeded in some degree at CU from the late 1980s through 2005.

But for some reason, the program had gone to seed. There had been disastrous hires. Dan Hawkins was one of the hottest coaches around coming out of Boise State in 2006. His Big 12 rant was more memorable than his five seasons.

The clueless Jon Embree -- a former CU player -- lasted two years.

"They finally decided they wanted to go and be competitive," MacIntyre said. "We dug in and started to work. It had to be the worst Power Five school in the country."

Don't call any of it a comeback. Sometimes all of it seems like a random occurrence of circumstances. Defensive coordinator Jim Leavitt has rebuilt his reputation after being fired following horrific accusations at South Florida in 2009.

In two seasons, Leavitt has taken the defense from 85th nationally to No. 1 in the Pac-12.

Barnett was invited back this season to be radio color man after resigning during a recruiting scandal in 2005. Barnett, now 70, never coached again after leaving. CU didn't have another winning season until this year.

"We were in big games," Barnett recalled. His Buffs went to four Big 12 title games in five years. "All the things that had been done before, we had done. There's a soft spot [now], of course," he said.

Amaze your friends with this fun fact: MacIntyre is the only human -- dead or alive -- who has won 10 games at both San Jose State (2012) and Colorado. The Pac-12 coach of the year is also a finalist -- some say a favorite -- for several national coaching honors.

Colorado is the only team in conference history to go from 1-8 to 8-1. MacIntyre has been mentioned for the openings at Baylor and Oregon.

The turnaround included losing quarterback and inspirational leader Sefo Liufau for a couple of games with an ankle injury. The Buffs were up 21-7 at Michigan before Liufau's injury. They lost by 17, but a statement had been made.

"I have the utmost respect for Sefo Liufau," Wolverines coach Jim Harbaugh told reporters. "He got that ankle injury that looked pretty, pretty serious and he hops up ... and throws a post route that's as good a post route as you can possibly throw."

Liufau is good at hopping up. He has been starting since midway through his freshman season. At various times, it's been his back, his shoulder and his foot that have been hurt.

At 6-foot-4 and 230 pounds, Liufau continues to be the Buffs' best rushing option at time. With the game on the line against Utah, he ground out 59 yards on 21 carries.

Sometimes it's the things that you don't do. CU was interested in quarterback Davis Webb, a graduate transfer from Texas Tech. But the team was so dedicated to Liufau that it passed on a better passer.

"He's not only the leader, he's No. 1 and No. 2," Barnett said of Luifau. "I knew when Davis Webb didn't come we dodged a bullet.

"I knew how devoted that locker room was to Sefo. They were going to redshirt him, and he didn't want to redshirt."

Colorado was Liufau's only offer out of Tacoma, Washington. His uncle was Washington State's Jack Thompson, "The Throwin' Samoan."

Luifau may not be the most gifted passer at No. 5 in Pac-12 efficiency, but that puts him one spot ahead of Webb, who eventually transferred to Cal.

Six months after arriving at CU, the athletic director who hired MacIntyre, Mike Bohn, resigned. Coming into this season, MacIntyre had won two Pac-12 games in three years.

Early on, "San Jose State could have beaten us by 40, at least," the coach said.

MacIntrye's roots are in the South. All his college jobs prior to San Jose had been below the Mason-Dixon Line. His dad, George, coached Vanderbilt from 1979-85. Mike MacIntyre stopped cold when asked what his dad would think. George died last year due to complications from multiple sclerosis.

"Wow -- I don't know -- I have to think about that," said MacIntyre, overcome with emotion. "He was an amazing man."

Somewhere along the line, the administration got serious about playing big-boy football. AD Rick George is a former football operations guy under McCartney during the glory years in the 1990s.

The school built an indoor facility and new football offices. When you're not winning, it's not enough just selling scenery.

MacIntyre got down in the recruiting weeds. He found guys the way CU used to -- by going to California. The Polynesian pipeline has always served the program well.

The best defender is cornerback Chidobe Awuzie, a second-generation Nigerian. The second-team All-Pac 12 pick recovered from a lacerated kidney as a sophomore

The Buffs are not dominant. They are resilient. Four of the 10 wins have come by 10 points or less. CU landed only two players on the All-Pac 12 first team.

"For me, it's a lot like Northwestern," said Barnett, who brought the Wildcats to the Rose Bowl in 1995. "We had about five or six players who could play for everybody else. I don't know if we have a best player."

You probably won't find the Buffs near the top of your timeline in this week of weeks. There are seven teams above No. 8 Colorado in the playoff rankings.

Washington is the best team on the West Coast. For now. That could change Friday night. CU gets its best shot at national glory since winning the Big 12 in 2001.

Upset the Huskies and they're in the CFP conversation. Find a way to annihilate Washington and Colorado could make an even greater case. CU would have beaten No. 23 Washington State, No. 22 Utah and No. 4 Washington in consecutive weeks.

The Huskies would be among a bunch of two-loss teams making a claim to the top four. They'd get the nod over Washington. They lost head-to-head to Michigan, but also would have won their conference playing one more game than the Wolverines. Their resume looks better than whatever the Big 12 can produce from Bedlam -- Oklahoma or Oklahoma State.

Longshot? Sure, but that's what the Buffs have been for 15 years. Why stop halfway up the mountain?