The search for a new coach began with a meltdown in early November.
Staked to a 28-point lead early in the fourth quarter, Colorado coach Dan Hawkins instructed his team to try just four more running plays as the Buffaloes managed to blow what looked like an insurmountable margin. The opponent was Kansas, which capitalized on the gifts for its only Big 12 victory.
A coaching change was announced three days later. Defensive coordinator Brian Cabral, a 22-year veteran on the Colorado staff, was elevated to interim coach. The Buffs suddenly caught fire, had a new attitude and won back-to-back home games against Iowa State and Kansas State.
However, they couldn't pull off a hat trick and win at Nebraska, closing 5-7 overall and 2-6 in the Big 12. In addition to the 19-39 record Hawkins posted as Colorado's coach, his squads never enjoyed a winning season.
No absolute timetable exists for hiring a new coach, though Colorado must act swiftly to get anything in the next recruiting class. Two former players, Eric Bieniemy and Jon Embree, are among the candidates who have been interviewed. Both are NFL assistants.
Cabral also is expected to interview for the head coaching position, though the loss at Nebraska probably spoiled his bid since it also left the Buffs out of a bowl game.
"Until there is a coach named, we're all staying on," Cabral said. "We have a job to do academically to get our players through this semester. And we have a job recruiting-wise to hold this thing together and hand it off to the next coach."
It will be an interesting time for the next coach. Colorado is moving on to the Pac-12, where administrators, coaches and boosters insist the Buffs are a better geographical fit as they look at assembling talent.
The 15-year Big 12 run included North Division titles in 2001, '02, '04 and '05, with a win over Texas for the 2001 crown.
The current three-year drought for bowl appearances is the longest for Colorado since a seven-year dry spell that stretched into the early 1980s.
"I think the program is close. I do," Cabral said. "I really thought we should have had a lot better record going into (the last) game, but obviously we didn't. We're a better team than that."
GAME OF THE YEAR: Colorado 34, Iowa State 14 -- Mired as the only winless team in Big 12 play, Colorado responded to the firing of coach Dan Hawkins by pounding Iowa State behind 266 yards and three touchdowns passing from QB Cody Hawkins, the son of the former head coach. RB Rodney Stewart added 113 yards on 36 carries. The defense, which was largely responsible for allowing 35 fourth-quarter points in a meltdown at Kansas a week earlier, recorded eight sacks and recovered two fumbles while holding Iowa State to negative rushing yardage.
PLAYER OF THE YEAR: RB Rodney Stewart -- Once Colorado fully committed to the run game, which didn't happen until Dan Hawkins was released as coach, Stewart became the focus of the offense. His big games led to victories against Iowa State and Kansas State. He carried 290 times, a total only exceeded at Colorado by Rashaan Salaam (298 carries when he won the Heisman Trophy in 1994). Stewart finished with 1,318 yards.
FAST FORWARD: Interim coach Brian Cabral did not expect to be promoted to head coach as Colorado looks to go in an entirely new direction as it enters the Pac-12. However, Cabral insists the Buffaloes greatly underachieved in 2010 and enough talent returns to give the new coach a solid foundation. That could be true, with a backfield that features two experienced contributors, QB Tyler Hansen and RB Rodney Stewart, as well as a promising pass-catcher, WR Paul Richardson.
Defensively, the secondary will be hit by the loss of CB Jimmy Smith and CB Jalil Brown, and the most instinctive tackler, LB B.J. Beatty, also leaves. DE Josh Hartigan is a good pass rusher, while DT Curtis Cunningham is also solid up front.
RECRUITING TRAIL: It is hard to really assess the wants of the next coach, though Colorado must attract some help for the secondary and could also be hit hard with losses along the offensive front if OG Ryan Miller decides to leave early and move on to the NFL, where OT Nate Solder will definitely land. The Buffaloes could not develop a consistent deep threat among receivers, so that will be a need, though they'll mostly miss the consistency provided by WR Scotty McKnight, a possession-type receiver who left as the all-time leader in receptions, as well as touchdown grabs.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I tell you what, we've got some dudes coming back. Whoever takes this over, the cupboards are not going to be bare." -- Colorado interim coach Brian Cabral.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
PLAYERS TO WATCH IN 2011:
RB Rodney Stewart -- Despite his small stature, Stewart (5-6, 175) became a workhorse as Colorado essentially had no other backs it could count on. The junior finished with 1,318 yards rushing, the fifth-best total in Colorado history.
WR Paul Richardson -- Broke the Colorado freshman record for receiving yardage with 514 yards on 34 catches. He did not commit, however, to returning to CU after the question was posed by reporters following the last game. Richardson initially signed with UCLA.
OG Ryan Miller -- A previously-granted medical redshirt allows Miller to return for a fifth season, though the 6-8, 310-pounder is assessing his NFL opportunities. He's a strong run blocker who still needs work developing as a pass blocker.
OT Nate Solder -- The Outland Trophy finalist is considered a certain first-round draft pick. Pro scouts like his 6-9 frame, sculpted with little body fat. He led a rushing onslaught for the Buffs over the final quarter of the season. Will play in the Senior Bowl.
CB Jimmy Smith -- Considered the Buffs' top cover corner, opponents often looked in the other direction rather than throw on Smith. He's a solid player who figures to go perhaps in the middle rounds. Will also play in the Senior Bowl.
WR Scotty McKnight -- The possession receiver probably won't rank high on many NFL draft boards, but all he did for four seasons at Colorado was get open and make plays. Snagged receptions in all 49 career games, an active streak that ranked as the best in the FBS this season.
--C Mike Iltis suffered a knee injury in the Nebraska game, though it was not immediately known after the loss whether the junior would require surgery. Iltis suffered a torn ACL two years ago.
--QB Tyler Hansen ruptured his spleen in the Oct. 23 loss to Texas Tech. Although he could have possibly returned for a bowl game, the time off will allow Hansen to mend entering his senior season.
--FS Parker Orms was a starter when he tore his ACL in the third play of the Sept. 4 opener.