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After 3-1, what's next?



You can find a million clichs and axioms inside the game of football, but after decades of hearing coaches spew them (and trying diligently to avoid using them), I'm going to pull out one old jewel that hasn't worn out from overuse.

From observing countless teams over the years, this one many times has been true: Good football teams improve the most in the game after their first loss.

You've probably heard that said in different ways, such as teams improving the most between their first and second games. That's the most common clich, but in my experience, it often hasn't panned out.

There's a key word in this pearl of wisdom good. If a team isn't meant to have a successful season, the phrase doesn't apply and that first loss can be both deflating and damaging. But when a team is destined for a winning year, that initial defeat can provide new impetus and determination that lasts to the end. The question is whether a team has the fortitude to respond, and that question is echoing now, up and down the Front Range.

It's true in Denver, where the Broncos are 3-1 and stinging from that 33-19 setback at Kansas City. The loss again exposed Denver's defense and kick-coverage teams, and quarterback Jay Cutler's impressive start is now officially over. Perhaps most disturbing, though, was the lack of leadership to awaken the Broncos after the Chiefs didn't roll over and die.

It's also true in Boulder, where Colorado slid to 3-1 with a frustrating 39-21 tumble at Florida State. As with their NFL neighbors, the Buffaloes couldn't stop the run and suffered painful special-teams breakdowns, particularly a kickoff return for a game-sealing, fourth-quarter touchdown. Sophomore quarterback Cody Hawkins was below-average, missing reads and throws that might have changed the game.

And finally, it's true at the Air Force Academy, which had a week to recuperate after falling to 3-1 on Sept. 20 in a tough 30-23 home loss to Utah. That day, the Falcons were gallant on defense but sagged in the fourth quarter, in no small part because they couldn't throw well enough to control the ball and keep the Utes honest. That gave future opponents a blueprint for how to attack the Falcons.

So now we find out what those three teams, all at home this weekend, are made of. Are they worthy of the expectations that came with being 3-0? Or not?

The toughest challenge faces Colorado, which hosts unbeaten, No. 5-ranked Texas on Saturday (5 p.m., FOX Sports Net). But if that seems like too much for the Buffs, just remember a year ago at the end of September when unbeaten, No. 4-ranked Oklahoma came to Boulder ... and CU pulled off a 27-24 shocker.

Sure, the Buffs are decided underdogs, but they're as capable of toppling Texas as they were of beating the Sooners last year. If not, perhaps Colorado is a year away from a breakthrough season of 8-4 or better.

Same goes for Air Force hosting Navy (2 p.m., Saturday, Versus). Five straight times, the Middies have won this game and the Commander-in-Chief's Trophy. Plus, they come here stoked after an impressive road victory at Wake Forest Navy's first win over a ranked opponent since 1985. It's pivotal for the Falcons and probably for senior quarterback Shea Smith, who is being pushed by freshmen Asher Clark and Tim Jefferson.

Finally, the Broncos hope to bounce back against Tampa Bay on Sunday (2:05 p.m. and on FOX because the NFC team is the visitor), but it won't be easy against the Bucs' strong defense. Oh yeah, and there's the subplot of Tampa Bay's quarterback Brian Griese, who sounds more mature than in his Denver days.

Three games in two days, and we'll know much more about what Air Force, Colorado and the Denver Broncos can achieve in 2008.

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