Every week, football coaches like to say that their next game is the biggest of the season. You've heard the clichés, time after time.
We can't look ahead. One game at a time. We have to stay focused. We have to play a perfect game to win. They don't get any bigger than this. We have to be ready for a 60-minute game. And on and on.
Sometimes, though, those clichés make sense. Sometimes they aptly describe the next challenge. So it is this weekend up and down the Front Range, from Boulder to Denver to Colorado Springs.
The pivotal games start Thursday night with the University of Colorado visiting West Virginia, then continue with Air Force's intra-service battle Saturday at Navy, and wrap up Sunday afternoon as Denver hosts the Dallas Cowboys. Those tests, comparable to early mid-term exams, will tell us a lot about what to expect down the line from the Buffaloes, Falcons and Broncos.
• Colorado: If you're reading this soon enough Thursday, you still have time to tune in to CU's road game at West Virginia, which wants revenge for the Buffs' 17-14 upset win last year. This time the Mountaineers (2-1) are 17-point favorites on their home field, as Colorado (1-2) tries to build some confidence before embarking on its ominous Big 12 stretch — Texas, Kansas, Kansas State and Missouri, followed later by Oklahoma State and Nebraska at the end.
CU won't have a chance, in this game or in conference play, unless its defense can be as consistent and swarming as it was in its 24-0 shutout of Wyoming on Sept. 19. Likewise, the offense has to show much improvement, starting with quarterback Cody Hawkins but including his receivers and the ground game. None has approached expectations so far.
Something tells me West Virginia won't cover that 17-point spread, even if the Mountaineers lead most of the night. More likely, this one will be ugly, perhaps something in the 20-7 range.
• Air Force: No opponent has caused the AFA program more pain in this decade than Navy, with its six consecutive wins over the Falcons. Air Force dominated the Midshipmen in most respects last year, but several mistakes handed Navy another triumph. This fall, the Middies (2-2) looked superb in nearly toppling Ohio State in the season opener, and sputtery in recent weeks against Pittsburgh (a 27-14 loss) and Western Kentucky (a lackluster win). Air Force (3-1) has cruised against outclassed opponents but couldn't hold up in its only tough game so far, at Minnesota.
Even though he missed last week with an ankle injury, sophomore AFA quarterback Tim Jefferson has to feel his year will be judged largely on what happens Saturday (1:30 p.m., CBS College Sports) at Annapolis, Md. He has to produce like a veteran now, finding his receivers and executing the ground game. You get the feeling Air Force still hasn't shown all of its offense, and we'll know if that's true after this one.
Yet the Falcons' fate might depend just as much, if not more, on the defense that is building good habits in being aggressive and forcing turnovers. This time it's important to avoid giving up big plays, whether that means linemen Ben Garland, Rick Ricketts and Myles Morales putting on pressure, linebackers Ken Lamendola and Andre Morris Jr. swarming Navy's option, or defensive backs Reggie Rembert, Chris Thomas and Anthony Wright doing their part.
Navy is a slight favorite, but my guess is that Air Force is overdue in this series and will come back with a victory, like 23-17.
• Denver: With three strong defensive outings, and two road wins, the Broncos (3-0) are well-positioned to face Dallas and its shaky offense. But the Cowboys' defense could make life difficult for Denver's offense, which has struggled in the red zone.
This is where the Broncos' schedule turns nasty: Dallas, New England, San Diego, bye, Baltimore, Pittsburgh, Washington, San Diego again and then the New York Giants on Thanksgiving night.
If Denver wants any shot at the playoffs, beating Dallas would appear to be a must. As with Air Force, the Broncos apparently haven't shown all of their offense. Those road wins likely will pay off Sunday in a tight victory, perhaps 19-16.
Josh McDaniels for Coach of the Year, anyone?