LOS ANGELES — Chris Petersen and Mike MacIntyre engineered two of the biggest breakthroughs in college football last season when they got Washington and Colorado into a Pac-12 title game matchup that absolutely nobody saw coming.
Both coaches are going back to work this summer knowing they've lost the element of surprise.
After his years of success at Boise State, Petersen knows the next step for both the Huskies and Buffaloes will be even more challenging than the dazzling runs that sent them past Oregon, Southern California, Stanford and the rest of the conference's usual powers last year."I think it is really, really hard to stay (on top)," Petersen said Wednesday at the start of Pac-12 media days in Hollywood. "Is it harder to get there or harder to stay? I think it's probably harder to stay there, because you've got to do those things over and over for a long period of time. That's the thing: Most people can't do these really hard things over and over."
Washington is the defending conference champion after trouncing Colorado in the title game, finishing 12-2 and reaching the College Football Playoff. The Buffaloes ended their string of 10 consecutive losing seasons with their run to the Pac-12 South title during a 10-4 campaign.
"What's exciting about having high expectations (is) before, we just set them," MacIntyre said. "Now, everybody else sets them. We have a lot to prove. We're still a team that people don't believe in, and we would like for people to believe in us. And the only way for us to do that is to put back-to-back things together, and that's what we plan on doing."
Both schools' breakthrough seasons ended on losses, however. The Buffaloes followed up their defeat in Santa Clara with a 38-8 loss to Oklahoma State in the Alamo Bowl, while Washington was beaten 24-7 by Alabama in the CFP semifinal.
Those disappointing finishes are motivation enough for both teams, MacIntyre figures.
"What we want to do is be in the Pac-12 championship game and not get our brains beat in like we did last year against Washington," MacIntyre said with a grin. "We would like to finish it better."
Still, fans in Seattle and Boulder are thrilled with their teams' successes. Colorado linebacker Derek McCartney was a spectator on the Buffs' postseason run due to injury, but he can sense a new vibe on campus after the historic program's best season since 2001.
"It's interesting, because you do notice that you start winning more games, and people start to treat you a little better," McCartney said. "They just seem to care about you a little more. I think the biggest motivation for us now is trying to prove to ourselves that we can do it again. A lot of us believe. The leaders, they're going to send that message down through the team, that we can do this."
Washington is certain to appear in every preseason Top 25 poll with quarterback Jake Browning returning to lead a strong roster. The Huskies were picked to defend their division title by media covering the Pac-12, and they finished second only to perennial preseason hype machine USC in the voting for conference champion.
Yet Browning thinks the Huskies' sights should be set beyond the West Coast. He was grateful for the experience of facing the Crimson Tide in the Peach Bowl.
"That's the team to beat," Browning said. "We got firsthand experience with that. I think that was pretty motivating. People had lower expectations for us, but I'm not happy with how last season ended. I've had a sour taste in my mouth for eight months. That's plenty of motivation."
Colorado was picked fourth in the Pac-12 South by the media, finishing below a UCLA squad coming off a 4-8 season and Utah, which lost a wealth of talent on both lines. The Buffs also lost plenty of good players, but MacIntyre believes they've left behind a culture of winning that will sustain this revival.
And just in case that revival needs help, MacIntyre is sure his players will see they're being discounted again.
"The season was over and different articles, different things have been said to them," MacIntyre said. "You know, 'Was that just a dream season? Was the Pac-12 really that good?' Yeah, it's good. It's always good. It's just that we haven't been good for a long time, so everybody can't really say we're there. I believe we've built a program well enough to sustain it."