If Colorado does in fact leave the Pac-12 Conference for the Big 12 as is expected Thursday, it will find another convenient travel partner along its border but with a few significant differences — unlike its manufactured rivalry with Utah, Colorado and BYU are connected by history.

The last time the Cougars and Buffaloes shared a football field was at the 1988 Freedom Bowl in Anaheim, California. It was the game where kicker Jason Chaffetz booted a pair of fourth-quarter field goals, including a 35-yarder with 2:33 remaining to win 20-17.

It was also the game where freshman quarterback Ty Detmer replaced Sean Covey in the second half and never again relinquished the job. The young Texan threw for 129 yards and a touchdown and outdueled Colorado running back Eric Bieniemy, who rushed for 144 yards and two touchdowns in the defeat.

Two years later, Detmer beat Bieniemy again, but this time it was at the ballot box. Fueled by BYU’s upset of No. 1 Miami earlier in the season, Detmer won the program’s first Heisman Trophy ahead of Notre Dame’s Raghib “Rocket” Ismail and Bieniemy.

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Bieniemy had high hopes of becoming Colorado’s first Heisman winner. Instead, he left the Downtown Athletic Club in New York City and led the Buffaloes to their first national championship by defeating the Irish for the first time 10-9 in the Orange Bowl.

Rashan Salaam became Colorado’s first Heisman winner in 1994, the same year as BYU’s first win against Notre Dame, and 10 years after the Cougars topped Michigan in the Holiday Bowl to give the Cougars their first national championship.

Prior to the Freedom Bowl meeting, BYU and Colorado last tangled in Boulder, Colorado, on Sept. 26, 1981. Future NFL star quarterbacks Jim McMahon and Steve Young combined for five touchdown passes and despite McMahon injuring his knee in the third quarter, the No. 9 Cougars routed the Buffaloes 41-20.

BYU left Boulder and proceeded to win 39 of its next 46 games, culminating with the 13-0 season in 1984 and the national title.

Colorado hasn’t played in Provo since Oct. 19, 1946, when BYU resumed its football program following a three-year break during World War II. The teams battled at Y Stadium behind the Richards Physical Education Building on campus. The Buffaloes won the game 10-7.

The two programs are close in career winning percentage with BYU at .581 and Colorado at .571. The Buffaloes have 26 conference championships. The Cougars have 23. BYU has played in 40 bowl games. Colorado has suited up in 30.

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Both teams have spent the last 12 years in a strange place. The Cougars survived the landscape of independence, while the Buffaloes became uncomfortably accustomed to the bottom of the Pac-12.

In 12 seasons of post Big 12 football, Colorado has mustered just two winning seasons, including a 4-2 COVID-19 year in 2020. It just hasn’t worked for the Buffaloes. At least not yet. However, the hiring of former NFL superstar Deion Sanders as head coach has rejuvenated the program. In fact, 47,277 optimistic fans showed up in April for his first spring game.

Empowered by momentum and fan desperation, Sanders gutted his roster. Seventy-three scholarship players left the program and were replaced through the transfer portal. He will roll out the extreme makeover at TCU on Sept. 2.

BYU managed 10 winning seasons during its run as an independent. It wasn’t ideal, but it worked as a bypass to something better. The Cougars make their long-awaited debut in the Big 12 in September. Whether Colorado joins them and becomes a travel partner or not, both programs share another thing in common — they have tremendously challenging roads ahead.

BYU receiver Chuck Cutler reaches out for a pass as Colorado free safety Bruce Young moves in during the Freedom Bowl at Anaheim, Calif., Dec. 20, 1988. | Doug Pizac, Associated Press
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