MIAMI -- It is no longer in Colorado's hands. The Buffaloes were ranked No. 1. They played in a major bowl, and they beat college football's version of America's Team.
What more can you ask? And say goodbye to all of those bad jokes about how Colorado teams can't win big games.
"I think historically, when you play in a major bowl and win a game like this, you should hold your ranking," said Buffaloes coach Bill McCartney, who had lost four bowl games at Colorado. "Comparative scores really mean nothing. If you look what Colorado has done all year, the teams we've beaten, we would maintain our ranking. Finally, we can go home and share a championship with the state."
Colorado improved its chances of winning the national championship when the final polls are announced today by defeating No. 5 Notre Dame, 10-9, last night before 77,062 in the Federal Express Orange Bowl.
The concern by the Buffaloes (11-1-1) has been the fallout from the fifth-down series -- which allowed Colorado to score a touchdown as time expired in a 33-31 win Oct. 6 over Missouri.
Although most of the Buffaloes ran around the field with their index fingers pointed upward, that controversy still was on their minds.
"There is no doubt that we are No. 1," said Colorado wide receiver Mike Pritchard. "You can't look at the Missouri game."
Said Colorado tailback Eric Bieniemy, who scored what proved to be the winning touchdown on a 1-yard run in the third quarter, "We had something to prove, and we wanted to show people that we were better than last year."
Colorado displayed the poise and confidence it seemed to lack in last season's 21-6 loss to Notre Dame in the Orange Bowl, which cost then-No. 1 Colorado its only other shot at the national championship.
But although the college football season ended with Colorado's revenge, it also featured a wild play that was symbolic of a season in which the No. 1 team seemed to get knocked off weekly.
Leading, 10-9, the Buffaloes punted to Notre Dame's Raghib "Rocket" Ismail, who returned the punt 91 yards for an apparent touchdown with 45 seconds left in the game. But the score was nullified when Notre Dame's Greg Davis was called for clipping.
The Fighting Irish had six more plays after the penalty, but quarterback Rick Mirer's pass was intercepted at the Colorado 36 as time expired.
"I still don't think it was clip," Davis said. "I thought it was borderline. I thought I had my head in the guy's front."
Colorado safety Tim James said: "I had him. He was in my grasp and he clipped me."
McCartney said, "We got a little lucky on the clip on Rocket's runback."
Pritchard said of the run: "My heart just about stopped. I saw the flags on the ground, and my heart jumped back in my chest."
Notre Dame coach Lou Holtz said of the play: "The return by Rocket Ismail was one of the greatest individual efforts I've seen. I don't know if the clip had anything to do with the return, but I certainly hope it did."
Holtz added: "Colorado was No. 1 going in and they beat us, so I guess that's who you have to give it to. But you never know. I hope Colorado gets it, but I wouldn't be upset if Georgia Tech got it. Both are very worthy."
Ismail's run left McCartney answering one major question: Why did his team kick to the most dangerous return man (24-yard average on kickoffs, 11.6 on punt returns) in college football?
"We've led the nation in net punting over the last four years, so I thought we could cover it," said McCartney.
Ismail's play, though, was overshadowed by the overall effort of Colorado's Charles S. Johnson. The backup quarterback replaced injured starter Darian Hagan, who left with a ruptured tendon in his left knee with 50 seconds left in the first half while running down the left sideline.
Johnson, who replaced injured Hagan twice during the regular season, completed only five of six passes for 80 yards, but he kept the Buffaloes from missing an offensive beat.
"I just tried to play within myself, and with our offensive game plan," said Johnson, who was named Colorado's Most Valuable Player of the game.
"I couldn't be prouder of him," McCartney said of Johnson. "It was fitting that it should end this way, because all year long we've had to reach deep to find a way to scratch out a victory."
Despite Johnson's efforts, the Buffaloes still got plenty of help from Notre Dame turnovers, three in the third period, with one leading to Bieniemy's touchdown.
"Three turnovers in four plays is a disaster," Holtz said. "There's no way you can win a football game like that. We had five turnovers and they had one. And we had a touchdown called back. That was the difference."
Notre Dame tailback Ricky Watters fumbled, and Colorado outside linebacker Paul Rose recovered at the Notre Dame 40.
Eight plays later, Bieniemy, who rushed for 76 yards on 14 carries, ran 1 yard over right guard for the winning touchdown with 4:26 left in the third quarter.