Sat. May 18th, 2024

Colorado’s Sudden Success Under Deion Sanders Has Far-Reaching Implications

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The Buffaloes are playing high-stakes games every week, and the spotlight will only brighten in the coming weeks in matchups against Oregon and USC.

Forty names, games, teams and minutiae making news in college football, where the world is still spinning even without Alabama in the AP top 10 for the first time since 2015: 

First Quarter: Now the Going Gets Tougher

The Colorado Experience (1) has been a doozy for three weeks, a phenomenon that has built upon itself with each victory and each highlight and each outlandish side drama. Upsetting TCU, dominating Nebraska and dramatically rallying to beat Colorado State—it’s been a ride. From receipts to Miss Peggy to sunglasses and hats to The Rock and Lil’ Wayne to Sanders children power rankings to a 98-yard drive just before midnight Mountain Time, the 3–0 Buffaloes have been mesmerizing. And polarizing—although anyone who isn’t enjoying the Colorado show should probably do some self-reflection on why.

We knew Deion Sanders (2) to Colorado would be intriguing, but it quickly outstripped already high expectations in terms of public interest and entertainment value. When millions of people are staying up past 2 a.m. ET to watch the ending of a Colorado State vs. Colorado game, you know we have entered a new realm. When 60 Minutes is setting up camp in Boulder, we have the biggest sports story of the fall.

But now it gets both bigger and harder for the next two weeks, with a trip to Oregon Saturday and a visit from USC on Sept. 30. The competition is better, the stakes are higher, the bandwagon gets even more crowded and the target on the backs of the Buffaloes grows as well. Here’s what’s on the line:

Pac-12 and College Football Playoff competitiveness (3). Colorado is a 21-point underdog against the No. 10 Ducks, a big number for an unbeaten team but not an unreasonable spread. The Buffs will almost certainly be a home underdog the following week against the No. 5 Trojans. These are not games Colorado wants to go into without two-way starter Travis Hunter, who was injured after a flagrant cheap shot (more on that later), but Sanders said that likely would be the case.

If the Buffs lose both, well, it’s been a fun party. They will be dismissed from the playoff picture and likely from conference championship contention as well. A team that entered the season with an over/under victory total of 3.5 could still aspire to win six or more for the first time since 2016.

If they split the two games, hey, everything remains possible. The Buffaloes would have a win over a top-10 opponent and two nonconference victories over Power Five teams, the building blocks of a quality résumé. And in a league where everyone may lose at least once due to the quality of the top eight teams, one defeat isn’t a disqualifier.

If they sweep Oregon and USC? Lord help us. Sanders will be well on his way to getting votes in the Iowa caucuses and New Hampshire primary.

The guess here is that Colorado goes 0–2. The Buffs are 129th nationally in rushing (61 yards per game) and in yards per carry (1.99), which is requiring Sanders to be superhuman (he’s up to the task so far, but likely not forever). They’re 125th defensively in yards allowed. This is a rebuild that’s way ahead of schedule, but far from a finished product.

Heisman Trophy contention (4). These will be fascinating head-to-head battles of Heisman contenders. First it’s Shedeur Sanders vs. Bo Nix and then it’s Sanders vs. the 2022 winner, Caleb Williams. Sanders is second nationally in passing yards per game and 16th in efficiency; Nix is 12th and 15th, respectively; Williams is 16th and first.

They might all be chasing Washington’s Michael Penix Jr. at the moment, but the best way to catch him is to play well in big games. Here come the opportunities.

Sanders provided the kind of Heisman Moment that can resonate when on Saturday he led Colorado on a do-or-die, 98-yard march for a touchdown and two-point conversion to tie the game and force overtime. (Sanders actually produced 106 yards on the drive, making up for a couple of Colorado penalties.) Then in overtime he played through a wicked cheap shot (and personal foul) to throw the winning touchdown and subsequent two-pointer. He is absolutely legit, and his draft status is skyrocketing accordingly.

Sanders’s coaching future (5). After the Nebraska win, Sanders was asked about the economic impact his arrival has had on the community. He answered with a short quip that might have been revealing: “We’re going to measure the impact we have on Boulder,” he said with a laugh and a sidelong glance at his agent, Constance Schwartz-Morini. “That’s business. We’re going to measure it.”

Sanders’s contract with Colorado calls for a meeting after the 2025 season to discuss an extension. That may happen much sooner, if the momentum from this start is sustained. He’s making $5.5 million this year, but theoretically that could escalate substantially — especially if the Buffs somehow make it to 5–0 or even 4–1.

Beware the mid-first-season contract extension—former Notre Dame athletic director Kevin White can tell you how that went with Charlie Weis after the Fighting Irish almost beat USC in 2005. Far better to let the cake bake longer. But it seems highly likely that other schools will gauge Sanders’s interest in leaving Boulder.

The guess here is that he isn’t sitting around waiting for an SEC gig; he wants to coach his kids and Colorado has given him the chance to do that at a high level. But if you don’t think he’d listen and leverage any potential suitors with the Buffalo brass, you haven’t paid attention to college football over the last 20 years.

America’s Team status, and burden (6). Colorado has invited the spotlight, embraced it, bathed in it and amplified it. This start has been a massive recruiting boon—Bryce Underwood, the top-ranked quarterback in the Class of 2025 and No. 3 overall player, was in Boulder for the game Saturday night. But the Buffaloes’ brashness has eliminated the element of surprise, stoked opponents’ ardor and put a bullseye on a program that might not yet be sturdy enough to carry it.

Put another way: Oregon might be favored by 21 Saturday, but the Ducks will absolutely be revved up for the opportunity to put Coach Prime & Co. in their place. An overnight glamour program has a lot to live up to in what has become a very competitive league.

Four for the Playoff

Each week The Dash will bracket the College Football Playoff as if today were Selection Sunday. With three weeks of evidence, the picture slowly taking shape—and will be much more in focus after the upcoming blockbuster slate of games.

Each week The Dash will bracket the College Football Playoff as if today were Selection Sunday. With three weeks of evidence, the picture is slowly taking shape—and will be much more in focus after the upcoming blockbuster slate of games.

Washington’s Penix leads the nation in passing yardage (1,332) and has guided a Huskies offense that ranks eighth in scoring (46.7 points per game).

Rose Bowl: top seed Washington (7) vs. fourth seed Florida State (8).

The Huskies (3–0) added to the disaster at Michigan State by strafing the Spartans for 35 first-half points in a 41–7 rout. The Washington passing attack is devastating, leading the nation in yards per game at 493 and ranking second in yards per attempt at 12.2. But the defense looks improved, allowing just 12 points per game and intercepting four passes thus far. Next up for Washington: California.

The Seminoles (3–0) did their best to blow it against meager Boston College on Saturday, trailing early and nearly giving away a large lead late. If the Eagles hadn’t self-destructed with a school-record 18 penalties, Florida State likely would have had one of its worst losses in recent history. But Jordan Travis shook off a first-half injury and the ‘Noles dominated the second and third quarters to escape Chestnut Hill with a win. Next up for Florida State: at Clemson in a massive ACC showdown.

Sugar Bowl: second seed Utah (9) vs. third seed Texas (10).

The Utes (3–0) gained more in the comparative results department than anything earned in a ho-hum win over Weber State. Their dominant win over Florida looks stronger now that the Gators have taken down TennesseeUtah hasn’t yet allowed an opponent to compile 350 yards of offense or 14 points. Next up for Utah: UCLA in a zesty Pac-12 battle.

The Longhorns (3–0) experienced the opposite effect of what Utah got—their signature victory, over Alabama, was devalued by the Crimson Tide’s miserable showing in a 17–3 slog over South Florida. The Horns were tied at 10 with Wyoming heading into the fourth quarter and opened up from there, finally getting over their ‘Bama hangover. Next up for Texas: at Baylor to open its last season of Big 12 play.

Dropped out: Colorado, Notre Dame.

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