On a college football Week 4 schedule that includes Florida State visiting Clemson and Notre Dame hosting Ohio State, it is somehow possible that the biggest TV draw of the week will be the game between the Colorado Buffaloes and Oregon Ducks in the mid-afternoon on ESPN.
Colorado football has been the most popular show in the country in the season’s first month, and Deion Sanders, known as Prime Time during his NFL playing days, has been the sport’s biggest story as he’s led his team to a surprising (to most of us outside the University of Colorado, anyway) undefeated start through three games.
The Ducks will be CU’s biggest test to date, however. Oregon is 11th nationally in our TRACR rankings and Colorado 64th, and our projection model gives the Ducks (who are 21-point home favorites) an 89.0% win probability at home in Eugene.
The game shouldn’t be close. But then, Colorado’s Week 1 date with TCU should not have been either. The Buffaloes entered as – you guessed it – 21-point underdogs. Betting markets and projection systems alike might be having a hard time catching up with the 2023 Buffaloes, who are an almost entirely different team than the one that went 1-11 last season.
Colorado has more than 80 new players, the result of an unprecedented roster transformation during Sanders’ first offseason in charge. That makes it hard to guess how they’ll hold up in Pac-12 play, and Saturday will provide the first hint.
But at least one thing is already clear: Sanders has drastically improved Colorado overall. Even a nine-game losing streak would mean a tripling of last year’s win total. But the Buffs likely aren’t done winning, because they do several things well in particular.
Quarterback Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son, has provided quality play. The offense has protected the rock well, and the defense has made a point of taking it away. And Colorado’s coaching staff has found ways so far to make the team’s most glaring weaknesses unimportant. The result likely isn’t a Pac-12 title contender, but it is a team that should make a bowl game and be a real handful for some of the league’s best programs.
Much-Improved Quarterback Play
Nothing went right at all for the 2022 Buffs, but everything flowed outward from a bad quarterback situation and inept passing offense. They were 120th in FBS in yards per attempt, averaging 5.8 yards per throw. They threw as many interceptions, 10, as touchdowns. They completed 49.7% of their passes, only ahead of UMass and the three service academies that operated run-based option offenses.
Neither J.T. Shrout nor Owen McCann could make a difference under center in a miserable situation under head coach Karl Dorrell, whom the school fired midseason. Everything CU tried in its pass game failed to deliver a boost. The team’s best yards-per-throw figure in a game was 7.3 in a 49-10 loss to Oregon.
Sanders has cleared that mark in all three of Colorado’s games to date, wins over TCU, Nebraska, and Colorado State in double overtime. All in, he’s averaged 9.1 yards per throw on 136 attempts, mixing in 10 touchdowns.
Deion Sanders and offensive coordinator Sean Lewis have leaned on Shedeur for a lot of volume. Only Hawaii’s Brayden Schager has completed as many passes as he has (107) in Lewis’s extremely pass-heavy scheme. He’s paid off the trust with a long list of money throws, and when Colorado has needed a big drive, Sanders has been able to find it.
His 98-yard, game-tying drive in the last minute against the rival Rams at Folsom Field was clinical and somehow even more impressive than it sounds: Sanders also had to complete a two-point conversion for the tie, and because of penalties, the drive really required more than 100 yards of ball movement.
He’s not a perfect young quarterback. Sanders is inclined to hold the ball for what feels like forever, a tendency that has no doubt contributed to him taking a whopping 15 sacks in three weeks. That’s more than all but three QBs in the country, each of whom plays on a lousy team.
But the excellence when he’s not getting thrown to the ground has made it more than worth it for CU to have Sanders behind center.
A Turnover Margin Juggernaut
Sanders tossed an interception in the CSU game, but he otherwise has avoided giving the ball to opposing defensive backs. He hasn’t fumbled despite taking all of those sacks, and Colorado’s football game tape is not littered with would-be interceptions that opposing defenders couldn’t convert.
Sanders has made good decisions when he’s let the ball fly from his right hand, and the Buffs have avoided field position problems as a result. The team’s other ball-carriers have fumbled four times and Colorado has only fallen on one of them, which suggests that if anything, Colorado’s offense might be better at ball security moving forward.
On the other side of the ball, Colorado’s defense has ball-hawked with the best of them. The Buffs have picked off six passes to key a plus-6 turnover margin that ties the team for third in the country.
The CU secondary figured to be an obvious strength heading into the season, as Sanders brought along prized two-way cornerback Travis Hunter from Jackson State, five-star cornerback Cormani McClain from the high school recruiting ranks, and safety Trevor Woods from CU’s existing roster. (Woods is one of only a tiny handful of players from last year’s team who has remained in Boulder to play a prominent role.)
McClain hasn’t even played yet, and Hunter is out for several weeks with a lacerated liver suffered when he took a heavy hit while playing offense last weekend. But Colorado still has Woods as a veteran leader, and the team has also gotten a pair of interceptions from nickel back Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig. Cornerback Shilo Sanders, another son of the coach, has an 80-yard interception return for a touchdown to his name already.
Turnover margin is a wonky, unpredictable statistical beast. It’s been great to Colorado so far, and there’s reason to think that, going forward, CU could continue to take the ball away more than it gives it away. Paying that off will be essential to the team’s quest to keep up the turnaround.
Papering Over Weaknesses
The most widespread point of skepticism about CU entering the season revolved around line play, on both sides of the ball. The Buffaloes got bullied in the trenches last year, and Sanders’ highest-profile recruits, both out of high school and the transfer portal, were at the offensive skill positions and defensive secondary.
Sanders loaded up on elite receivers, running backs, and cornerbacks, but both offensive and defensive line play were enormous question marks. Could CU hold up against big, physical opponents?
The early weeks of the season, in a paradox, have justified these concerns. Three weeks in, only one team – Old Dominion – has let up more sacks than Colorado’s 16. Some of that owes to Shedeur Sanders’ preference to hang onto the ball until the bitter end, but the line has had its own role to play.
Meanwhile, Colorado is 129th in the country in yards per carry (1.99), a figure that’s deeply depressed by the NCAA’s insistence on counting sack yards against rushing totals. But even with Colorado’s 134 sack yards removed, CU would only have 76 carries for 317 yards: a 4.1-yard average that would rank in the bottom half of the FBS on a sack-adjusted basis. The line has struggled in both pass and run blocking.
The defense has had its own problems of a similar variety. Colorado has just five sacks (95th in the country) and has faced constant trouble generating pressure on opposing QBs. At 5.01 yards allowed per carry, the Buffs are 121st in rush defense, too. Neither Colorado line has been much good at anything.
And yet the Buffs are 3-0.
Lewis, the offensive coordinator, has schemed backs and receivers open despite the limitations of his protection. And the defense, while filtering on a down-to-down basis and giving up plenty of big plays and third-down conversions (49.0% of them, which ranks 121st), has been opportunistic in finding turnovers in the right moments.
We’ll see if it continues at Autzen Stadium, particularly with Hunter out of the lineup. If Colorado stays close this week, it will be Deion’s best feat yet.