November 5, 2023
Left: Shedeur Sanders, with the obscuring towel over his head, heads to the
after the Buffaloes' 26-19 loss to Oregon State. Right: A little later, he meets with
BOULDER -- Virtually regardless
of what happens in the Colorado Buffaloes' final three games, this season under Deion Sanders should go down as a significant
A program that was on the financial precipice after a one-win season in 2022 will sell out every home game in 2023.
The national attention
has come from "60 Minutes" and "Saturday Night Live," from AFLAC and California Almond commercials, from
national cable stadium shows and highly-rated game broadcasts, and from every corner of the new media landscape.
and CU have taken advantage of the 2023 college football landscape as well as, or even better than, any other program in the
country. They've adeptly worked the transfer portal, NIL, YouTube, and Prime-friendly in-house coverage that comes off as
a reality show. They are set up to continue to take advantage of all of that moving forward.
Yes, that's all still
true, even as the Buffaloes careen downhill after a 3-0 start, dropping five of the next six -- including the embarrassing
26-19 loss to Oregon State Saturday night at Folsom Field.
There have been uglier defeats for the Buffs in terms of the scoreboard, but
the bigger issue Saturday night was perception. Sanders has made missteps in his first season as a FBS head coach, but that
was inevitable and understandable, and he has also been an adept CEO in many ways. This time, though, it wasn't out of
line to walk away asking: Does "Prime" really yet know what he's doing as a head coach?
Before taking questions Saturday night, Sanders opened his post-game
availability by making it clear he believes the Buffs now are underachieving.
"This is hard," he said. "The reason
this is hard is because you know you're capable of doing better, playing better, performing better, calling better games,
coaching better ... And you are coming up short. You have enough to get the job done. It's painful. It hurts -- myself, the
team and all the coaches, the fans, and some of you (media) as well who care. . . But our kids fought hard. I loved the fact
that they didn't have any quit in them. That they rallied at the end and gave it a heck of an effort. We just wish that we
could do that in the midst of the game, the first, second, third and fourth quarter with consistency. We haven't found that
level of consistency yet. That's what's truly disheartening."
Sanders himself brought up the Buffs' faux pas at the end of the first half,
when CU, trailing 7-3, took over possession on its own 4 with 49 seconds left. Rather than running the ball in an attempt
to run down the clock or at least force OSU to use both of its remaining timeouts, the Buffs' Shedeur Sanders heeded the playcalls
that led to him throwing two incompletions before a Dylan Edwards run was stuffed for no gain. OSU called one of its two remaining
timeouts after that third-down run, with 36 seconds left. After the Buffs punted and Anthony Gould returned it 28 yards, and
CU also was called for an illegal formation, the Beavers' DJ Uiagalelei on first down threw a 20-yard
TD pass to Deshaun Fenwick, and it was 14-3 at the half. That indeed all was demoralizing.
the half, we wanted to get out of there because we knew we were receiving the ball in the second half. So the plan was to
either get a first down and try to go," Deion Sanders said. "Or if we're not successful on first down, OK, let's
hit the clock. I think we had maybe one or two dropped passes [there was one] on that series, which is very unfortunate. Then
they get a tremendous return and they had three timeouts." (Actually, the Beavers had two left after taking their first
on their previous possession, with 1:01 left in the half.). "We knew going in that they had a tremendous punt returner
and (then they) were able to punch it in, which is crazy. That hurt tremendously."
It also came off as
bumbling and amateurish, especially considering the man who called those plays from upstairs, Pat Shurmur, had just stepped
into the playcalling and co-offensive coordinator role after previously serving as a limited-salary analyst for Sanders. Shurmur,
the former NFL head coach with the Giants and Browns, and the one-time glaringly ineffective offensive coordinator with the
Broncos, was taking over that duty from offensive coordinator Sean Lewis. That's Sean Lewis, apparently now the co-offensive
coordinator. (The press box flip card, not yet reflecting the game-week drama, still listed Lewis as the offensive coordinator/quarterbacks
and didn't list Shurmur at all.)
That was bizarre because Lewis' surprising hiring away
from the head-coaching position at Kent State was considered a coup for CU, and part of Sanders' successful assemblage of
a surprisingly big-time staff. To get him to Boulder, Lewis likely got many promises about how things would be done and about
freedom to run the offense.
Sanders repeatedly hinted of things going on behind the scenes we're not aware of. Conceded. But this comes off as scapegoating
after it became clear that the early season giddiness proved to be an unrealistic overrating of Sanders' overhauled 2023 roster.
"I make a decision to help this team win," he said.
"You guys don't know all the intangibles. You're just outside the crib, looking in. I have tinted windows. You can't
even see in the house. But you're making conclusions on what I should and should not do."
Without claiming to have "Insider" knowledge, but
with at least with familiarity of football staff dynamics, I'm assuming Lewis one way or another will move on after the season.
He has been undercut. That's regardless of how the titles might be juggled or even if Shurmur leaves. Sorry, going with an
NFL retread in anything other than that tightly defined "analyst" role is a horrible misjudgment.
Perhaps that's making
too much of one sequence, even if Sanders must take responsibility as the head coach. Perhaps not. Either way, it's not insulting
to say that it has become clear that Deion Sanders still is a work in progress as a head coach.
the Beavers, CU had only 238 yards of total offense, including minus-7 yards rushing. The harried Shedeur Sanders, playing
with the banged-up hip that led him to get a couple of pain-killing injections, including one in a quick trip to the locker
room in the second half, was sacked four times, raising his season total to 45 times in nine games.
mean, shoot, he's been hurt," Deion Sanders said of his son. "He went in to get an injection so he could finish.
The offensive line has struggled both to facilitate the run
game and protect the gutty Shedeur, but the number of sacks can be misleading because the quarterback has attempted to make
big plays, sometimes holding the ball too long. Plus, there's a tightrope here: If the O-line -- basically a bunch of good
guys who are trying, but are short in the talent department after the program's emphasis on the skill positions in the program's
one-year reconstruction -- is repeatedly belittled publicly, it's hard to imagine them running through walls for their coach.
who was the only CU player made available to the media after the game, said, "I didn't go in there to have fun in there.
I had a lot of pain in my body." He said he didn't consider leaving the game. "No, what kind of guy would I look
like, no matter what, leaving all, what, 80 of us out there hanging?" he said. "It's got to be a life or death situation
to just leave everybody hanging like that. The pain of not being there for them overrides the pain that's going through my
Deion Sanders said of the play calling in general:
"It's that and execution of the play that's called and timing of the play that's called, and the thought process behind
these things. There's a lot that goes behind it. You guys are seeing just what you see. You're missing a whole lot of intangibles
that transpired for us to be in that situation right now. . . We’re not going to demean
Sean Lewis. We’re not going to take that tone. Sean is a good man, I think he’s a good play-caller, we just needed
change at the time. We just needed to try something else at the time. And that’s
what we did. I don’t look back on it, I don’t second-guess myself whatsoever because there’s more to it
than you may know. So let’s just trust the process. Let’s just trust the process."
The other shaky decision
came when the Buffs scored with 1:42 remaining and cut the Oregon State lead to 26-19. Rather than try an onside kick, admittedly
a longshot in the college game, CU kicked deep and took a chance on the defense making a stop to get the ball back.
There even was some confusion there about how many timeous the Buffs had left when they scored. Regardless, the Beavers ran
for a first down and effectively ended the game.
What's striking when looking back over the season
is how ultimately misleading the Buffaloes' opening 45-42 win over TCU was. The offense was dynamic, seemingly featuring a
handful of electrifying skill-position players. The offensive line, thought to be a problem going into the season, played
surprisingly well. Since then, we've figured out that TCU has staged one of the biggest single-season regressions in recent
Power 5 history.
But the stumbling after the fast start doesn't have to ruin this season for the Buffs or their fans.
Deion Sanders' postgame news conference
Shedeur Sanders' postgame news conference