Is Deion Sanders’ Colorado team ready for a breakthrough? It depends on how you look at it
Is Deion Sanders’ Colorado team ready for a breakthrough? It depends on how you look at it

LAS VEGAS – Deion Sanders appeared much more relaxed during most of his interviews at Allegiant Stadium on Wednesday than he did after the surprise season-opening win over TCU last September, when he loudly proclaimed at his postgame press conference: “Do you believe that??”

However, a security guard was still hot on his heels and a camera crew was documenting his every move.

Anyone who followed Colorado football last year – and it was almost impossible – remembers Sanders’ first season well. After starting 3-0 and becoming the most talked about topic in sports, the Buffs were crushed 42-6 by Oregon and won just one more time, finishing the season 4-8. A lot of people enjoyed watching Coach Prime get humiliated in such a humiliating way.

But Sanders characterizes his debut season more positively.

“Look at the results, (six of the defeats) were games with only one possession,” he said The athlete Wednesday at Big 12 media days. “We were close, but we didn’t have what we needed to get over the hump. The record was what it was, but when you talk about progress before we got there…”

At this point, he paused and thought carefully about what he was going to say next. You could tell he was hesitant to throw CU’s former staff and players under the bus.

“The margin of victory (the year before) is completely different. You have to look at it.”

He’s not wrong. The Buffs’ 1-11 team in 2022 was abysmal, losing 10 games by at least 25 points, including the last five by at least five touchdowns. Compared to that team, the 2023 Buffs might as well have been the school’s 1990 national championship team.

“It’s going to take one more touchdown,” star quarterback Shedeur Sanders said of narrow victories. “I feel like I have one more touchdown in me after this offseason work.”

The Sanders version of Pops’ first season is the “glass half full.”

In 2023, Shedeur Sanders threw for 3,230 yards with 27 touchdowns and just three interceptions. (Candice Ward / USA Today)

Led by Shedeur, one of the top quarterback prospects in the 2025 NFL Draft, and two-way sensation Travis Hunter, Colorado finished in the top 30 in the country in passing efficiency (149.3) in 2023. But that was about all that went right. The Buffs finished last out of 133 FBS teams in rushing yards per attempt (2.31) and second to last in sacks allowed (56).

As for defense, not great. They ranked 115th in yards allowed per game (6.27).

After all the hype, the Buffs ended up in the same place in the final Pac-12 standings as they did the year before: alone in last place.

This is the “glass half empty” perspective.

But on Wednesday, Deion Sanders raved about the improvements he’s seen at nearly every position this spring — and particularly highlighted his largely new staff. Of DC Rob Livingston, the former Cincinnati Bengals secondary coach, Sanders said: “I think we’re going to show everybody, we’re going to win, and he’s going to be a head coach in college or the pros or whatever he aspires to be because he’s that good.”

On the defensive line, which has been coached in part since last season by former Nick Saban assistant Sal Sunseri, the head coach raved about “the way these young men work and what kind of athletes they are and what kind of bodies they have and how they’ve just developed.” He called outside linebacker coach Vincent Dancy “one of the best coaches on the whole damn team.”

The offense will again be led by former NFL head coach Pat Shurmur, who took over midseason last year when Sanders demoted Sean Lewis, now head coach at San Diego State.

“(Shurmur) is pretty damn good, too. I mean really good,” Sanders said. “His compatibility and his relationship with Shedeur is incredible. And what they’re going to do this season, I can’t wait to see for myself.”

Again, the glass is half full.

A closer look at the new team reveals that Livingston, who spent the last 12 seasons with the Bengals, has never been a playmaker. His only college experience was as an analyst at Furman and Vanderbilt. Or that Sunseri, 64, took a supporting role under Saban before Sanders came calling. Or that Sanders hired Dancy last year after he had a 10-38 career as head coach at Mississippi Valley State.

Or that the new O-line coach, former Oklahoma and NFL tackle Phil Loadholt, has never held an on-field coaching role before and is simply tasked with improving CU’s most glaring weakness from last season.

Again: the glass is half empty.

Deion hasn’t shied away from hyperbole when talking about some of his players. He was dismayed that Hunter didn’t receive the highest player rating in the new EA Sports College Football 25 game (he was second). He was excited when a local reporter mentioned that the Raiders might have their eye on Shedeur, but also said he hoped they wouldn’t lose enough games to be drafted that high. He proclaimed that safety-turned-linebacker Trevor Woods would be “the next Brian Urlacher” and suggested that defensive end BJ Green could develop into a first-round pick.

“We want four (picks) in the first round,” Sanders said. “That’s only possible if we win and they’re dominant.”

But it won’t be a handful of top players that determine whether CU makes a big jump in 2024. It will come down to whether Sanders has been able to upgrade the rest of the two players over the past two offseasons. The Buffs will once again field a roster with plenty of transfer portal signings, although Sanders specifically mentioned that 13 high school recruits played as freshmen last season. And few players have been more praised by him than former walk-on running back Charlie Offerdahl.

Given the amount of hype that has surrounded the Pro Football Hall of Fame member since he took over, “progress” won’t mean much this season. Just getting to a bowl game would be a big step for any other Colorado coach, but this one was hired to create a lot more buzz – 10 wins, conference championship appearance, etc.

And since this is almost certainly the last year he has Shedeur and Hunter, it could already feel like a make-or-break season.

“I’m judged by a different standard,” Sanders said. “My victories are completely different than your victories.”

How many wins will he have in 2024?

That depends on whether you see the glass as half full or half empty.

(Top photo: Candice Ward / USA Today)

By Everly