The Colorado Buffaloes begin their 2023 with all eyes on the Coach Prime experiment. It’s not often a 1-11 team is making national headlines, but first-year head coach Deion Sanders has pushed out almost every from the 2022 Buffs and replaced them with blue chip talent from around the country. Nothing has ever happened like this before. It could be a trend-setting success or a Hindenberg-like disaster depending on how the Buffs handle five potentially explosive questions.
1. How much can Shedeur Sanders carry on his shoulders?
Everything begins with Shedeur Sanders. Deion’s son has played like a superstar at the FCS level, throwing for roughly 7,000 yards, 70 TDs and racking up 23 wins in 26 games in his two seasons at Jackson State. There is no questioning his talent, as he’s a polished passer and intelligent football mind, and has just enough in his legs to make some plays out of nothing. At best, he’s better than Sefo Liufau, Joel Klatt or any other CU QB since Kordell Stewart. At worst, he’s competent and relatively consistent, which is more than we can say about anyone since Sefo.
Offensive coordinator Sean Lewis will make a huge difference after joining from Kent State. His scheme creates easy passes for his QB, unexpected numbers advantages for the run game and really pushes the pace. Sanders is the perfect QB for this system as it will take advantage of his quick decision-making, accuracy and ability to find his talented receivers in open space. It won’t be all Sanders, not if Alton McCaskill and Kasoviey Smoke can stay healthy and get downhill, or if some combination of Jimmy Horn Jr., Xavier Weaver, Jaylen Ellis and Travis Hunter form a dependable receiving corps.
As for the offensive line, the depth chart is a bit shallow and the Buffs are really counting on tackles Savion Washington and Gerad “Tank” Christian-Lichtenhan to be solid. Maybe there’s enough stability on the interior — Tyler Brown, Landon Bebee and Van Wells are the other projected starters — to get consistently downhill in Lewis’s RPO-heavy scheme. If not, it’s going to be a lot of Shedeur running for his life, undersized RBs getting lost at the line of scrimmage, and not a whole lot of points.
(This question can also be asked of Travis Hunter, who is expected to play both receiver and cornerback. It’s clear that he wants to play receiver more often — it’s certainly more fun to play — but his NFL future lies on the defensive side. How will the coaches manage his workload? Will they let him choose what he wants? Will they only play him at CB for meaningful defensive possessions, and if he does, is that fair to his teammates? Or will they do the sensible thing and have him start at CB and rotate in at WR when needed?)
2. Are the Buffs too small?
The Buffs have three projected starters who are above 300 pounds: Washington, Tank and Brown. The only defensive lineman over three bills is Bishop Thomas and it’s unclear what role the 305-lbs. Florida State transfer will play. There is no 350-lbs. Jalen Sami in the middle, much less a Samson Kafovalu to set the edge. The Buffs will be small on the line and it’s not like the linebackers are thumpers with LaVonta Bentley at 6’0, 230 and Demouy Kennedy at 6’3, 215. Mark Vassett, the 6’4, 225-lbs. punter, would be the biggest linebacker on the team.
If you think the DL and LB corps is small, just wait until Utah’s Ja’Quinden Jackson is running full speed at the third level. I don’t know if Travis Hunter or Cormani McClain can tackle, let alone slow down a hard-charging running back. The only solace is that safeties Cam’Ron Silmon-Craig, Shilo Sanders and Trevor Woods are all tough as hell and play bigger than their size.
You can’t really criticize Deion for having an undersized team because he tried hard to bring in some heftier defenders. It just turns that every team wants those guys and Coach Prime doesn’t have the same pull with them as he did the blue chip cornerbacks. This is a very real weakness of this team and there’s a chance that no one ever tests our talented secondary when they can get 5 yards up the middle every time.
The offense is also small but that’s not a big deal considering Lewis’s scheme wants to get shifty players into open space. As long as the offensive line can hold their ground they should move the ball. The bigger question would be related to time-of-possession, since the run-n-gun offense might need to slow down for the defense to catch their breath. I don’t want to mention a certain WR-coach-turned-OC to remind you how demoralizing it is when the opposition scores on a bruising 80-yard drive and gets the ball back 45 seconds later after CU goes three-and-out with an incomplete slant, blown up screen pass and a scrambling throwaway on 3rd-and-long.
3. How important is team chemistry?
This is the big one that everyone is watching. Can a team built through the transfer portal mesh in their first season? It’s worth asking if a team can hold each other accountable if they’re still learning each other’s name. Or if they don’t, will it make on-field difference? The 2022 team had great chemistry and that didn’t exactly help them win on the field.
We will find out in the weeks to come but for now it’s just speculation about what kind of program Deion is building and what kind of players he’s bringing in. We know the stories about the players getting pushed out. We know the Buffs are giving second and third chances to players who didn’t work out at their previous schools for one reason or another. Are these players here in Boulder to fight for their careers, or are they motivated by the hype and brand recognition Deion has brought with him? Is it a good thing that players started a fight in practice, or does it look superficial when they have their social media handles on the back of their jerseys?
The roster itself is a weird mix of blue chip recruits, power five castaways and FCS transfers. Not all of them are on equal ground, it appears. Some of them had their number reserved while everyone else had to fight for theirs. These same players — you know who they are — are virtually guaranteed starting jobs. It doesn’t quite mesh with the message that everyone has to fight for their roster spot, let alone their play time. This doesn’t look good from the outside and there already rumors from the inside that players have transferred out because of these dynamics. It’s worth asking what happens when a Power Five transfer is outplayed by someone from the FCS ranks — if snaps actually are earned and not given,not given, is that prized recruit going to leave or stick around for his team?
4. What does a successful season look like for Coach Prime?
If you haven’t seen the schedule, please look and report back with a realistic expectation of games won. The Buffs aren’t going 8-4 and they’re probably not going 6-6. We’re looking at 3-9 as the expectation, 4-8 as a good year and 5-7 as a happy surprise. But it’s not the record we should be looking at.
It bears repeating that this is an experiment. We have no idea what the on-field product will look like. Maybe the Buffs are competitive against TCU and upset Nebraska next week, but it’s more likely that this team takes time to gel and the don’t hit their stride until we’re deep in the Pac-12 schedule when wins will be hard to come by even if they’re playing well. We’re looking for bright spots and positive moments, things to build on for next season. Deion is surely thinking about next offseason and what kind of talent he can bring in with a star QB, a player-friendly offense and an emerging defense that just needs size to get some stops.
Deion wants this to be a destination program, not some feeder program that celebrates Christian Gonzalez, CB, Oregon going 17th overall in the NFL Draft while their own graduates go undrafted. He wants to set a culture that shows players that they can come in and establish themselves with hard work and dedication, no matter what happened at their last school. He also wants more size next transfer portal and understands that his team has to show more promise, and maybe more NIL, in order to bring in the big boys.
That’s what a successful season looks like. The Buffs are competitive, even if they lose, and show enough positive growth throughout the season to build for the 2024 season when they hope to shock the Big 12. After that, Shedeur and Hunter are draft eligible, Shilo has already graduated, and maybe Deion has a successful rebuild on his resume. How CU is set up for 2025 and beyond is not really a concern unless Deion is still here. This is the deal the administration signed: if this thing works, it will probably be a short-term partnership that leaves the Buffs are in a better spot than before Prime got here.
5. What does a failure look like?
And if this grand experiment doesn’t work, Deion is too expensive to fire and the administration has themselves a burning dumpster fire of a program, more so than it already was.
It doesn’t take a broken down CU fan to see where things go wrong. Yes, the Buffs are talented, but that leans more towards the skill positions than the trenches where games are won and lost. And yes these players are talented, but there’s a risk that the hype is more than the on-field product, or worse, the individual puts themself above the team and this becomes a toxic wasteland and transfer portal exodus (reprise). This is a nightmare scenario, not necessarily what is likely to happen, but it is certainly possible for a program that recruits based on soundbites and social media engagements.
The more likely negative outcome is that the team is slow to come together, they don’t win the easier games in the friendly part of the schedule, and then they never gel because it’s harder to build chemistry when you’re getting beaten up and blown out. For all the incoming and outgoing transfers, the five-stars and the roster cuts, the Buffs go 1-11 with that one win over a downtrodden Bay Area opponent — a near copy of last season, only with feelings of embarrassment rather than hopelessness.
(Btw, if Shedeur gets hurt we’re not winning a single game without him.)
6. Bonus Prediction!
The Buffs beat Nebraska and Colorado State, endure a tough stretch of losses with positive growth, win two more games against Stanford and Arizona, and then everyone feels pretty good about the whole thing until Utah reminds us that we are small and weak. Only a dozen or so players leave the program mid-season and Deion is confident that we can win 8+ games in the Big 12 if we land the right transfers.