We’re three wins into the Coach Prime era and we still have no idea how good these Colorado Buffaloes can be. They won a high-scoring shootout against a quality TCU team, overcame the physical Nebraska Cornhuskers and survived an upset bid from the Colorado State Rams. These have been tight games against quality opponents, yet the Buffs remain 3-0 with all the hype and recording-setting viewership.
The real test has yet to come. The Buffs will take on the Oregon Ducks on Saturday (1:30 pm MT, ABC) and will be 21-point underdogs in Eugene. Colorado has already won in a raucous Amon G. Carter Stadium in Fort Worth, but Autzen Stadium is a different beast. The only Buffs team that has won a game there was in 2016 when the Pac-12 South champs needed everything to go right against a Ducks squad that finished 4-8. This a much better Oregon team, but there are still a few ways the Buffs can pull off the road upset.
1. Keep Shedeur Sanders protected
Everything starts on the offensive line. The Buffs have struggled the last two weeks against the Nebraska and Colorado State defensive lines that are closer to average than good. Shedeur has been sacked 12 times in the last two games. Some of that is on the quarterback for holding onto the ball too long, but his offensive line is getting beat consistently by 4-man rushes and torn apart by blitzes.
Oregon isn’t loaded on the defensive line like they have been in recent years, but that might not really matter. Popo Aumavea and Brandon Dorius are more than capable of generating pressure from the inside, emerging freshman Matayo Uiagalelei is dangerous on the edge and defensive coordinator Tosh Lupoi is aggressive with his blitz packages. The Buffs will face stronger defensive lines in the future, but they need to be on their A-game to win this matchup.
Texas Tech neutralized the Oregon pass rush by using former Ducks quarterback Tyler Shough as a dual threat weapon. (Shough is playing his sixth year of college, in case you were wondering.) The Red Raiders dialed up read options, QB draws and a whole bunch of RPOs. That made the Ducks’ DL pause instead of attack and Tech was able to move the ball consistently and generate chunk plays. They were only held back by turnovers because Shough is a wild boy and threw three picks and lost a fumble.
Colorado offensive coordinator Sean Lewis has those plays in his bag and Sanders won’t make the same mistakes as Shough. The problem is that while Sanders is a capable runner, the Buffs can’t afford to lose him like they did Travis Hunter. They can’t let him take more hits than he already does. The only time they will pull out RPOs and QB runs is when they absolutely need them, either on a critical 3rd or 4th down, or late in the game. The Buffs will have to keep the Oregon line honest in other ways.
The solution is to keep the ground game running to an extent, which should be easier with Alton McCaskill in the fold, and more of the quick passes we saw against the Horned Frogs. If the Buffs can keep the Ducks’ edge rushes from pinning their ears back, it should open up the intermediate and deeper passes from Shedeur. He’s elite when he can go through his progressions and should be able to dice up any Cover 3 or Cover 2 defense they play. He just needs more than 1.2 seconds for things to hum along.
2. Step up for the Travis Hunter
Colorado will be without Travis Hunter after he took a hard late-hit from Colorado State defensive back Henry Blackburn last week. Hunter was hospitalized with a lacerated liver. He’s going to be out the next three weeks at least, meaning he will miss games against Oregon, USC and Arizona State. In his stead, the Buffs will have to step on both sides of the ball to replace the second best player in the country.*
It’s unclear who will fill in for Hunter at cornerback. Omarion Cooper will remain a starter and will be relied on even more in the weeks to come. Kyndrich Breedlove and Carter Stoutmire have been rotating in and will see more snaps. Both have been solid, but they’re underclassmen who haven’t really been tested yet. Travis Jay is the other one to watch, as the Florida State transfer has been getting up to speed after suffering an injury in pre-season.
The name that’s missing is Cormani McClain, the top-ranked cornerback in the high school class of 2023. Deion Sanders has said that McClain isn’t ready to play and that the only thing holding him back is himself. The 6’2”, 165-pound corner only arrived on campus in July and is still figuring things out, on and off the field. He still figures into the rotation but he won’t play until the coaching staff can trust him more than they already do.
As for the offense, it’s a bit more clear. Weaver is the No. 1 receiver, even with Hunter on the field, and Jimmy Horn Jr. is the go-to option on quick throws. It cannot be overstated how good the USF transfers have been thus far. They’re just so polished, consistent and are somehow always open. Maybe Oregon’s Khyree Jackson slows down Weaver, but the Buffs still have Horn underneath and Tar’varish Dawson on slants, jet sweeps and fly routes.
The receiving corps shouldn’t be an issue for Colorado. Obviously it hurts not having someone as dynamic as Hunter, but the Buffs have three solid receivers plus Rocky Mountain Showdown hero Michael Harrison, the dynamic Dylan Edwards catching screens, and Javon Antonio and Jayden Ellis eager for playing time. The only issue is protecting Shedeur and giving him time to go through his progressions.
*Have you seen Marvin Harrison Jr.? He might be the best college football player, period, since Ndamukong Suh.
3. Make Bo Nix make mistakes
I understand that he’s not the same quarterback he was, but there has to be some Auburn left in the veteran quarterback. I refuse to believe that he can be an agent of chaos and then suddenly morph into a polished and composed passer capable of dicing up any secondary. Oregon offensive coordinators Will Stein and Kenny Dillingham — who is now the head coach at Arizona State — have harnessed his skills, but Nix is a gunslinger at heart and can be goaded into mistakes.
The Buffs can beat the Ducks if they bother Nix and make him uncomfortable. The easiest way to do that would be to create a ton of pressure on him, but that’s going to be difficult against a strong Oregon offensive line. They’re a young group, but tackles Josh Conerly and Ajani Cornelius look like future pros. While Taijh Alston and Jordan Domineck have been fantastic for the Buffs, defensive coordinator Charles Kelley will probably have to dial up some blitzes to rattle Nix. That’s probably not sustainable even if it generates some big plays early on.
The other option is to sell out against run, force the Ducks into 2nd-and-8s and 3rd-and-6s and mix up coverages on passing downs. That’s a lot easier said that done. The Oregon rushing attack is dangerous with Bucky Irving running behind that line. They have guys pulling in all directions and a bevy of counters prepared for overaggressive defenses. Those blitzes that worked against Nebraska will get the Buffs in trouble on Saturday. The emergence of Juwan Mitchell and Marvin Ham II have been productive in run support, but it’s worrying that those tackles happen six yards down rather than at the line of scrimmage. CU’s success could very well hinge of the quality of those two linebackers.
If the Buffs do slow the run game — and I’m honestly not sure how other than Mitchell going nuclear — it’s another challenge to actually confuse Nix without a four- or five-man pass rush. Mixing up coverages is probably the best way to do that, with some unexpected blitzes here and there. The Buffs would would prefer playing man-to-man, but they usually have Hunter isolating half the field. Even if Cooper can hold his own, it might not be the best idea to leave Breedlove or Gray on Troy Franklin. When the Buffs have played zone, they struggled with crossing routes, especially when they crowd the line of scrimmage and leave the intermediate area open. There’s also the risk of Tez Johnson taking the top off of the defense on play action passes.
It’s going to be extremely difficult stopping Oregon from moving the ball. The hope is that Mitchell (and others) plays out of his mind and maybe Trevor Woods goads Nix into an interception over the middle of the field. But if the defense can’t produce mistakes, Shedeur Sanders will have to be perfect for the Buffs to be competitive. Maybe it’s the best case thing for the neutral fan to take the over and hope for points galore in the Pac-12 opener.