Is Deion Sanders' Colorado team ready to break through? It depends which way you look at it

LAS VEGAS — Deion Sanders was notably more measured for most of his interview circuit at Allegiant Stadium on Wednesday than he was after that stunning season-opening upset of TCU last September when he walked into his postgame news conference and boisterously proclaimed, “Do you believe??”

However, he did still have a security guard right behind him and a camera crew documenting his every move.

Anyone who paid attention to Colorado football last year — and it was nearly impossible not to — remembers well the arc of Sanders’ first season. After starting 3-0 and becoming the most talked-about story in sports, the Buffs got drilled 42-6 by Oregon and won just once more to finish 4-8. A whole lot of people took delight in seeing Coach Prime get humbled in such a humiliating fashion.

But Sanders characterizes his debut season more favorably.

“Look at the scores, (six of the losses) were one-possession games,” he told The Athletic 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’re talking about progress, before we got there …”

At this point, he paused, thinking carefully about what he would say next. You could tell he was reticent about throwing the former CU staff and players under the bus.

“The margins of victory (the year before), that’s totally different. You’ve got to check those.”

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 may as well have been the school’s 1990 national title team.

“It’s going to take one more touchdown,” star quarterback Shedeur Sanders said of winning close games. “I feel like I’ve got one more touchdown in me after this offseason work.”

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

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

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

As for the defense — not great. They finished 115th in yards per play allowed (6.27).

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

That’s the “glass half-empty” perspective.

But on Wednesday, Deion Sanders raved about the improvement he saw this spring at nearly every position group — particularly highlighting his largely remade staff. Speaking about DC Rob Livingston, formerly the Cincinnati Bengals’ secondary coach, Sanders said, “I feel like we’re going to kick butt, we’re going to win, and he’s going to be a head coach in college or pros or whatever he endeavors because he’s that good.”

On the defensive line, coached in part by former Nick Saban assistant Sal Sunseri since last season, the head coach raved about “the way these young men are working and the athletes that they are and the bodies that they have and they developed right now.” He called outside linebackers coach Vincent Dancy “one of the best coaches on the whole darn staff.”

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 the head coach at San Diego State.

“(Shurmur) is pretty darn good as well. I mean really good,” said Sanders. “His compatibility and his relationship with Shedeur is amazing. And what they plan to do this season, I can’t wait to see it myself.”

Again: Glass half-full.

Take a closer look at that new staff, and one might notice that Livingston, who spent the past 12 seasons with the Bengals, has never been a play caller. His lone college experience was as an analyst at Furman and Vanderbilt. Or that Sunseri, 64, moved to an off-field role under Saban before Sanders came calling. Or that Sanders hired Dancy last year coming off a 10-38 stint as the head coach at Mississippi Valley State.

Or that the new O-line coach, former Oklahoma and NFL tackle Phil Loadholt, has never before held an on-field coaching role. He’s only charged with upgrading CU’s most visible weak spot from last season.

Again: Glass half-empty.

Deion did not shy away from hyperbole in talking about some of his players. He was aghast that Hunter did not receive the highest player score in the new EA Sports College Football 25 game (he was tied for second). He expressed excitement when a local reporter mentioned the Raiders might be eyeing Shedeur but said he also hoped they didn’t lose enough games to draft that high. He proclaimed safety-turned-linebacker Trevor Woods “is going to be the next Brian Urlacher,” and suggested defensive end B.J. Green could develop into a first-rounder.

“We want four (picks) in the first round,” said Sanders. “The only way that’s going to happen is that we win and they’re dominant.”

But it won’t be a handful of high-end players that determine whether CU makes a big jump in 2024. It will come down to whether Sanders has been successful in upgrading the rest of the two-deep over the past two offseasons. The Buffs will once again trot out a lineup heavy on transfer portal pickups, though Sanders made it a point to mention that 13 high-school signees played as freshmen last season. And few players drew more praise from him than former walk-on running back Charlie Offerdahl.

With the massive hype that’s accompanied the Pro Football Hall of Famer since he took the job, “progress” won’t move the needle this season. Just reaching a bowl game would be a big step for any other Colorado coach, but this one was hired to make a much bigger splash — 10 wins, conference title contention, etc.

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

“I’m judged on a different scale,” said Sanders. “My wins are totally different than your wins.”

How many wins will he produce in 2024?

That depends if you take the glass half-full or glass half-empty perspective.

(Top photo: Candice Ward / USA Today)

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