Colorado might be a Prime number
Can long-term success be had in college football if talent is all that matters?
How much you believed in Colorado football’s offseason mantra was likely determined by how much Buffs gear you already owned or how fond you were of Deion Sanders. If you were in either of those camps, it was easy to believe. You wanted to see it happen.
If you weren’t in either camp, which was everyone else, you probably skewed towards skepticism. Could a high-profile coach come in and tell his existing team at their first meeting he was probably going to cut them?1 If he actually did, could he find enough players in the transfer portal to replace them? Would they be better players? If they were, could Sanders and staff build a team from all of the upgraded parts?
Nobody had ever tried. Sanders was essentially starting a team from scratch at a university that has played football for 134 seasons. It was a path that didn’t exist in the previous era of college football. Even if it had, who would’ve been bold enough to try it?
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Colorado went to No. 17 TCU last Saturday as 21-point underdogs. The Buffaloes looked fast and dangerous. Cornerback/wide receiver Travis Hunter—a transfer from Jackson State, where he was Sanders’ biggest recruiting win—looked, for a day at least, like the best player in college football while playing more than 100 snaps. Quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Deion’s son, threw for a school-record 510 yards with four touchdowns.
The Buffaloes beat TCU, 45-42. A win like that doesn’t happen often. Since 2003, 138 FBS teams have played another FBS team as a 21-point dog on the road. Eleven of those teams (8%) won outright prior to Colorado. Expand the range just a bit, to teams that were road underdogs by 20 to 22 points, and you’ve got 524 games played with 43 outright winners (8.2%).
That level of upset happens about twice a season. Here it happened in game one under the coach who has most challenged college football’s foundational beliefs.
It was, at minimum, a stunning proof of concept. But it happened on a college football Saturday, which is nearly defined by the complete lack of restraint required. This is what makes Saturdays fun, by the way, but it always means that overreaction is the default setting. Proof of concept was simply shortened to proof.
I’m glad Sanders wasn’t the one exercising restraint at his postgame press conference. That’s the default setting for football coaches, but it would’ve felt like a letdown from the Sanders we’ve come to know over 30-some years. He didn’t disappoint.
Now Nebraska heads to Boulder this week, a favorite turned underdog by Colorado’s few hours in Fort Worth. The Huskers lost their opener at Minnesota in such a way that overreactors had no way to react other than, “new coach, same Nebraska.”
If nothing else, it makes for great television.
My hierarchy of needs for the culture I consume—be that television, books, films, music or football—breaks down like this: 1) delight, 2) surprise, 3) entertainment. My brain is a backwards flow chart where pure entertainment ranks behind something I may not enjoy but is unexpected. If something is entertaining and surprising, only then do I reach delight, my cultural consumption peak.
Maybe that just proves I’m Gen X.
Either way, this is why I avoided writing about Sanders and his Colorado vision all offseason. I’m confused.
On the one hand, Sanders represents a complete upheaval of traditional coaching mores. I should be, based on the above, here for that. I was very much there for that when Sanders was doing a similar thing as a player. I wore No. 2 in high school because he did in college. I wore an obnoxious number of wristbands, which my coaches gave me a hard time about (and they were right to do so). Sanders’ anti-authority approach will always have a lot of appeal for teenagers, even ones who grew up on a farm in the 1990s.
On the other hand, Sanders represents a contrarian take on what have become core beliefs. The most shocking thing I heard this offseason came from Colorado just a few weeks ago. Via ESPN:
“I’m not welcoming to that word, culture,” Sanders said. “That's all I heard when I was in Jackson. Culture, culture, culture, culture, culture. Now culture, culture. What the heck does that mean?”
In this context, it was defined for the Pro Football Hall of Famer as creating an environment to become a good football team. For example, what little things do the players have to do every day to maximize their potential?
“I don't think you got to have unity whatsoever,” Sanders said. “You got to have good players.”
Football coaches love to talk about culture, just not this one.
Football observers can grow tired of “culture” quickly. Here’s Tony Kornheiser and Michael Wilbon reacting to that Sanders quote on PTI. Their general “don’t talk to me about culture” takes seems to be the majority opinion on the topic, based on my last decade covering Nebraska. Culture isn’t satisfying to talk about because it’s intangible.
I’ve never coached a team to anything more than a couple of eighth-grade basketball wins, but I remain convinced culture is the key to winning sustainably over a long period of time.
Maybe that’s just what I want to believe. Maybe the thing I’m actually resisting is a version of college football where talent acquisition is the only thing that matters. I’m not a “Jimmies and Joes” guy, though there’s more than a little evidence it really might be that simple at the extreme ends of the scale. Alabama, Georgia and Ohio State consistently lap their respective fields in recruiting. They might have strong cultures, but nobody cares because they rarely lose, and did you see how many draft picks? It’s as easy to understand as the consistent struggles of, say, UMass, Louisiana-Monroe and UTEP, schools that regularly finish behind FCS schools in the annual recruiting rankings.
But that still leaves a vast middle in the sport, a middle that Nebraska and Colorado currently occupy. How do you win consistently from there?
We know Matt Rhule’s plan. “I’ll probably always err on the side of development and on the side of culture,” he said in February. You can pick almost any quote from the offseason and it’ll be some variation that supports that idea.
Rhule may value culture as much as Sanders professes not to if you take them both at their word. You could, then, call Saturday a culture war, loaded as that term is, and some probably will. Rhule, however, wouldn’t go there when asked about the contrast at his Monday press conference.
“I respect anybody that’s just trying to figure out how to win,” he said. “There’s different ways of doing it.”
It’s a diplomatic answer, one any future CU opponent can use because Sanders’ approach isn’t just a contrast to Nebraska’s, but everybody’s. It may be college football’s only prime number—divisible only by Sanders or one…which is also Sanders.
If you gave Colorado administrators truth serum, what do you think they’d say success looks like for Sanders in Boulder?
Make the program relevant? That happened the day Sanders arrived.
Make it better? Last year’s Buffs were, objectively, one of the worst Power 5 teams in recent memory. Saturday’s win over TCU at least proved Sanders already has improved the program via his “delete all, download new roster” command. It’s too early to tell—which is true of all things after one week of football—but Colorado may have been uniquely positioned to do that based on the depths of the struggles in 2021.
If those two seemingly fair expectations are already checked off, are we into the realm of anything is possible? We are as long as Colorado keeps winning.
Another byproduct of the Buffs’ big win was seeing some of the slippery slope arguments trickle out at the first sign this approach could work. If it does, will every new hire employ the Sanders method?
They won’t. They can’t.
Picture West Virginia firing Neal Brown this season and hiring Rich Rodriguez to make a triumphant return to the program that jumpstarted his career. He, or anyone else, could certainly strip the roster down to its studs. But would he, or anyone else, have the personal brand to attract the level of talent Sanders did in one offseason?
If you followed football at any point from the late-1980s on, you knew who Deion Sanders was, either as a player, TV analyst or coach. It allowed him to attract talent to Jackson State that never would’ve considered the school otherwise. Sanders had a first-mover advantage at Colorado and a starter pack of potentially elite talent coming from his previous stop that a coach anywhere else doesn’t have.2
Colorado’s potential success isn’t a slippery slope for the sport, it’s one-of-one. It can be appreciated or dismissed on those merits alone.
That’s what may have been missing from the discussion around Sanders all offseason. The question wasn’t “what if it works,” but perhaps, “if it works and can’t be replicated, what does it mean?”
We need more games to know if it works. There’s a big one this week.
All offseason long, Sanders said Colorado was coming. After one game he, his team and most of college football media reacted as if the Buffs had just arrived.
Maybe that’s true. If so, what happens then? What’s next?
Or is that Matt Rhule’s question?
Could he also make a bunch of sportswriters burn a sentence or two explaining a reference to Louis Vuitton luggage while delivering this message? Yes, hilariously, yes.
We may have already seen the closest anyone will come to replicating Sanders’ 2022 roster reversal: Lincoln Riley brought a handful of Oklahoma talent with him to USC last year, but it was still a fraction of the turnover Colorado engineered.