After nearly two decades of mediocrity, Colorado decided to swing big and brought on Deion Sanders to lead its football program. Sanders emerged as one of the biggest coaching names in the sport after guiding Jackson State to a 23-3 record over the past two seasons, but now the NFL legend faces his most intriguing coaching challenge yet at a moribund program in Boulder.
The Buffaloes went 1-11 in Karl Dorrell's final season with the only win coming in the first game after Dorrell was fired. The losses came by an average of more than 30 points per game. This was not only one of the worst programs in the Power Five, but arguably the worst overall program in FBS football -- even becoming the first Power Five team to win Tom Fornelli's Bottom 25 championship upon the conclusion of the 2022 regular season.
Sanders has no interest in being back near the bottom of the sport in 2023. He was aggressive, putting together a dynamic staff with plenty of upside. The roster will look completely different with 46 additions signed to the 85-man roster and more potentially on the way.
Flipping a program at the Power Five level is far different than at the FCS level, but all eyes will be on the Buffaloes as Sanders tries to work his magic. How many times have we said that since Rashaan Salaam left Boulder?
Here's what to watch as Sanders gets into his first spring practice season as Colorado head coach.
There might not be a team in college football that changed its identity more than the Colorado Buffaloes. After three lackluster years behind Dorrell, the Buffs hitched their wagon to the Deion Sanders train and have quickly become the talk of college football.
Though the spotlight has largely shone on Sanders since his hiring, it's easy to overlook that he's also built an impressive staff. Offensive coordinator Sean Lewis excelled as coach at Kent State and was on the shortlist for several Power Five jobs this offseason. Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly served in a similar role at Alabama. Tight ends coach Tim Brewster is regarded as one of the best recruiters in football.
"Coach Prime" was clear from the start that he planned to flip the roster, telling players during their first meeting that he was "bringing his own luggage." He backed it up with 45 new additions in the 2023 cycle, including the No. 1 transfer class in the nation. Seven of his transfers came with him from Jackson State, former No. 1 overall recruit Travis Hunter chief among them.
Coaches have found their way to early success by means of the transfer portal, but Colorado is a unique challenge. Outside of the pandemic season in 2020, the Buffaloes have reached just one bowl game since 2007. Since moving to the Pac-12, Colorado has a combined 27-76 record in conference play.
Names to know
- Shedeur Sanders, quarterback: Sanders' son emerged as a legitimate superstar at the FCS level in just two seasons as Jackson State signal-caller. Sanders completed 70.6% o his passes for 3,732 yards, 40 touchdowns and six interceptions, and added six more touchdowns on the ground. The rising junior should blend perfectly into offensive coordinator Sean Lewis' offense and immediately become one of the top passers in the Pac-12.
- Travis Hunter, cornerback: Hunter was the No. 1 recruit in the country and arguably exceeded the hype in his first season. He nabbed a pair of interceptions, broke up 10 passes and even caught four touchdowns for Jackson State. Now, he becomes by far the most heralded recruit to ever walk on Colorado's campus and has the potential to be a rare difference-maker on both sides.
- Taylor Upshaw, defensive end: Skill talent can come a long way in a year. Line talent takes much longer. Colorado opted to bring along super senior Upshaw from Michigan to help provide key leadership to a young unit. Upshaw was a key contributor for Michigan's back-to-back Big Ten title teams, posting 7.5 tackles for loss and four sacks across the past two seasons. He should slot in as a Day 1 starter for the Buffs.
Few programs need to have a strong spring slate more than Colorado. More than half the roster was not on campus in 2022, and more could change soon. Bringing seven transfers from Jackson State will help set a baseline, but the holes are deep.
Offensively, Shedeur Sanders should fit nicely into the Lewis offense. Lewis coached under Dino Babers at all three of his stops, and led lowly Kent State to the No. 2 total offense in the MAC. After Lewis' departure, his quarterback, Collin Schlee, transferred to UCLA. Sanders should be able to accomplish even more in this offense if Lewis can find the pieces to match. South Florida's two leading receivers -- Xavier Weaver and Jimmy Horn Jr. -- will help set the tone.
Defensively, Kelly has his work cut out. The Buffaloes fielded the worst Power Five defense in the nation, giving up more than 509 yards per game. The only impact defender on the roster, Josh Chandler-Semedo, is lost to graduation. Hunter and five-star recruit Cormani McClain should help close the gap, but there's little pathway for the line play to be passable in the Pac-12.
The ceiling for Sanders' squad, however, will come in the trenches. Nine of Colorado's 26 transfers were offensive or defensive linemen, along with two others from junior college. All eyes will be on offensive line coach Bill O'Boyle as he tries to pull a passable unit together.
Colorado bottomed out at 1-11 with one of the worst teams in program history in 2022. Sanders can't afford to waste a practice as he looks to guide the Buffaloes back to prominence.