April 21, 2024

BOULDER, Colo. — About an hour and a half before the Rocky Mountain Showdown was set to kick off this past weekend, Colorado coach Deion Sanders strolled down the Buffaloes’ sideline. Fans were starting to file in the stands, and there was already a large contingent of students who had arrived early to claim spots in their general admission sections.

As Sanders made his way toward the first student section at about the 40-yard line, they started to cheer. Then they started to bow. Both hands up, both hands down. Bend at the waist. Up and down. Up and down. Sanders continued walking toward the end zone — where the rest of the student seating wraps around — and more and more of them started to bow as the wave of worship stayed at his pace.

Colorado would move to 3-0 a few hours later in a double-overtime thriller, but in that moment the team was one of several undefeated teams in the country. One of eight in the Pac-12 alone. Yet here was Sanders, receiving God-like treatment. The whole scene, one that included a pregame visit from Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson and Lil Wayne leading the team out of the tunnel, would have been incomprehensible a year ago.

Sanders’ gravitational pull is perhaps unlike anything college football has ever seen.

“Our kids are getting eyeballs, they’re getting viewers, getting scouts out every day to watch them do what they’re gifted to do,” Sanders said.

This week, the stakes are raised as Pac-12 play begins with a trip to No. 10 Oregon (3:30 p.m., ET, ABC), which ranks No. 2 nationally in scoring (58 points per game), No. 3 in total offense (587 yards per game) and has College Football Playoff aspirations.

As impressive as Colorado has been to start the season, Sanders knows this week’s test will require an exhaustive effort.

“We haven’t played a complete game,” Sanders said. “We have not played a game where the offense, defense as well as special teams has all shown up in the same manner.

“If the offense is playing well, the defense is hot garbage. If the defense is playing well, offense is horrible and special teams aren’t special, so we got to put it all together to be able to defeat a team like Oregon.”

Given Sanders’ proclamation that he has been keeping receipts about what opposing teams have said about him and his team, it was inevitable he would get asked this week about Oregon coach Dan Lanning’s comments from the summer in the wake of Colorado’s announcement it was leaving the Pac-12 to return to the Big 12.

“Not a big reaction,” Lanning said of Colorado’s move. “I’m trying to remember what they won to affect this conference. I don’t remember. Do you remember them winning anything? I don’t remember them winning anything.”

The swipe at CU’s past performance isn’t something Sanders felt the need to respond to. In fact, he went the opposite direction.

“I respect the heck out of this man, what he’s accomplished,” Sanders said of Lanning. “Stepping in, taking over the program and keeping it not only rocking steady, but accelerating it.

“I’m not a fan of anybody, except for some celebrities that got a tremendous gift, but not in sports. I respect the heck out of him. I love what he’s accomplishing. I love who he is, the way he runs his team. I love the way he operates.”

The sentiment is reciprocated by Lanning.

“I think Coach Sanders has done a great job, obviously with his team,” Lanning said. “He has created a lot of momentum and they’ve done phenomenal in their first three games.”

Even with a 3-0 record, however, the Buffs don’t necessarily look like a team ready to take down the Ducks. It took late heroics from quarterback Shedeur Sanders to beat Colorado State — which lost by 26 to Washington State in its previous game — to win a game it was favored in by 23.5 points.

While Sanders praised the team’s resiliency and fight in the locker room following that victory, he made it clear that level of performance won’t always be good enough.

“Ultimately, we won,” he told the team. “But that is not indicative of who we are. We underachieved. I don’t know how it happened because we work our butts off. You have some of the best coaches in the nation, I feel. But you still took it for granted.

“I want you guys to understand this moment, because we could be on the other side.”

Safety Shilo Sanders, who forced a fumble and returned an interception for a touchdown in that game, attributed Colorado State’s success to self-inflicted mistakes by Colorado.

“There wasn’t really nothing they was doing, it was just us,” he said. “That’s just how it’s going to be this whole season. We have the talent to be the best in this conference, in the country, but we can only do it to ourselves.”

But the Buffaloes will be missing a key part to their success. Two-way star Travis Hunter will be out against Oregon — and likely out for a few weeks — after suffering a lacerated liver on a late hit against Colorado State.

Hunter garnered Heisman buzz after the first two weeks in which he played 88.3% of Colorado’s snaps from scrimmage (not including special teams). His absence is the equivalent of two players.

“There’s no one in the country who could fill Travis Hunter’s shoes,” Deion said. “You got to understand, he’s a unique player. He’s one of a kind. He’s the best player on offense, the best player on defense. That’s just who he is — in the country, not just on this team.”

It’s a bold claim considering his son ranks No. 2 in the country in passing yards and is generating Heisman hype of his own. And that hype will only intensify should Colorado win in Eugene — where the Ducks have won 26 of their past 27 games while allowing just 18.8 points per game — as 21-point underdogs.

“[He’s] playing as well as anybody right now,” Lanning said of Shedeur. “He has a really good grasp of their system and I think that they do a great job of connecting on balls down the field, having a lot of changeups, creating some efficiencies in their offense with the tempo that they move with.”

Lanning noted that Shedeur likes to buy time with his feet to find open receivers, as opposed to taking off on his own.

Oregon counters with a Heisman candidate of its own at quarterback with Bo Nix, who is one of just six quarterbacks in the country with at least eight touchdown passes and no interceptions. Their matchup represents the first high-profile quarterback showdown this year in the Pac-12, which is loaded with one of the deepest, most accomplished quarterback groups in college football history — a main reason in the conference’s early-season success that has resulted in eight teams ranked in the AP top 25.

“You’ve been playing opposing conferences, other teams, but now this is when we get in the meat potatoes of what really matters for us and our goals that we want to accomplish,” Lanning said. “So, there’s some great teams. I think we’ll continue to see that each week. I think we have a really tough schedule and certainly a tough opponent coming up here this week.”

But it’s not just any average tough opponent making the trip. The interest Deion has generated is making the Buffaloes a traveling phenomenon, one that would be taken to even greater heights with a top-10 win away from the altar of Folsom Field.

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