June 13, 2024

For the first time since Deion Sanders arrived at Colorado, the pressure is on.

Not that there isn’t a level of pressure felt by every college football coach, but Sanders arrived in Boulder with little in the way of outside expectations. Some of that came with the fact that he was inheriting a one-win team and some because he’s Deion Sanders, a beloved football icon who had earned the benefit of the doubt by entertaining fans for decades.

Either way, success at Colorado this year was never going to be measured in the way it will be at other Pac-12 programs like Oregon, Utah, USC or Washington. Still, Sanders laid out a high standard when he arrived and reiterated that Tuesday.

“My expectations are lofty,” he said. “So, you know darn well how the season is going with my expectations. It depends on your expectation. You can’t mix my expectation and your expectations because they don’t coincide. You know what mine are. I know where I feel like we should be record-wise and I know what we can accomplish.”

Safe to say, 1-3 in the Pac-12 isn’t the win-loss record he was referring to, even though his team’s 4-3 overall mark is better than what many outside observers had envisioned in August.

The pressure now, though, isn’t about preseason predictions. This pressure comes from how those expectations evolved and were espoused from within the program as the team started 3-0.

In a celebratory postgame news conference after Colorado upset national runner-up TCU to open the season, Sanders singled out ESPN’s Ed Werder — though he was merely chosen, seemingly at random, as a figurehead for any perceived doubter — and asked, “Do you believe now?”

He might as well have been speaking to the country. The clip made the rounds on the internet and served as an exclamation point on an impressive victory. It was a moment where it felt like Sanders demanded for the Buffaloes’ on-field performance to be held to a higher standard.

As in, I’ve been saying we are good. Here’s the proof.

That’s a dangerous game to play in college football after game No. 1, but after three wins to open the season, it was clear the Buffs were significantly better than a year ago. Not conference-contender better. More like, should-reach-a-bowl-game better.

In fact, a bowl game seemed like a safe bet. Since 2010 (not including 2020), 91% of FBS teams that started 3-0 reached bowl games.

But after the Buffs came back to beat Colorado State in double overtime to move to 3-0, safety Shilo Sanders was aiming much higher.

“We have the talent to be the best in this conference, in the country,” he said.

In a sport where players and coaches often cliché their way through news conferences, Colorado — led by Coach Prime and his sons, Shilo and Shedeur Sanders — embraced lofty expectations. It’s part of their appeal.

Phase I, the nonconference portion of the schedule, was an unmitigated success. A nearly unprecedented level of buzz was layered over an encouraging start on the field.

Since then, it’s been bad.

The Buffs’ 1-3 stretch to open Pac-12 play, Phase II, doesn’t need a full autopsy. It’s enough to know it was bookended by a 42-6 loss to Oregon and the biggest blown lead in school history (against a team that might not win another conference game) — Colorado’s double-overtime loss to Stanford heading into the bye week was so bad it made Sanders question his team’s desire.

“They gotta make up their mind, are they in love with this game or like it,” Sanders said. “When you love something, you give to it unconditionally. You give everything you got to it. But when you like it, that’s just a button you push.”

That once-promising bowl trip is looking less likely. ESPN’s Football Power Index gives Colorado just a 30% chance to reach the six-win mark necessary to reach the postseason. In its five remaining games, Colorado plays three ranked teams, starting with No. 23 UCLA at the Rose Bowl on Saturday (7:30 p.m. ET, ABC), then has a home game against No. 11 Oregon State next week and a trip to No. 13 Utah for its season finale.

Its other two opponents — Arizona and Washington State — also have winning records. It’s an unforgiving road.

It’s especially daunting given Colorado’s deficiencies. The Buffaloes rank last in the country in total defense (473.7 yards per game). Only Stanford has a worse scoring defense than the Buffaloes among Power 5 teams (35.9 points per game). They rank No. 128 nationally in penalty yards per game (80.0).

On offense, Shedeur has put up massive numbers — he ranks No. 4 nationally in passing yards with 2,420 — but part of the reason he throws so much is that there is no running game to speak of. Colorado ranks last among Power 5 teams in rushing yards per game (86.3) and per carry (2.66). Sanders has also been sacked more times (34) than anyone at the FBS level.

That’s a lot to clean up, but coming out of the bye week, Deion expects progress.

Specific to the penalty issue, he said the coaching staff broke down where the problems have occurred and keyed in on those areas.

“We have addressed all of that and addressed the individuals that are consistently being penalized and how we’re going to improve that,” Sanders said. “We’ve addressed it tremendously. And you should see a tremendous improvement this Saturday.”

Here is where Phase III begins.

With tens of millions of eyes on the program, the Buffs went from overachiever to underachiever in the span of less than two months. The final five games will determine how this season is remembered.

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