February 26, 2024

Deion Sanders stumbled and shined in his first year as Colorado football coach

Assessing where Deion Sanders went wrong (and right) in his first season as Colorado football coach amid all the hype he generated.


Eternal optimist Deion Sanders seems to say things like this all the time:

“We’re going to be really good.”

“We’re going to win. We’re going to win. We’re going to win.”

“You’ll be happy with what’s to come. I promise.’

That’s how he spoke before the season, after being hired as coach of a Colorado football program that finished 1-11 in 2022. Then he spoke like this after the season, when his team lost six straight games and finished 4-8.

So why should we believe him now?

Here are his three biggest failures and successes in 2023 – and how they show he’s right or wrong about being on the brink of a breakthrough in 2024:

Big Failure No. 1: The offensive line

Deion Sanders and his staff have somehow overlooked preserving this position – through recruitment or retention during their massive pre-season roster overhaul.

Five offensive linemen from last year left the team after April’s spring game, including Jake Wiley, who transferred to UCLA, and Jackson Anderson, who transferred to Texas-San Antonio.

Wouldn’t some of those players have come in handy this season for Colorado, which ranked second nationally in quarterback sacks allowed with 56? Last year, the Buffaloes allowed just 23 sacks during a 1-11 season. This season, the lack of protection from the line ultimately cost the health of quarterback Shedeur Sanders, who finished the season with a fracture in his back.

Last week, Sanders acknowledged on his Colorado Coaches Football Show “we built it differently” by bringing in players at skill positions without as much focus on interior linemen. He also said it is being resolved.

“We built from the outside in,” he says. “So the skill positions are established. Now the internal (line) will be established. Because we already had the skill and we have skill coming from everywhere trying to get in. You have the phones jumping off the hook for the bigs ( linemen) because they see a lack thereof. That’s why you have a lot of bigs … who want to block for Shedeur.”

Big Fail #2: The Stanford Game

Sometimes a loss is so bad that it can change the trajectory of a season. At halftime of this game on October 13, the Buffs were 4-2 and led 29-0 at home. After losing this game in double overtime, 46-43, the Buffs never won again. Deion Sanders admitted he felt “complacency” in his team at halftime. So why didn’t he do more about it?

Anything to stop the bleeding could have prevented this: more aggressive play-calling on offense, a trick play to shift the momentum, a key stop on defense. It’s up to Sanders to help facilitate that so that the roof doesn’t continue to collapse in a game like this.

Had the Buffs survived this one, they could have built momentum toward the minimum six wins needed to qualify for a postseason bowl berth. It could have changed the entire story of this season’s obituary.

Big Failure #3: Unforced errors

Colorado lost five games by seven points or fewer. How much would the Improvements have won without so many unforced errors? Many of these mistakes involve discipline and management, all of which can be traced back to coaching.

The Buffs ranked second nationally with 107 penalties, behind only New Mexico (4-8), which committed 119 penalties.

One coaching blunder against Oregon State on November 4 ultimately made the difference in the game. Down 7-3 with 49 seconds left before halftime, the Buffs got the ball on their own 4-yard line.

If the Buffs had run the ball and the clock, that would have been the score at halftime. Instead, they ended up being cute, despite not having moved the ball the entire game before. They attempted passes that fell incomplete on first and second, stopping the clock and giving Oregon State just enough time to get the ball back and extend the lead to 14-3 with a touchdown just before halftime.

Deion Sanders blamed himself for the blunder. Colorado lost 26-19.

Another blowout came last week in their final game in Utah, when the Buffs lost 23-17. Utah got the ball with 7:25 left in the game and then ran out the clock on a 12-play possession that ended at the Colorado 31-yard line as time expired. In other words, the Utes milked the clock for half a quarter by practically sitting on the ball to prevent the Buffs from having another chance to win at the end.

How is that even possible? One reason is the questionable use of timeouts. Colorado had burned two of three timeouts in the third quarter, including one with less than two minutes left in the half. Sanders said he used one to avoid a five-yard penalty.

Big success No. 1: That glorious start

It was described as the biggest story in sports after the Buffs went off to a 3-0 start in front of sold-out crowds and national television viewers on Fox and ESPN.

This was a credit to Sanders’ coaching ability: He made his players believe they had what it took to beat TCU in the season opener and then carry it off for two more games, against Nebraska and Colorado State.

But apparently they could not maintain that belief. It was almost as if the fire burned too hot, too fast, and then burned out. Why? Sanders said this was because they lost the necessary “attitude.”

Last week, Sanders promised that he would get the magic back. Next year, the Buffs’ first three games are at home against North Dakota State on August 31, then at Nebraska on September 7 and at Colorado State on September 14. They will then play in the Big 12 Conference after leaving the Pac-12, where they went 1-8 in 2023.

“The climax we gave you early on, we’re taking you back there, because I know you liked that ride, right?” he said. “We’ll take you back there.”

Biggest success No. 2: Upgrading talent

Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son, was the best quarterback at Colorado since Kordell Stewart in 1994. Two-time star Travis Hunter was the best all-around player in Boulder since the 1930s, when Byron “Whizzer” White played offense, defense and defense. kicker.

Both will return in 2024, along with Colorado’s best talent in the defensive backfield since the Buffs won two Jim Thorpe Awards for the nation’s best defensive backs in 1992 and 1994. The depth chart there includes Hunter, safety Shilo Sanders (another son of the coach) and Cormani McClain, the No. 1 cornerback recruit in 2023.

After a year of improvement, better blocking and a better supporting cast, what happens next year? The Buffs had just 11 scholarship players who were in their final year of eligibility in 2023, out of a scholarship cap of 85. The transfer portal heats up again on December 4 and Sanders plans to target a “plethora” of players there .

Biggest success #3: Bringing the hype

Critics have criticized Deion Sanders for his habit of being followed by video cameras and stoking the hype. Let’s be honest about that though. Those critics are jealous.

Sanders is a marketing tour de force made for the age of YouTube and social media. According to Cision, the university’s media monitoring service, the advertising value of the attention the Buffs received after hiring Sanders last year for the first four games of 2023 was $249 million more than the same period a year earlier.

What coach wouldn’t want that?

A spotlight that is bright helps attract recruits, sell tickets and move merchandise. The Buffs sold out every home game for the first time in their history this year, playing in front of a sold-out crowd in 11 of their 12 games. On television, the Buffs entered their final game of the season as the most-watched team in America with 54.3 million viewers, not including games on the Pac-12 Network, where viewership was not reported.

According to Sanders, it’s now just a matter of using that spotlight to shop players and bring home the ingredients the team needs.

“We are right on schedule with the plan,” he said last week. “The plan is to improve everything we touch. Are we selling out every game? Has this team gotten better? Has it instilled hope? What’s the problem? Can someone tell me what the problem is.”

Follow reporter Brent Schrotenboer @Schrotenboer. Email: bschrotenb@usatoday.com

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