Prime’s roster revamp has overshadowed Colorado’s coaching upgrade
Sep. 4, 2023 10:39 a.m. ET
One of the greatest things about college football is how the unexpected becomes routine each Saturday. Every set of games brings about a delightful twist or turn, seemingly out of nowhere, to upend the conventional wisdom of a matchup coming in — forcing just about everybody involved to ponder how early prognostications were so off the mark.
The first official, full Saturday of the 2023 season seemed to supercharge this weekly phenomenon with remarkable results all over the board. Despite having just two ranked teams on the road and not a single meeting of top-25 teams until Sunday, the beautifully chaotic sport went out and topped it all by first delivering a Big Noon Saturday for the ages.
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Naturally, the interest in Colorado’s visit to TCU was chiefly about Deion Sanders’ debut. A former superstar in the metroplex where it would take place, Coach Prime’s first game in charge of a Power 5 program was easily the most anticipated action of the season. Not seeing who Alabama’s new quarterback would be, how the reigning champs would get along with Carson Beck under center, Wisconsin running the — gasp — Air Raid or even what Caleb Williams would do for a Heisman encore.
No, it was millions upon millions tuning in for the genesis of the most fascinating experiment in college football. We’ve seen high school coaches take big jobs and former players take over programs but never the gold-jacketed Deion Sanders’ first attempt at reviving a fallen giant nestled in the Rockies.
What would he say? What would he do? Would he win, or would it all be the case of the hype exceeding lofty internal expectations?
“We are going to continuously be questioned because we’re doing something that has never been done,” Sanders said postgame. “We do things that have never been done and that makes people uncomfortable.”
The thing that has never been done before, the thing that has led to many predictions of the Buffaloes going belly up when kickoff arrived, was the unprecedented roster revamp undertaken. It wasn’t just that Sanders claimed he was bringing some Louis Viton luggage with him, it was the scale of turnover that led to angst and naysaying from many outside Boulder.
Eighty-seven total newcomers, including 67 out of the current 77 scholarship players, arrived this offseason at CU. Just three starters returned from last year’s 1-11 squad and only nine players total donned a Buffs uniform pre-Prime. Not even a tear-it-down-to-the-studs rebuild in the NFL will go through that much change in personnel from one year to the next.
Many of those new players powered the entertaining 45-42 victory over the Horned Frogs. Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son, threw for a school-record 510 yards and four touchdowns. Dylan Edwards, one of 17 freshmen brought in, ran for one score and caught three others on his way to a team-high 179 total yards. Travis Hunter not only played both ways for more than 120 snaps, but he did so at a high enough level to become the first player to have at least 10 catches plus an interception in 26 years.
Such performances naturally get all the attention, but the combination of the new stars showing out and continued talk about the slate of fresh names on the two-deep overshadowed what was the real highlight of Sanders’ debut — and indeed this entire experiment — in his coaching staff.
Offensive coordinator Sean Lewis may well be the front-runner for the Broyles Award if he can keep up the attack he engineered against a TCU defense that returned seven starters from a group that made the national title game earlier this year. Not only did the Buffs set several records in the passing attack, but they dominated in time of possession, too.
Lewis’ usage of tempo particularly caught the Horned Frogs off guard. As head coach at Kent State, his teams were regularly among the FBS leaders in snaps per game, and the new supporting cast he oversees seemed perfectly suited to going as fast as possible despite the warm conditions in Fort Worth. It wasn’t just that TCU was unfamiliar with the offense (the Frogs face it every day in practice), it just couldn’t line up properly or in time — issues that led to several coverage busts or early penalties.
Just as notable, Lewis schemed around some of the obvious shortcomings that the remade roster sported, too — particularly up front. The signal-calling Sanders was given plenty of time to throw behind an offensive line that was light on experience at the Power 5 level, and the quarterback only started to feel any sort of pressure deep into the second half.
Receivers coach Brett Bartolone, who is entering his first season coaching the position in the Division I ranks and graduated just eight years ago, managed to produce four wideouts who had more than 100 yards in the opener.
Colorado Buffaloes vs. No. 17 TCU Horned Frogs Highlights | CFB on FOX
Defensive coordinator Charles Kelly won’t be happy with some of the raw numbers his group allowed but did see a rotated cast pull down two interceptions and limit a high-powered attack to just 279 yards passing. The Buffs defense also came up big with several key stops in the red zone and sealed the outcome with a fourth-down stand. Assistant Sal Sunseri’s undersized and thin defensive line corps impressed with their impact on the game by forcing several pressured throws out of quarterback Chandler Morris.
“The coaches did a great job of calling the right defenses, we just didn’t execute,” Sanders noted on Saturday. “We are going to fix that.”
For all the attention on Sanders, he should earn every plaudit for the job he did in the opener, too. The players were clearly bought into what Colorado wanted to do and came out fired up and ready for the moment. The game plan produced terrific results and tricky situations were managed well. Timeout usage, tricky for any head coach at any level, was on point.
Plus, you know, they captured the only top-20 road win for the program since they joined the Pac-12. That’s not just luck, that’s bucking the trend of history in Boulder in a concentrated way.
“Do you believe?” Sanders shouted at one reporter in his postgame news conference.
Many do now, not just because of the players making plays but due to the smart way the once-mocked coaching staff has put them in a position to succeed early in 2023.
The entire effort on Saturday was also an interesting contrast to that of their next opponent. Nebraska also sports a highly paid (and far more praised) coaching staff led by Matt Rhule. There was some roster turnover in Lincoln as expected, but nothing like what was undertaken by the side they’ll face beneath the Flat Irons on Saturday. If you had polled a random group with any interest in college football earlier this month, chances were probably high that they would pick the Cornhuskers to have a better season than the Buffs.
Against Minnesota in their season opener, however, it was a nightmare Big Red has seen far too often in recent times. A sluggish offensive effort kept things close going into the final quarter, including four of the team’s nine drives ending in turnovers. But Nebraska still held a lead late and the win probability even pegged Rhule at 95% with just five minutes left.
Then the old Cornhuskers — the ones that haven’t been able to win a one-score game for years — showed back up in precisely the spot Rhule was brought in to change. The Gophers notched a 10-play drive that ended in a touchdown, forced a turnover the other way, and then proceeded to efficiently move into range for Dragan Kesich to knock in the game-winner.
Nebraska Cornhuskers vs. Minnesota Golden Gophers Recap | CFB on FOX
Not surprisingly, Nebraska has shifted from more than a touchdown favorite going into its renewed rivalry game at Colorado this weekend to a near-field-goal underdog. Such line movement is reflected in the sentiment surrounding both sides, as the limited sample set makes it look like the Buffs are far ahead of schedule with their rebuild while Rhule’s side is tracking more with the multi-year effort that he has previously undertaken at Baylor and Temple.
Which is fine. That’s just college football, a sport that is a season-long welding of different approaches with one common goal.
It’s also one capable of continual surprises, none more so than what’s transpiring in Boulder going into Week 2.
First and 10
1. The best game of Week 1 on paper was undoubtedly No. 5 LSU’s rematch with No. 8 Florida State down in Orlando. While the first half was filled with strange plays for both sides, the close nature of things indicated what could have been a classic finish befitting of the two teams’ rankings.
Instead, it turned into a blowout, as the Seminoles used a 31-7 run to take control and all but cement their status as 2023’s early “it” program. Mike Norvell called a great game on offense and showed why former Michigan State WR Keon Coleman was such a coveted transfer portal addition by continually scheming him one-on-ones against Tigers defensive backs — whom the ‘Noles new top target continually roasted to the tune of 122 yards and three scores. Even scarier for future opponents: QB Jordan Travis accounted for five touchdowns but didn’t even play his best.
Clemson looms for the ‘Noles in Death Valley on Sept. 23 in our next big mile-marker in the College Football Playoff race.
As for Brian Kelly’s team, he’ll certainly be lighting into it for a litany of mental errors that held LSU back in the first half and then led to a runaway late. There’s still a ton of talent in Baton Rouge, but repeating as SEC West champions is going to be much tougher than anybody thought if the team keeps this up. The issues on special teams were especially eye-opening given how much they struggled in that critical third phase last year and the way LB Harold Perkins was used so sparingly in rushing the passer was downright bizarre.
LSU can still rally and use this as a learning tool moving forward but file away how uncompetitive the team was down the stretch given the amount of big games still left to play.
2. The last dance of the Pac-12 is not only the most transfixing show in the sport, it just might be the best. In addition to Colorado’s enthralling victory on Big Noon Saturday, the league remained perfect in non-conference play with a series of quality efforts across the board.
Among the nine Week 1 games involving the conference on Saturday and Sunday alone, seven Pac-12 quarterbacks threw for three or more touchdowns, too. As despondent as everyone is about the dissolution of one of the great institutions in college athletics, at least it’s on track to go out with a bang.
3. Speaking of signal-callers, a lot of attention on some debuts in the Big Ten at the position. While Penn State’s Drew Allar made some phenomenal throws in primetime to beat West Virginia, things were a bit more mixed for Ohio State’s Kyle McCord in a contest against Indiana that is already being nitpicked to death by Buckeyes near and far.
Ryan Day’s track record at the position remains the best in the sport, so it’s not time to panic by any stretch, but you have to wonder what kind of long-term implications there could be if McCord’s ceiling is a bit lower than his first-round predecessors in Columbus. One would guess that he’ll probably put up big numbers in Week 2 as things get corrected and Marvin Harrison Jr. (two catches, 18 yards) gets targeted more, but you are slightly more skeptical about the Buckeyes if they’ve only got the third- or fourth-best QB on their schedule.
4. Because it happened on Thursday, Utah’s monumental victory over Florida in Salt Lake City is going to get overlooked some amid the long holiday weekend but it might have been the biggest bat signal that the title still runs through the Utes out West. Playing without QB Cam Rising, the offense looked just fine in getting big chunk plays and generally making an SEC defense look a half-step slow. Backup Nate Johnson really adds an extra dimension and should continue to see the field even after Rising is medically cleared from his ACL tear.
The other thing that sticks out is that Kyle Whittingham’s defense remains top-notch. Players were flying around and shut down the Gators anytime they tried to get things going. That’s notable given that nobody in the rest of the conference really showed much in the way of quality play on that side of the ball after Week 1 and could again be a differentiator against so many good quarterbacks later this year.
5. It’s a toss-up as to which beleaguered unit looked most improved on Sunday, Gene Chizik’s North Carolina defense or the new-look offense at Cal under new OC Jake Spavital.
The Tar Heels allowed just a field goal in the second half to South Carolina and were fantastic against the run (-2 yards on the night). They had to face some extra possessions too since Drake Maye threw two uncharacteristic interceptions, but it was otherwise a big turnaround from a group that returned the bulk of the starters on a 102nd-ranked scoring defense in 2022. If they can keep up that kind of effort against the rest of the ACC, a return trip to Charlotte with an eye on a bigger prize can’t be ruled out given how good their quarterback typically is.
As for the Bears, they’ve struggled to field a competent unit on offense for pretty much all of Justin Wilcox’s tenure in Berkeley. Despite losing starting QB Sam Jackson V, Cal still managed to put up 58 points on the road at North Texas (most since 2015). Tailback Jaydn Ott remains the best-kept secret to those outside the West Coast after a 188-yard, two-touchdown effort. That performance helped the team rack up 357 yards on the ground to balance out a 312-yard day through the air and has future ACC member Cal looking very interesting going into that meeting with Auburn at home.
6. The Pac-12 isn’t the only Western league to start off the year well, as the Mountain West added some big pelts up on their wall amid a good beginning to the campaign. Thanks to a weather delay, much of the country was focused on Wyoming’s double-overtime win over Texas Tech. Despite losing a few key players to the Transfer Portal, Craig Bohl felt confident that this group could help elevate the Cowboys beyond their typical seven or eight wins into a true league contender. That could be the case if they display the kind of grit and toughness they did in grinding that victory out against the Red Raiders.
Further East, Fresno State began the post-Jake Haener era in notable fashion by going into Purdue and ruining Ryan Walters’ debut with a 39-35 win. Former UCF QB Mikey Keene threw for 366 yards and four scores to help capture the first win by the league on the road in the Big Ten since 2008. All told, the MWC went 7-3 in games non-involving the Pac-12 through Week 1 with all three losses coming on the road at Power Five competition.
7. The Big 12 emerged from conference realignment as perhaps the biggest winner, but the league took some lumps on the field in Week 1. Future member Colorado beat current one TCU, Texas Tech fell on the road in Laramie, Baylor lost as a three-touchdown favorite (and lost their starting QB), West Virginia was thumped in Happy Valley, Houston needed a generous spot to hold on against UTSA and BYU’s offense managed only 14 points against FBS’ newest member Sam Houston State at home.
Oklahoma, Texas and Kansas State did cruise in blowouts, but it’s possible the league will wind up with just three ranked teams on Tuesday.
8. The biggest upset of Saturday may have been in Waco as the Bears convincingly fell to Texas State. The Bobcats took the lead midway through the first quarter and never looked back, with former LSU/Auburn QB TJ Finley throwing for 298 yards on Dave Aranda’s defense and accounting for four total touchdowns to notch the school’s first-ever win over a Power 5 opponent.
New head coach G.J. Kinne is one to keep an eye on, doing a fantastic job last year in leading nearby Incarnate Word to a ton of success with a high-flying offense at the FCS level before the jump to San Marcos. Texas State could well be labeled the Colorado of the Group of Five too, given that the team had the second-most transfers to the roster in FBS this year behind only the Buffs. Between this outing against Baylor and the talent infusion, the overlooked Sun Belt program might be able to make some noise in the very entertaining league.
9. If you glanced at the box score of Georgia’s 48-7 win over Tennessee-Martin, you probably would have thought Carson Beck’s first start went to script. Though the signal-caller did throw for a respectable 294 yards on 21 completions, the overall outing with new OC Mike Bobo was sluggish in so many respects. The inability to pick up first downs before halftime led to things being closer than they should and star tight end Brock Bowers being a more effective runner than weapon in the passing game told you plenty.
The good news for Kirby Smart’s pursuit of a three-peat? The Dawgs have plenty of time to get right with such a light slate in the first half of the year.
10. The four newest Big 12 schools all went 4-0 in Week 1 while the outgoing Big 12 schools went 2-0. Add in the outgoing Pac-12 schools with an 11-0 plus ACC newcomer SMU winning and the Power Five chess pieces didn’t seem to falter on the field despite all the conference realignment happening off it.
Play of the Weekend
Double-Take from Week 1
Best Player: Travis Hunter, Colorado
Team of the Week: Florida State
Coach of the Week: G.J. Kinne, Texas State
Hot Seat of the Week: Butch Jones, Arkansas State
Heisman Five: 1. Caleb Williams (USC), 2. Travis Hunter (Colorado), 3. Michael Penix Jr. (Washington), 4. Sam Hartman (Notre Dame), 5. Shedeur Sanders (Colorado)
Tweet of the Week
My ballot going into Week 2 in the FWAA/NFF Super 16 poll:
Just missed the cut: Ohio State
Best of the rest: Texas A&M, Kansas State, Tulane, Oregon, Oklahoma, Boise State, Iowa, Ole Miss
Nebraska at Colorado (Saturday, noon ET on FOX)
After seeing both sides in Week 1, this is one of those lines that stinks a little and should make you cautious to go with the home side. Still, not sure the Cornhuskers will see an offense operate at the pace that the Buffs will nor do they have as many athletes to contain them on the back end either. Colorado -2.5
Iowa at Iowa State (Saturday, 3:30 p.m. ET on FOX)
The drive for 325 got off to a bumpy start for the Hawkeyes after the offense went into a funk following a promising pair of touchdown drives. The Cyclones are a mess however given the number of key suspended players they will be down in an intra-state battle that has some unique context to this year’s meeting. Iowa -4
Texas at Alabama (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET)
The Longhorns weren’t super sharp against Rice on offense, but it really felt like they were trying to be as vanilla as possible to not put anything extra on tape for Nick Saban. The Tide’s opener had an entirely different feel and it sure seems like the staff changes and new quarterback have helped give this team a new attitude to carry into this matchup. Alabama -7
UCF at Boise State (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET on FS1)
The original BCS busters host the program that not only followed in the Broncos’ footsteps, but that eventually got invited into the power leagues, too. The Knights have a good team, but some of those turnovers in the opener could spell trouble on the blue turf. Boise State +3
Oregon at Texas Tech (Saturday, 7 p.m. ET on FOX)
This is one of those spots where you wonder if the Red Raiders were looking ahead to this major non-conference battle so much that they slipped up on the road in Laramie. People figure to be pounding a rebound at home, but we’ll zag in this case due to those kicking issues looking like a red flag in games like this for Tech. Oregon -7
Stanford at USC (Saturday, 10:30 p.m. ET on FOX)
Our first glimpse at Troy Taylor’s offense was mostly good, with young QB Ashton Daniels looking like he had made significant strides over the offseason as a passer. Something says both will be able to move the ball against that Trojans defense and keep things close enough through three quarters. Stanford +29
Bryan Fischer is a college football writer for FOX Sports. He has been covering college athletics for nearly two decades at outlets such as NBC Sports, CBS Sports, Yahoo! Sports and NFL.com among others. Follow him on Twitter at .
This content was originally published here.