BOULDER, Colo. -- About 90 minutes before Saturday's kickoff, Colorado assistant coach Tim Brewster took a lap around Folsom Field, stopping near where USC quarterback Caleb Williams was going through his pregame routine.
Williams, the 2022 Heisman Trophy winner and the projected No. 1 pick in the 2024 NFL draft, had the standard set of TV cameras and smartphones pointed toward him as he head-bobbed to music. But it hardly compared to the paparazzi-like throng parked in front of Colorado's tunnel in the northeast corner of the stadium.
First came the visiting athletes: C.C. Sabathia, Paul Pierce, Kevin Garnett, DeAndre Jordan and Desean Jackson, then others who are frequently hanging with coach Deion Sanders and the Buffaloes, such as Terrell Owens and Warren Sapp. Then came the rappers: DaBaby, who high-stepped when he and Sanders led the team on the field, along with Tobe Nwigwe and Lecrae. Jay-Z and LeBron James had been rumored to be attending but didn't end up making it.
The last and most anticipated entrance came from Sanders, surrounded by security. He has grabbed attention unlike any first-year coach in FBS history. And like he did as a Pro Football Hall of Fame cornerback, Sanders never let the spotlight get away during an incredible first month.
"It's become way bigger than college football," said Brewster, who joined Sanders' staff at Jackson State before coming to Colorado. "Every game is an event."
Sanders has been a magnet for attention from the moment Colorado hired him in December. The Buffaloes became the story of the offseason with their bold roster overhaul. But when the games began, Colorado and Sanders would be competing for attention with bigger brand names, future Hall of Fame coaches and more recognizable star players, like Williams. A challenging schedule and low win projections seemed likely to nudge Colorado to the side.
Instead, Sanders and the Buffaloes captured eyes and ears in the first month of the season. Colorado drew sellout crowds and set ratings records, while bringing national pregame shows and major celebrities to campus for all three home contests. They kept receipts and built believers. They popularized slogans -- perhaps the most appropriate after such a visible month was, "Ain't hard to find" -- and even gestures like the watch flex.
A team that went 1-11 in 2022 won its first three games and finished September at 3-2, scoring more touchdowns on offense (22) than it did all of the previous season (21). Colorado put two stars on the national radar in cornerback-wide receiver Travis Hunter and quarterback Shedeur Sanders, Deion's son, who elbowed his way into a crowded group of elite Pac-12 QBs.
"We're excited, truly, with the attention that's warranted to this wonderful, beautiful university," Deion Sanders said after Saturday's 48-41 loss to USC, a game in which Colorado trailed 34-7 before outplaying the Trojans down the stretch. "I'm excited and elated to be the coach here. I'm excited to really talk about the wonderful attributes that we possess.
"I am happy and thankful that we're a voice of hope, of just desire and want. That's the thing that's touching souls around the country."
He then pivoted to a refrain repeated often, that many are rooting against him and his team because they've been so unconventional and brash. Sanders and the Buffaloes might be polarizing, but everyone paid attention to them in September -- and likely won't be looking away any time soon.
BY HIRING SANDERS, Colorado athletic director Rick George ensured the Buffaloes would be relevant in college football.
"I don't think there's anybody that could have created the buzz that he's created," George told ESPN in February. "He's got such a following on all the social media spots. He's very visible, and he's very authentic and he's confident in where he can bring this program."
But Colorado has done more than that and has infiltrated the consciousness of the greater American cultural landscape.
The September schedule was scripted for the spotlight. Colorado opened against TCU, the runner-up in last season's College Football Playoff, before making its home debut under Sanders against longtime rival Nebraska. The month wrapped up with Pac-12 title contenders Oregon and USC. But notable opponents would only help the Buffaloes if they delivered the goods.
It would have been easy to look at the schedule and forecast a 1-4 start (with a win against Colorado State). Many people did, and the poor projections didn't go unnoticed within the Colorado facility.
After upsetting TCU 45-42, Sanders asked a reporter, "Do you believe now?"
"I keep the receipts," he added.
That became clear again the following week, after Colorado's 36-14 win against Nebraska, as Shedeur Sanders referred to an offseason comment Nebraska coach Matt Rhule made about not having cameras follow him around -- a purported swipe at Deion.
"The coach said a lot of things about my pops, about the program, but now that he wants to act nice -- I don't respect that because you're hating on another man, you shouldn't do that," Shedeur Sanders said. "It was just, all respect was gone for them and their program. I like playing against their DC, I like playing against them, but the respect level, it ain't there 'cause you disrespected us first."
The Rocky Mountain Showdown against Colorado State in Week 3 seemed to be the least exciting matchup for Colorado, but it would generate the most buzz and fallout. The fuse was lit in the oddest of places, during Colorado State coach Jay Norvell's weekly radio show, in which he said he made sure to remove his hat and sunglasses before meeting with the ESPN broadcast crew. His mother had taught him that.
"I don't care if they hear it in Boulder," Norvell said.
It got back to Sanders within hours, and he responded, in part, by distributing Prime 21 sunglasses from Blenders to his entire team, then to the hosts from ESPN's "First Take" and "The Pat McAfee Show," who did shows from campus the day before the game. As Sanders said of Norvell's comments, "My kids are now on a 10."
On Saturday, both ESPN's "College GameDay" and Fox's "Big Noon Kickoff" were on hand, as Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson, Lil Wayne and others descended on Boulder.
Although Colorado came in as a 23.5-point favorite, Colorado State controlled much of the game. Late in the first quarter, Rams safety Henry Blackburn delivered a late hit along the sideline to Hunter, drawing a 15-yard penalty. Hunter stayed in the game but would later be taken to a hospital and treated for a lacerated liver; he has since missed two games. Blackburn and his family immediately began receiving threats, including some death threats. (Deion Sanders condemned the threats days later.)
Colorado trailed 28-17 in the fourth quarter but rallied behind Shedeur Sanders to force overtime and won 43-35 in the second extra session. The game kicked off at 10:21 p.m. ET and ended at 2:25 a.m. ET Sunday, but it still drew 9.3 million viewers, becoming the most-watched late-night college football game ever on ESPN, the network's fifth-most-watched regular-season game ever for any time slot and the most streamed game of all time.
Sanders read all the ratings at a news conference three days after the game, adding, "This is incredible. Our kids are getting eyeballs."
That's true across all demographics, but the Buffs have generated a much more diverse group of viewers than what is usually seen in college football. Black viewers constituted 23% of ABC's audience for Colorado's game against Oregon on Sept. 23, which is about 7 percentage points higher than college football games broadcast by ABC last season, according to ESPN Research.
The increased visibility has caught the attention of opposing teams and coaches.
With Oregon leading Colorado 35-0 at halftime, Ducks coach Dan Lanning told the ABC broadcast: "I hope all of those people that have been watching every week are watching this week."
They were. The game peaked at 12.6 million viewers in what was the most-watched college football game of the season.
Lanning's halftime comment came shortly after his pregame speech was shown to viewers, during which Lanning took aim at the Colorado hype machine: "The Cinderella story is over, man. They're fighting for clicks; we're fighting for wins. There's a difference. This game ain't gonna be played in Hollywood; it's gonna be played on grass."
Oregon head coach Dan Lanning didn't hold back in his pregame speech against Colorado 👀— ESPN (@espn) September 23, 2023
"They're fighting for clicks, we're fighting for wins." pic.twitter.com/imo4OHA4fA
There was only so much Sanders could say after a 42-6 loss, but rest assured, Lanning's name was added to Sander's figurative list.
"I don't say something just to say stuff for a click, despite what some people might say," Sanders said. "Yeah, I keep receipts."
Colorado exists in a different universe than it has in recent years.
When the Buffaloes played No. 8 USC last year -- the same ranking USC held on Saturday -- only 528,000 viewers tuned in, according to data from sportsmediawatch.com. The number compared to what Ball State and Toledo drew a few days earlier, despite the Trojans featuring the Heisman front-runner in Williams. This season's game had 7.24 million viewers.
On Saturday, roughly 30,000 people watched the postgame news conference live on YouTube after Colorado lost to USC, and over 170,000 had watched by Monday morning. (The Fox TV ratings for the game have yet to be published.)
There are no signs interest is slowing down.
FIRST GAMES UNDER new coaching staffs are always difficult to forecast, but Colorado's debut under Sanders at TCU truly felt like mystery theater.
How would Hunter and Shedeur Sanders adjust to the FBS level? Could Colorado overcome a lack of depth along the line of scrimmage? Would a team that largely came together after spring practice actually click right away?
Colorado provided immediate clues of its improvement, marching 73 yards on its first drive for a touchdown and leading 17-14 at halftime. Even more impressive, the Buffs rallied from three deficits against a TCU team that had made its living in second halves in 2022, scoring touchdowns on their final three drives before running out the clock. Sanders finished with 510 passing yards, a team record in his Colorado debut. Hunter had 11 receptions for 119 yards and recorded an interception near the goal line, logging a preposterous 129 snaps. Deion Sanders spent the postgame calling out Colorado's critics -- "For real? Shedeur Sanders? From an HBCU? The one that played at Jackson last year?" he mockingly asked while discussing his son -- but both Shedeur and Hunter seemed utterly unsurprised by their immediate success.
"It's the same recipe, the same preparation, same things we're doing over and over," Shedeur Sanders said. "It's just magnified and y'all are able to see us, more cameras and stuff. The only difference is the media, and everybody is driving the headlines."
At a certain point, it will no longer make sense to compare the 2023 Buffaloes with the version that won just one game a year ago because the carryover is so limited. Colorado is not an example of a team improving year over year but an exercise in how to reset a roster -- 53 incoming transfers and 86 new players overall -- in an era that essentially functions with free agency.
However, Colorado's strategy has stood out from others, most easily illustrated by the 3-2 record. This team isn't ready to compete for a conference title, but a bowl trip is well within reach.
"One thing I can say honestly and candidly: You better get me right now," Sanders said after the loss to Oregon. "This is the worst we're gonna be. You better get me right now."
Even though, right now, the Buffs aren't an easy out. They were never in a position to beat USC on Saturday, but their second-half comeback to make the final score respectable was an encouraging sign of resiliency. Statistically, the progress is remarkable. Dating back 20 seasons, Colorado has never averaged more points per game in a season than it has to this point (34.2).
Six players last year combined to throw for a total of 2,075 yards. Sanders, who has 1,781 passing yards, will likely cruise past that figure by the halfway point of the regular season this week at Arizona State. His three games with 350-plus passing yards already rank second most in a season by a Colorado quarterback, behind Koy Detmer's five in 1996, per ESPN Stats & Information research. Even the defense, which ranks last in the Pac-12 in scoring at 36.2 points per game, is allowing roughly eight fewer points per game as compared to last year.
In every meaningful measure, the Buffaloes are significantly better, and all of this has come despite having Hunter, the team's best all-around player, unavailable for the past two tilts.
Hunter's ironman excellence in the first two games made him a must-watch for sports fans around the country, even those who had done similar feats. Former Ohio State wide receiver and cornerback Chris Gamble -- one of the most impactful true two-way players in college football, who helped the Buckeyes to the 2002 national championship -- said he has "never seen a guy that played both ways at a high level like that."
"It's tough, but he's built for it," said Gamble, who had 31 receptions, 35 punt returns, 11 kickoff returns, four interceptions and one pick-six, 24 tackles and six pass breakups for the Buckeyes in 2002. "Then he's got Coach Prime too, so he knows what he's doing. He's got the right coaching staff. Every week, I'm going to follow them like it's my team. "I'm going to root for [Hunter] and Coach Prime and Colorado, to see what he's going to do with that program."
WHAT COMES NEXT will truly show Sanders' ability to hold the nation's attention.
The Buffaloes are 0-2 in Pac-12 play and might not face a ranked opponent until No. 15 Oregon State visits Folsom Field on Nov. 4. Just as games against Oregon and USC promised to be measuring sticks, the next two -- Arizona State (road) and Stanford (home) -- will do the same on the opposite side of the spectrum. ASU and Stanford are, without question, the two worst teams in the Pac-12 to this point, so anything other than a pair of wins could do more damage to Colorado's profile than even the humiliating loss at Oregon.
Colorado is a better-looking product under Deion Sanders, but some warts remain. Only Old Dominion has allowed more sacks than Colorado's 26, and the importance of keeping Shedeur Sanders upright and healthy is paramount. The Buffaloes have been outscored 90-28 in the first halves of their past three games. Shedeur Sanders said the second half against USC was the first time the offense truly clicked since playing TCU. There have been breakdowns on defense, and special teams are often "not special," Deion Sanders has noted.
"We're yet to have an identity," Deion Sanders said. "I challenged them all week on: 'What's our identity?' I don't know who we are. From week to week, I don't know what we're going to do. From practice to practice I do, but we've got to translate that into the games. So we're still searching."
Hunter's forthcoming return, possibly as early as this week, will help Colorado's October relevancy. At a time when athletic limitations are being stretched by baseball's two-way player Shohei Ohtani, Hunter's usage and effectiveness adds a layer of intrigue to the Colorado story, especially since he plays for Deion Sanders, the only man ever to play in both the Super Bowl and the World Series.
Other than his coach, Hunter might be Colorado's biggest on-campus celebrity. Before the USC game, Hunter weaved through the celebrities wearing a hoodie with "I'M HIM" on each side and took pictures with fans gathered near the Buffaloes bench. Although Deion Sanders has tempered some praise for Shedeur -- wanting to speak strictly as a coach, not a dad -- he has gushed about Hunter, saying the sophomore has a future "brighter than mine ever will be and ever was."
Colorado's future overall has brightened under Deion Sanders. The Buffaloes likely won't contend for a title in the Pac-12, the nation's best and deepest league this season. But the team's rapid improvement under a staff that will be going through its first full recruiting cycle and has already generated vast visibility suggests the climb will continue. Long after the USC game, recruits in Colorado uniforms gathered for a photo shoot at midfield as music blared throughout the stadium. The future at Colorado had arrived.
"If you can't see what's coming with CU football, you've lost your mind," Sanders said. "You're just a flat-out hater if you can't see what's going on and what's going to transpire over the next several months."