Editor’s note: Saturday Out West’s annual Crystal Ball prediction series will preview every team in the Pac-12. Today: Colorado.

Already covered: Arizona | Arizona StateCal

* * * * * * *

Let the grand experiment begin.

Deion Sanders, college football’s Thomas Edison, is about to take us on maybe the wildest ride in college football history. There is no comparison to what has gone down in Boulder.

Was Colorado’s offseason purge nice? No. Was it tidy? Definitely not. Was it cutthroat? Absolutely. But those aren’t the right questions. Was it needed? That’s the only question that matters, and the answer is a resounding yes.

It’s not that the Buffaloes were barren. No, they fielded a team, alright. Just one of the worst teams ever assembled in Pac-12 history. So, like it or not, Coach Prime’s teardown was warranted. The question is, will it work? Colorado replaced more than 70 players, bringing in the top transfer portal class in history, with 50 commitments, including 43 3-stars, 5 4-stars and superstar 2-way player Travis Hunter, the nation’s top recruit at 2 positions in 2022.

The number of returning Buffaloes in the two-deep can be counted on one hand, but that’s not a bad thing. Guys like quarterback Shedeur Sanders, running back Alton McCaskill IV wideout Jimmy Horn Jr. are clear upgrades at their positions.

It really begins and ends with that — the talent upgrade was necessary and obvious. But now we’ll see if the chemistry experiment will work.

Can the Buffaloes live up to Coach Prime’s bravado?

When Colorado hired Sanders in December, he wasted precisely zero time letting the world know his intentions in Boulder.

“Now that I’ve gotten here and I see and I can understand it and I can grasp it, and I can feel it and I can touch it and I can taste it. I truly understand what you want,” Sanders said. “All you want is an opportunity to win. To compete, to dominate. To be among the elite, to be among the best. And darn it, I’m gonna give you that.

“We’re not here to compete but to win. Not to show up but to show out. Not to be among the rest but to be the absolute best. We’re coming to work, not to play. We’re coming to kill, not to kick it. Baby, I got to believe that we’re coming.”

“We comin'” has become the mantra for Prime and the Buffs, but that’s easy to say during an offseason that rarely slowed down. “We’re here” certainly doesn’t have the same ring to it.

But a brutal early season schedule that includes a pair of tough nonconference games threatens to rob Coach Prime of all his swagger. Or, of course, Colorado could shock the world with some early upsets. Either way, it’s bound to be entertaining.

In short, are you ready for Prime Time?

Is it Travis Hunter’s time?

Reports out of Boulder have been overwhelming: One of the nation’s top talents appears poised to dominate both sides of the ball.

This was all to be expected, of course. He had 4 passes defended, 2 picks, including 1 returned for touchdown, plus 18 receptions for 190 yards and 4 scores, and it felt like he barely scratched the surface last year. Granted, he was a true freshman, and, granted, it was against SWAC opponents.

But he truly seems ready for a breakout performance, and Pac-12 media voters believe it, too.

He was named first-team preseason all-conference at 2 positions — defensive back and all-purpose/special teams.

Talk about prime time. Hunter is must-watch TV.

Will it be a seamless transition for Shedeur Sanders?

After torching lesser opponents in the SWAC, Sanders takes his talents to the already talent-rich Pac-12. In a league with Caleb Williams, Michael Penix Jr., Bo Nix and Cam Rising — not to mention Jayden de Laura and Cameron ward — Sanders will have to play his way to prominence.

He’s got the game, though. In 2 years with the Tigers, Sanders had nearly 7,000 passing yards with 70 touchdowns and 14 interceptions as well as more than 150 rushing yards and 9 touchdowns.

“I love Shedeur and what he brings to the table as a quarterback,” said Colorado defensive coordinator Charles Kelly, filling for Deion Sanders at Pac-12 Media Day. “I’ve been very fortunate to be on some teams with some very good quarterbacks. They all have some really good characteristics. The first thing is Shedeur is very smart, all right? He understands the game. He understands what people are giving him.

“One of the most important things that a quarterback can do is to make good decisions. He makes good decisions. We go against him in practice, and I watch him. He has a strong arm. He’s very accurate. What I call hand talent, the guy has hand talent, very accurate with the football. He’s got all of those things. He’s got the traits that make him a great quarterback.”

Game-by-game predictions

Week 1: at TCU (L)

Back in 2015, when Colorado agreed to a home-and-home with TCU in 2022-23, the Horned Frogs were already one of the best programs in college football, with 5 top-10 finishes between 2008-2015. But the team took a nose dive from 2019-2021, and you could understand if the Buffaloes thought they had a chance.

Then TCU went out and finished 13-2 last year, runners-up to Georgia in the CFP title game, beating Colorado, 38-13, along the way.

So much for a reprieve.

For Coach Prime’s debut with Colorado, ESPN’s Football Power Index gives the Buffaloes a 5.4% chance to pull off the road upset. It’ll be a fun preview of the Buffs’ Big 12 future, though.

Week 2: vs. Nebraska (W)

So much for a let up. The Buffaloes will be shot out of a cannon to kick off the Coach Prime era, first with TCU and then with Nebraska. Are the Cornhuskers what they once were? No, definitely not. They haven’t been to a bowl game since 2016. That’s why Matt Rhule took over after a failed tenure with the Carolina Panthers.

But after a 7-17 run the past 2 years, I’m a little surprised Nebraska is so heavily favored by the FPI, which gives them a 71.6% chance to win. I’ve got Colorado in this one, not because I expect them to be good, but because the Huskers have been so bad. Let’s not forget, while Rhule is a turnaround master, he went a combined 3-21 in his first seasons at Temple and Baylor.

Week 3: vs. Colorado State (W)

ESPN gives the Buffs’ a 66.3% chance to win. It’s easy to understand why.

If the Buffaloes start the season 2-1 with 2 straight wins heading into Pac-12 play, you best believe that they’ll start to get some buzz. If they are somehow 3-0 before kicking things off with Oregon and then USC, the hype machine might just overheat.

But first the Buffs will have to get past in-state rival Colorado State, which has been a patsy for Colorado, even during the Buffs’ lean years. Despite little overall success, Colorado is 13-4 against its Mile High rivals since 2013, with 4 straight blowouts in their past 4 games.

Week 4: at Oregon (L)

Welcome to the suck, Prime. Talk about a rude entry. Colorado has a 4.1% chance to beat the Ducks in Autzen Stadium, according to the FPI. That might be high.

This one is a bit bittersweet. Deion vs. the Ducks would have been a fun subplot for the Pac-12; alas, Oregon is Big Ten-bound and the Buffaloes bags’ are packed for the Big 12. At least we’ll always have this one.

Week 5: vs. USC (L)

Good news for Colorado: The FPI model give the Buffs a better shot against USC. Bad news: It’s still only 5.2%.

This, of course, would be nothing new. USC is 16-0 all-time against Colorado and coming off a 55-17 win last year. Caleb Williams is back, as are a handful of other all-Pac-12 players. Even if the Buffaloes are improved, they’re not that improved.

Week 6: at Arizona State (W)

Welcome to the Nametag Bowl. Two teams with more transfers than a New York City subway. How can you possibly call this one? ESPN’s FPI only gives Colorado a 23.4% shot on the road, but I like they’re complete teardown over ASU’s slightly less muted version. If you’re going to go for it, go for it.

The Sun Devils do have the historical edge in what is a relatively young rivalry for two teams so close on the map. ASU has a 10-3 advantage in the series, which started in 2006.

Week 7: vs. Stanford (W)

That’s right, I’ve got Colorado at 4-2 after a win over Stanford, which is introducing a new head coach of its own in Troy Taylor. The Cardinal rebuild is bound to be more methodical as Stanford has not been able to utilize the transfer portal to the same extent. That means good ol’ fashioned scheme, culture and development, and that can take years. This game will come down to line play, which has been a liability for the Cardinal in recent years.

However it unfolds, it is bound to be close — after Stanford stampeded the Buffs in 3 games from 2011-15 by a combined margin of 121 points, Colorado has won the last 3 by a combined margin of 11 points.

Week 8: Bye

Week 9: at UCLA (L)

Colorado finds UCLA in the soft spot of the Bruins’ schedule, surrounded by matchups with Stanford, Arizona and Arizona State. That’s not ideal timing for Colorado, which is coming off a bye.

The history favors the Bruins, as well, as UCLA has won 9-of-12 matchups after the Buffaloes joined the Pac-12. Worse, Colorado has won just once at the Rose Bowl, back in 2002.

Week 10: vs. Oregon State (L)

Oregon State’s 42-9 thrashing of the Buffaloes was the team’s most thorough offensive showing of the season. Freshman running back Damien Martinez had 22 carries for 178 yards and 3 scores. Jam Griffin and Isaiah Newell also combined for 84 yards, while QB Ben Gulbranson completed 14-of-22 passes for 202 yards and 2 scores.

The problem for the Buffaloes is that while they should be improved, so should the Beavers, who finished with 10 wins last year. It’ll be a fun matchup between new quarterbacks Sanders and DJ Uiagalelei of Oregon State.

Week 11: vs. Arizona (L)

The Buffaloes won the first 12 games in the series from 1931-86, but Arizona has won 9-of-13 since, including a 43-20 win in Tucson in 2022.With both teams potentially needing late-season wins to achieve bowl eligibility, this will be a fun one.

Week 12: at Washington State (W)

The last time they met back in 2019, the Cougars handled Colorado, 41-10, the largest margin ever between the teams. Despite losing some key receivers, Washington State returns 73% of its offensive production, as well as 50% of its defensive production. Still, it won’t be enough as Colorado creeps within 1 win of bowl eligibility with 1 game to go.

Week 13: at Utah (L)

We could be looking at a 3rd straight coronation for the Utes, and Colorado presents just the final regular-season chapter. The rivalry between the neighbors has been completely one-sided since both teams joined the Pac-12 together in 2011. Colorado is 2-10 in those 12 meetings, including 6 straight losses. Last year, the Utes crushed the Buffaloes 63-21 in the regular-season finale.

2023 Projection: 5-7 (3-6)


Compared to most if not all college football media, I’m bullish on the Buffaloes this year. Deion Sanders put the bold in Boulder, and I think it’s going to pay off. Maybe not with a bowl berth in Year 1, but I’m betting the Buffs buy in to Prime’s us-against-the-world mentality.

At the very least, it should be a show.

But like any good show, you’re judged by the depth of your cast, and not just the stars, and it is in that vein that the Buffaloes might be in trouble. You might be able to field a much better 1-22, but if 23-44 aren’t also drastically improved, it won’t matter all that much.

Does Colorado have the depth to survive a gauntlet in Deion’s debut? That’s the question.