Colorado is about to enter the toughest two-game stretch of its season so far with a road trip to Oregon and a home date against USC. It begs a simple question: what happens if Colorado loses either or both of these games?
Even the nature of that question signals that the goalposts have moved for the Buffaloes—Vegas expected them to win around four games. They’ve already almost matched that number at 3–0, and if you haven’t adjusted your priors on what this team can be, you aren’t paying attention. They may not be national title contenders, but they are most certainly capable of making a bowl game and the next two weeks will go a long way toward determining how serious they are as Pac-12 contenders.
This Colorado team has become a lightning-fast cultural phenomenon. There is no precedent for it, and there really isn’t a roadmap for what happens next. This isn’t college football, it’s much more than that. The Buffs are currently the biggest sports story in the United States by any estimation. That’s despite the fact that the NFL has kicked off.
At the center is obviously Deion Sanders. It’s not just fan fervor—it’s hard to have a conversation with coaches, agents, or administrators without the conversation inevitably veering into sharing opinions on the Buffs. It’s fully reached your mom who doesn’t follow sports calls to ask you about what’s going on status.
What’s also emerging is the fact that Sanders is a team that Black Americans can rally around. It doesn’t matter if you’re a spelling bee champion or an ice dancer—if you are a Black person in this country succeeding in a traditionally white space, many Black Americans will flock to you. Sanders is doing that in a coaching profession at the major college level that has been far too white for far too long. There are many ways to see yourself in Deion. The most profound one is a Black man who is eminently successful with smooth talk and significant flair. He is succeeding right now with an unapologetically Black persona. But Sanders has also proved to be at the same time all hat and a whole lot of cattle.
in Boulder, Colorado’s stage relative to Jackson State thrusts all of this further in front of white America and creates a similar dynamic to Georgetown basketball or Miami football in the 1980s, or Michigan’s Fab Five in the mid-90s. It’s a ready-made sidewalk fandom experience. It may not be new for people to feel represented by a sports figure, but where that dynamic is a little bit different is the fact this happening in 2023 when Sanders can harness the power of social media and vlog every day of his coaching tenure using his independent celebrity to create college football’s version of stan culture around a coach. It’s a level of individual notoriety within the sport we haven’t seen besides Johnny Manziel, and Sanders shares the component of faith-based fervor.
The internet stan culture element here also has its negatives, which resulted in death threats against Colorado State safety Henry Blackburn, whose late hit injured Colorado two-way star Travis Hunter. Internet toxicity also resulted in Blackburn being incorrectly identified as someone who committed sexual violence to the point a reporter had to clarify that an unidentified assailant was not him. Sanders, to his credit, had been clear before the game that supporters should treat Colorado State fans with respect. And after the game, Sanders was again forceful in condemning what happened to Blackburn.
We’ve seen that when a notable sports figure moves to a new place, his fans follow. Take Messi, LeBron, or Tom Brady as recent examples. What percentage of people currently rooting for Colorado will stick around if/when he leaves in the future? And is gatekeeping college football fandom even a worthwhile exercise at all?
Sanders of course has had and will have his detractors. The backlash to his hiring came when he started and lasted through the summer. For now, though, Sanders is college football’s Teflon Don, able to spin any negative into a positive. If you’re a Jackson State fan, alum, or an HBCU advocate in general you do have legitimate gripes about how this has gone down. He represented you for the last three years, until he moved on. Sanders argues if God could call him collect to go to Jackson, a higher power could do the same and send him to Boulder.
Sanders and the team around him understand how to capitalize on the attention economy. The point isn’t getting people into your tent (even though he has unquestionably done that in droves). It’s about getting people into the tent in general. He welcomes those who doubt him with a promise of you’ll see. And they certainly did Saturday night when ESPN recorded the fifth-highest highest audience for a college football regular season game in the network’s history. Even at 2 A.M. ET, the audience was on par with the peak of the Texas-Alabama game one week earlier.
How this story is covered beyond just these next two weeks is anyone’s guess, but it does hinge on the results of the games. America loves a winner, but will attention recede with a loss (or two) in the next two weekends? As College GameDay and Big Noon Kickoff set up residency elsewhere, more story lines will bubble to the surface over the course of the season. Some of this story’s dominance is due to the vacuum of significant story lines in September before conference play begins and all of college football’s top contenders finally get tested. Imagine the uproar when the Buffs finally get stuck on the Pac-12 Network and millions figure out they can’t watch. But this story certainly won’t vanish, and that’s because of Deion’s staying power.
At the highest level, recruiting is as much about marketing, sales, and hospitality (once the kids get on campus) in today’s college football as it is actually scouting players. This is all the proof of concept you need to run roughshod in the transfer portal and capitalize on recruiting buzz. Colorado’s football organization around Sanders has also proved impressive in how this newly constructed roster has played in the early season.
When the season is over, there may be time to talk about a contract extension and beefing up CU’s NIL war chest. But despite what the scoreboard says over the next two weeks, Deion Sanders and Colorado have already won, and it goes far beyond just starting 3–0.