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Declan Walsh | | September 11, 2023

Behind the numbers: Explaining Colorado football's meteoric rise

The most successful walk-ons in recent college football history

Sitting comfortably at 2-0 while surging to No. 18 in the most recent AP Poll, Deion Sanders has captivated the sporting world all while raging against college football orthodoxy.  

The two-sport phenom turned SWAC Coach of the Year inherited a languishing Colorado team that finished 1-11 last season, opting to engage in unprecedented roster upheaval ahead of the 2023 campaign. Colorado ultimately saw 56 players leave its roster over the offseason while Sanders obtained 51 new players from the transfer portal. 

Through two games, Sanders has already surpassed last season’s win total and the expectations of just about every prognosticator in America, so let’s break down the numbers to try and explain Colorado’s torrid start. 

ColAIRado: Passing game soars to historic heights

With a near-constantly revolving door churning through the Colorado program, a given heading into the season seemed to lie with the passing attack. The Sanders offense, spearheaded by Deion’s son Shedeur, dominated the SWAC with Air Raid football, throwing for nearly 4,000 yards and 40 touchdowns together at Jackson State last season. 

Unsurprisingly, the aerial emphasis has been similar, but the efficacy, ambition and frequency of CU’s passing attack is on a record-breaking pace through two games. 

Shedeur has averaged around 45.5 passing attempts per game in black and gold, surpassing the highest single-season average in Colorado history — the CU program began keeping such statistics during the 1956 season. 

Possibly more impressive both Shedeur’s impeccable accuracy at such volume and the consistency at which he pursues chunk plays. Shedeur has completed greater than 75% of his passes through two games, making him the ninth most accurate gunslinger in FBS and would see him as comfortably the most accurate QB in 2022. All of this precision comes while averaging more than 10 yards per pass attempt and completing 12 passes for at least 20 yards. 

Expectedly, this amalgam of statistical excellence places Sanders as one of the very best quarterbacks in FBS, currently ranked 13th with an 83.7 quarterback rating while leading the nation with a 22.2 EPA (Expected Points Added). 

It doesn’t always start upfront

Shedeur’s stardom has been doubly important to this new-look Colorado team with the Buffs’ generally opting to turn away from the run game.

Colorado’s leading rusher Dylan Edwards, who has been immense among CU’s loaded receiving corps, has managed just 79 yards on the ground and the Buffaloes running back room has churned out just 1.69 yards per carry. The offensive line could stand to improve a bit in protecting Shedeur, as well, allowing 12 sacks in its opening 120 minutes of football.

Defensively, the struggles up front linger as well, generating just two sacks of its own while only totaling a relatively meager six tackles for loss.

Spurning the trenches, traditionally the area of focus in rebuilding a 1-11 program, Sanders has instead stockpiled a trove of perimeter talent, evidenced most clearly by two-way star Travis Hunter. 

Formerly the nation’s No. 1 recruit, Hunter has played 278 snaps in 2023 at both wideout and corner, hauling in nearly 200 receiving yards to go with eight tackles, four pass breakups and a stunning interception. 

Hunter’s fellow receivers have been just as impressive — Xavier Weaver has already racked up nearly 300 yards through the air while the aforementioned Edwards has hauled in three receiving scores through the air — while his fellow DBs have snagged three interceptions and account for three of the team’s four tackles leaders.

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