It was as bad a beating as a proud man and his program could imagine. Actually, that’s not accurate because Deion Sanders, a proven winner at every stop of his athletic journey, both as a player and a coach, isn’t someone who envisions defeat, let alone a 35-0 halftime deficit.
But that is where he and his Colorado Buffaloes found themselves Saturday against the undefeated Oregon Ducks, who used the game as an opportunity to make the type of statement that Coach Prime and his upstart squad had hoped to make.
To say the 42-6 victory felt personal would be an understatement. Ducks coach Dan Lanning apparently didn’t like the weeklong attention being focused on the Buffaloes, who had captured the nation’s attention in large part because of Sanders, a larger-than-life personality who could teach a PhD course in media manipulation.
Lanning gave the broadcast crew permission to air his pregame speech to his players. His words, to be kind, were coated with disdain as he juxtaposed his program against that of Colorado.
“Rooted in substance, not flash,” he said. “They’re fighting for clicks, we’re fighting for wins. There’s a difference. … The Cinderella story is over, men. … This game ain’t going to be played in Hollywood, it’s going to be played on grass.”
The comments should not have surprised anyone. Lanning, like many others, appeared to be suffering from Deion Fatigue. It’s reminiscent of what many sports fans felt when Tim Tebow was quarterback of the Denver Broncos and media coverage could not get through a day, let alone an hour, without mentioning him.
The surprising thing is that Lanning seemed to want his words to go public. Why else would he provide total access and agree to allow the speech to be broadcast? Was it a belief that his 10th-ranked Ducks were being disrespected in their own house? Or that he was being overshadowed by a coach in his first year with a Power 5 school?
Whatever the case, his frustration, exasperation, anger — choose your noun — should not have been directed at Sanders and the Buffaloes. It should have been directed at those who propped up the program as being more than it is.
Colorado never should have been mentioned as a serious contender on the national stage. Not coming into the season, nor coming into the game. Its No. 19 ranking on Saturday was both a testament to its players and coaches and an indictment of the level of competition across the country.
The Buffaloes are not an elite team. Never have been. They are a good team with a few elite playmakers and solid staff. That combination traditionally equates to winning the games you are supposed to win while pulling off an upset here and there. That is what the Buffaloes have done to this point.
Some were fooled in Week 1 when they “upset” 17th-ranked TCU, a 21-point favorite that was coming off an appearance in the national title game. But the Horned Frogs team we saw that day was not the Horned Frogs squad we saw lose to Georgia in the FBS championship game. It was a bad replica.
Their other wins? Nebraska was in rebuild mode, and Colorado State was trying to find itself.
None of this should be construed as a slight to the Buffaloes (3-1). They are who some of us thought they were coming into the season. It’s just that with each win the expectations and hype left a vapor trail that choked out common sense. Much of that can be directly traced to the man leading the program.
Deion Sanders: ‘No excuses’ for Colorado’s loss to Oregon
Sanders often gives the impression of believing he can will his team to victory with his ability to connect with his players and capture their imagination with his slogans. But the truth is that his words were writing checks that his program is not yet able to cash, particularly against a top opponent.
Do you believe now?
We ain’t got next. We got now.
We ain’t coming no more. We here.
Those proclamations attracted not only national attention, sublime TV ratings and insane revenue surges for the program and the surrounding community, but also critics who placed a target on the backs of Sanders and his players.
“People around the country will say this is what they needed to humble themselves,” Sanders said afterward. “We weren’t arrogant. We’re confident people. Our confidence offends their insecurity.”
The house the Buffaloes are building is in the construction phase, not the decorative stage. They were without their best player, Travis Hunter, who was sidelined with a lacerated liver, but his presence would not have made a difference. Maybe it would have produced a second touchdown or prevented an Oregon score, but the fact remains the Buffaloes were outclassed and out-coached. The evidence is irrefutable, a point Lanning wanted to make clear to a national audience.
Midway through the third quarter, on fourth-and-goal from the 1, with the game comfortably in hand, Lanning successfully went for the touchdown instead of kicking a field goal. Later in the quarter, with the game even more firmly in hand, he went for the touchdown on fourth-and-goal from the 5, with a 42-0 lead.
Lanning didn’t wear a pregame sweatshirt that read “Ain’t Hard 2 Find,” as Coach Prime did, but he was sending a message just the same with his aggressive decision-making. It would not be shocking if other coaches did the same in the coming weeks, as five of the Buffaloes’ final eight games are against ranked opponents, including this coming Saturday against No. 5 USC and quarterback Caleb Williams, the reigning Heisman Trophy winner.
As the final moments dissolved in Autzen Stadium, Ducks fans chanted “Overrated!” at the Buffaloes. The more accurate description would have been “overmatched,” though Sanders refused to acknowledge as much.
“If we had a talent gap, we wouldn’t be 3-1,” he said. “No talent gap. We just got our butts kicked. It happens sometimes. … We played like hot garbage. That surprised me. I didn’t expect that.”
Typical of Sanders, he was not going to allow the moment to define him or his program. He advised those who want to beat the Buffaloes to take their shots now, because, presumably, he is committed to building a winner. That may be as close as we get to him admitting that Colorado has not arrived. Then again, we don’t need him to say it. Oregon took care of that.
(Top photo of Deion Sanders walking on the field before the game against Oregon: Brian Murphy / Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)