Pat Rooney: Shakeup reveals more questions than answers as CU Buffs' slide continues

Nov. 5—"Do you believe?" Deion Sanders declared almost defiantly after a memorable and triumphant Colorado debut. "Do you believe now?"

The Buffaloes and their first-year head coach had earned the right to vent. And it was easy to believe the sky was the limit on opening day after the Buffaloes outlasted TCU, last year's national runner-up, to usher in the Prime era with a jubilant victory celebration.

That was only two months ago. Already it seems so much further. Just as the weather has eroded from that sunny Saturday in Texas to the cold, harsh darkness of November, the light has fallen back on the CU program's comeback season.

The latest in a run of five losses in six games went down on Saturday night, as No. 16 Oregon State, despite giving the Buffs ample opportunity to flip the script, went home with a 26-19 victory.

Regardless of the Buffs' recent struggles, and even after victories that often were less than picturesque, Sanders has maintained an aura of confidence and big-picture awareness. The events of this past week, which leaned closer to the panic button than self-assurance, have thrown a wrench into CU's rebuilding project.

To the utter surprise of just about anyone who follows college football, Sanders opted to replace offensive coordinator Sean Lewis as CU's primary play-caller, instead turning to longtime nomadic NFL coach Pat Shurmur, most recently the architect of an underwhelming offense for the Denver Broncos.

Lewis is considered an up-and-coming standout in the profession who gave up a head coach gig at Kent State to be part of the Prime uprising in Boulder. Despite the struggles of the offensive line (coached, it should be noted, by another Kent State coaching transfer in Bill O'Boyle) and a run game that has failed to launch, the Buffs behind quarterback Shedeur Sanders have put up record-setting numbers in the passing game. Although the offense has felt like an unfinished product, putting up points generally hasn't been at the top of this team's list of problems. It hasn't been perfect, but it has been more than effective.

Given that backdrop, it was more than a curious move at this stage of the season. Especially since any shakeup also could have readily included receivers coach Brett Bartolone, who called plays for Sanders the coach and worked with Sanders the player as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach at Jackson State last year. Instead, coach Sanders turned to Shurmur. Whatever it was exactly that Shurmur sold to Sanders, it certainly wasn't on display against the Beavers.

There was no more devotion to even trying to establish a run game than there was with Lewis calling the shots. It felt like an attempt to reinvent the wheel, as the Buffs got away from the one thing they do best (getting vertical down the field) for underneath and wide, horizontal options that left Shedeur Sanders with 11 completions for a whopping 41 yards at halftime. There was a strange deference to Dylan Edwards, who has made few impactful plays since his breakout debut at TCU. Nonetheless, through three quarters Edwards had more targets in the passing game (seven) than Travis Hunter (six), Jimmy Horn (five) or Xavier Weaver (three). Not surprisingly, when that ratio changed in the fourth quarter, the Buffs put enough points on the board to at least make things interesting.

The bowl berth that seemed all but certain after the flashy 3-0 is close to slipping away, and will require two wins in a season-closing trio against No. 23 Arizona (which has defeated ranked foes in three consecutive games for the first time in program history), Washington State (struggling, but traditionally a tough trip for the Buffs), and at No. 13 Utah.

Certainly a bowl berth doesn't change the overall roadmap back to conference and even national relevancy for the program. Pieces still have to be added to the puzzle. Plenty of hard work remains.

And so after Saturday's defeat, a reflective Coach Prime said the Buffs need to rekindle that early-season passion and get back to having fun. It has been an impressive climb so far for CU, but the grind of an arduous conference schedule — one that certainly will translate next year to the Buffs' new home in the Big 12 — has revealed the challenges of that climb sometimes aren't so fun at all.