Keeler: CU football, Coach Prime are getting love from Patrick Mahomes, Bill Simmons, DJ Khaled, Snoop Dogg. How did Buffs become America’s Team?

BOULDER — As Dylan Edwards flashed four fingers in the end zone, Tyrone Byrd’s Big Red heart slipped on cement shoes and sank to the bottom of Jamaica Bay.

“Unfortunately, I think CU is gonna get us,” Byrd, a former Nebraska safety and now a State Farm agent in Commerce City, told me on the eve of Buffs-Huskers Part LXXII on Saturday at Folsom Field. “With what Deion (Sanders) is teaching and developing, with his high standards and (given that) the guys are buying in — they only had six penalties (in the opener).

“And they’ve got some guys. Like he said, ‘I’m bringing dawgs.’ I don’t think (the Cornhuskers) have those kind of guys, where they think this way, they think, ‘I’m going to dominate.’ We have a lot of good athletes, but I just don’t know if we have enough guys that have that right mindset.”

You know how you might not love something, or somebody, but at the same time, darn it, you just can’t look away from them? Like a pro wrestling heel, Buffs football has become must-see TV, even for the haters. Patrick Mahomes shouted out CU on Twitter. So did Magic Johnson. And Dez Bryant. And Pat McAfee. And Russell Wilson. And Bill Simmons. DJ Khaled reposted Shedeur Sanders and Travis Hunter’s postgame interview. CU-TCU snagged a reported audience of 7.26 million viewers last Saturday, making it the highest-rated “Big Noon” telecast ever for Fox.

A year after 1-11, college football’s biggest dumpster fire, are the 1-0 Buffs … America’s team?

“I think after one game, ‘America’s team’ is a bit of a stretch,” Fox Sports analyst and former Buffs QB Joel Klatt told me via email. “However, Colorado’s certainly the team that America is most interested in right now.

“This team and this story — whether it’s Deion or now his players, in particular Shedeur and Travis — are certainly the talk of college football. I don’t know if that will continue. They’ll have to continue to win games. It was a perfect storm last week. There was the euphoric nature of the win over TCU, no NFL games and a slightly weaker slate of college football matchups — with that, they certainly grabbed the sports world’s attention. Moving forward, they’re going to have to keep winning to keep this level of relevancy in the sporting landscape.”

Yeah, but the view from a Mile High sure looks sweet, doesn’t it? Coach Prime’s debut was the most-watched CU football game in the Buffs’ star-crossed Pac-12 Era. For context, charted five nationally televised games last fall — specifically, tilts that weren’t relegated to the Pac-12 Network — that totaled 4.2 million viewers combined. It’s conceivable, even likely, that more Americans watched the Buffs in Week 1 of 2023 than they did all of last year.

And what kinda blows Byrd away is how CU is on the cusp of doing in 10 months what his beloved Huskers haven’t done in 10 years — dominate the national conversation on college football.

“It definitely feels different (from four years ago),” said Byrd, who plans to tailgate Saturday in Boulder with former teammates and Nebraska faithful prior to, and during, the game. “And I think the part of that is Deion Sanders was not there (before). He’s a game-changer. There’s no one out there like him.”


It takes a village to raise a program out of the cellar. Fox embraced the Ralphie Revolution with a hand on each horn: Klatt featured Coach Prime in the debut episode of his podcast back in June; The network’s promotional push for the CU-TCU included a graphic of Coach Prime riding an AI bison; And a mini-tour of a 400-pound replica Ralphie that even cameoed during preseason NFL games last month.

“It’s pretty amazing,” Fox analyst and former Washington Huskies QB Brock Huard told me. “It is the power of television. I will give a lot of credit to the folks at Fox.”

The Buffs took it from there. Shedeur Sanders, the coach’s son, threw for a school-record 510 passing yards in his debut. Hunter played at least 140 snaps on both sides of the ball, piling up 119 receiving yards on 11 catches, seven of them for first downs, while picking off a TCU pass in the end zone to prevent an easy Frogs score. If the clock hadn’t expired at Amon G. Carter Stadium, Edwards (four touchdowns) might still be running free. A see-saw second half included six lead changes in the game’s final 18 minutes.

FT. WORTH, TX – SEPTEMBER 02: Colorado Buffaloes quarterback Shedeur Sanders (2) throws under pressure from TCU Horned Frogs linebacker Johnny Hodges (57) in the second quarter at Amon G. Carter Stadium in Ft. Worth September 02, 2023. (Photo by Andy Cross/The Denver Post)

Huard hosts a sports-talk radio show in Seattle. CU football became one of topics of the week, even 2,000-some miles north of Fort Worth.

“As it was in Birmingham, as it was Tampa, and it was in Syracuse,” Huard said. “That (game) was just some incredible theater.”

And Broadway shows don’t come cheap.

The lowest price for Buffs-Huskers tickets on the secondary market was $305 before fees at midweek. That was three times the get-in rate to watch Patrick Mahomes and the defending-Super-Bowl-champion Chiefs ($124 before fees) lose at home to the Detroit Lions.

“It’s kind of like Conor McGregor, where he can lose, but people tune in just to watch him,” former Buffs wideout and Olympian Jeremy Bloom said. “They know something entertaining is going to happen, win or lose. That’s the story of Deion at CU.”

Sanders interviewed for the TCU job that eventually went to Sonny Dykes. South Florida reportedly had an offer for Coach Prime on the table, while Auburn fans such as Charles Barkley were pining to see Coach Prime lead their beloved Tigers. How many athletic directors were kicking themselves after the Buffs shocked the world and shot into the top 25?

“I don’t know if they’re kicking themselves, but they’re all taking notice,” Bloom continued. “(When it’s) more expensive to watch CU then watch the Chiefs play their opening game, I think everyone’s taking notice.”

Season tickets flew off the shelves. Home tilts with CSU (Sept. 16) and USC (Sept. 23) are completely sold out, and “limited” tickets at Folsom remain for Oregon State on Nov. 4 and Arizona on Nov. 11.

“They’re not America’s team, but they are America’s story,” Huard said with a chuckle. “They are the story that everybody’s got to write. … They’re a movie, and the players write the script. And Deion’s movie is the biggest movie in the country. The script they wrote last week was incredible.”


The next scene is what worries Byrd right now. The former Husker saw Sanders up close for the first time his redshirt freshman year, back in ’88, when Prime was a senior at Florida State. Heard him before he saw him, of course.

“He was bragging about how ‘They couldn’t complete that pass on Florida State,’” Byrd recalled. “I was never a big fan of his. If you’re going to talk like that, you better back it up. And he backed it up.”

Byrd was one of the top defensive backs in Arizona coming out of high school. When he hears Coach Prime talk now, he hears the same things, the same core principles, that made him join the Cornhuskers four decades ago.

“(Sanders) is going to keep getting these type of kids and top-flight talent, because he’s not just talking about football,” Byrd stressed. “He’s talking about sitting in the front of the class, saying ‘Yes, sir, yes ma’am.’ Not using profanity. Not wearing hoodies. That’s what my mom wanted to hear. That’s why I went to Nebraska. That’s why he’s going to have success.

“If I were in high school right now, (CU) would be my top school that I would pick, based on what I’ve heard and what I’ve seen and what he expects from those kids.”

For Byrd and his old Husker running buddies, the truly scary part about the Buffs right now isn’t the noise, the yards, the fun or the smoke. It’s not how they came. It’s what’s coming next.

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