May 24, 2024

Lincoln Riley knows the game plan. Big-name coach takes over a struggling program, brings a slew of talented transfers, wins big early behind a dynamic quarterback. National attention pours in.

But even Riley didn’t do it like this.

Deion Sanders has taken the same blueprint from Riley’s first year at USC and blown it to unseen proportions at Colorado, turning the Buffaloes into college football’s new “it” team. Rappers, NBA stars and A-list actors pack the sideline at Folsom Field to catch a glimpse of Coach Prime. Colorado’s four games are all among the nation’s top seven most-watched games this season, led by 10.03 million viewers who tuned in to ABC to watch Colorado get blown out by Oregon last weekend. Saturday will be Colorado’s third home game and the third time Fox’s “Big Noon Kickoff” will broadcast from Folsom Field.

Here are four things to watch for USC’s game against Colorado (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) at 9 a.m. PDT (Fox):

Heisman winner vs. Heisman hopeful

Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders stiff arms Colorado State defensive back Jack Howell

Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders stiff arms Colorado State defensive back Jack Howell on Sept. 16 Folsom Field in Boulder, Colorado.

(C. Morgan Engel / For the Los Angeles Times)

One is the current king of college football. The other is a challenger to the throne. USC quarterback Caleb Williams and Colorado quarterback Shedeur Sanders are playing critical roles in turning their programs around with their coaches.

“You’ve got two coaches that came in with guys that they’ve obviously trusted and had experience with,” Riley said. “I don’t think you can put a price tag on that from the team aspect and building the culture in the beginning.”

Shedeur, the younger of the Sanders brothers playing for Colorado, followed his father from Jackson State to Boulder. He promptly became a viral sensation for name-dropping Tom Brady in a postgame SportsCenter interview and flashing his custom luxury watch in the face of a Nebraska opponent, which has become his signature celebration.

Shedeur ranks second in the country with 352.5 passing yards per game, completing 76.9% percent of his passes with 11 touchdowns to one interception during his first year at the FBS level. The former three-star high school prospect led Jackson State to a 23-3 record in two years as a starting quarterback.

Aerial attack

Colorado receiver Xavier Weaver evades a tackle after a catch

Colorado receiver Xavier Weaver evades a tackle after a catch during the team’s win over Colorado State on Sept. 16.

(C. Morgan Engel/ For the Los Angeles Times)

USC’s remade defensive front has lived up to the hype with four sacks and a nation-leading 10.2 tackles for loss per game. Against Colorado’s pass-heavy offense, the secondary will get a chance to make a statement.

Colorado is the least efficient running team in the country, averaging 1.91 yards per carry, necessitating Shedeur Sanders’ 169 pass attempts that lead all Pac-12 quarterbacks.

Xavier Weaver leads the Buffaloes with 34 catches, 461 receiving yards and two touchdowns. He had nine catches in the loss to Oregon, when Colorado was missing two-way star Travis Hunter, who is still expected to miss this week’s game with a lacerated liver suffered Sept. 16 against Colorado State.

The Buffaloes lack strength in the trenches. Oregon flexed its muscle on the lines by holding Colorado to 40 rushing yards and sacking Sanders seven times while rushing for 240 yards. USC could be in position to put up similar defensive numbers after tallying eight sacks against Arizona State last week. The Trojans lead the nation with 10.2 tackles for loss per game and rank third with four sacks per game.

Rice reunion

USC receiver Brenden Rice hauls in a 75-yard touchdown pass in front of Stanford cornerback Jaden Slocum

USC receiver Brenden Rice hauls in a 75-yard touchdown pass in front of Stanford cornerback Jaden Slocum at the Coliseum on Sept. 9.

(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Boulder was Brenden Rice’s “first love.” He hasn’t forgotten it.

“Just seeing how Coach Sanders has transformed Colorado, it makes me happy,” the Colorado transfer said. “But at the same time, that nostalgia, it’s a rival to me now and I can’t wait to go tear up Folsom.”

While his ex-school is rebounding with a new coaching staff, Rice is thriving at USC. Rice, who transferred during former CU coach Karl Dorrell’s tenure, is coming off a career-high seven catches for 133 yards and two touchdowns at Arizona State. The senior has caught a touchdown during five consecutive games stretching back to the Cotton Bowl against Tulane.

When the Trojans plucked him from the transfer portal, Rice was “pretty raw,” Riley said. Only late last year did the coaching staff start to see the receiver build the consistency he’s showing now in his route-running, breeding trust among teammates and coaches.

“He’s a great practice player,” Riley said. “He practices really, really hard all the time and because of that, he just gets better and better. I think he’s confident, I think he’s playing really consistent, fast and he’s been very reliable in terms of being where he’s supposed to be all the time and with that, our confidence has grown.”

Rise and shine

USC running back MarShawn Lloyd embraces quarterback Caleb Williams after scoring a touchdown against Stanford

USC running back MarShawn Lloyd (0) celebrates with quarterback Caleb Williams (13) after scoring a touchdown against Stanford on Sept. 9.

(Ashley Landis / Associated Press)

Saturday will start with USC’s earliest kickoff since 2020, a unique time that required approval from both teams. The short turnaround between a late kickoff in Tempe last Saturday and this week’s early game in Boulder was the only thing that gave Riley pause when considering whether to accept Fox’s “Big Noon” TV slot, which is earlier than the Pac-12’s typical TV window that starts at noon Pacific. Riley wanted to ensure players had enough time to recover between the two road games.

But the Trojans were also coming off a bye before last week’s game at Arizona State, and after sketching out a mock game week schedule that included earlier team meetings during the week and an early return to L.A. after the game, Riley felt, “we didn’t really have anything to complain about with it.”

Players such as defensive back Ceyair Wright set their alarms for early-morning wake-up calls all week in anticipation of the 9 a.m. start. While unusual, an early kick could be the preferred time for the Trojans instead of waiting all day in the hotel for a night game.

“It will be fun,” Riley said, “just to wake up, eat, do a quick meeting and go play.”

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