After a 3-0 start that made Deion Sanders’ Colorado Buffaloes the talk of the sports world, the bloom has come off of their proverbial rose. Now 1-3 in their last four games following the worst collapse in program history against Stanford prior to their bye week, the Buffs find themselves a 15-point underdog in one of the nation’s toughest places for visitors to find their rhythm — the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, where the No. 23-ranked UCLA Bruins lie in wait.

   Though the doubters have had their say regarding Sanders and his unprecedented debut season, don’t count Bruins head coach Chip Kelly among them. “[Deion is] a little bit old-school; in terms of his approach, in terms of how he does things, and I think it‘s the same he was when he was a player,” Kelly told the Los Angeles Times. “He had a tremendous amount of talent, but he’s got an unbelievable work ethic in terms of what he does and how he performs and what he puts into it, and I think that’s what he’s asking from his players — and that’s what he’s getting from his players.”

   Sanders, who didn’t sound like he entirely agreed with that assessment immediately after the double-overtime loss to Stanford, backed off a bit on Wednesday… but only a bit. “My expectations are lofty… I know where I feel like we should be, record-wise, and I know what we can accomplish,” he said. “I just want to put it all together in one game and give it to you — and display it.”

When the Buffaloes have the ball

   “I think [Shedeur Sanders is] certainly in the conversation for top quarterback in the country the way he’s playing right now,” Kelly told “He’s got a lot of poise. It’s a different deal for quarterbacks, and I don’t think people don’t really appreciate [it]. The best quarterbacks are probably the toughest quarterbacks; the guys that can stand in there, even though there’s a rush, and still deliver the ball where it’s supposed to be and not put it in harm’s way. He does that a ton. He’s the key. How he goes is how that offense goes. We need to try to disrupt the timing and the routes and we really need to get pressure on him, as well.”

   Shedeur’s 2,420 yards ranks fourth in the nation, and his 21-to-3 touchdown-to-interception ratio is superb, especially given the unrelenting pressure he constantly faces. Nobody’s been sacked more than his 34 times, and some of that is on him. Sanders feels pressure to make the big play constantly, holding onto the ball as long as possible before letting a pass go. Perhaps he wouldn’t feel so much pressure to do so if the Buffs could mount a rushing attack with any consistency. Colorado’s abysmal 86.3 rushing yards per game is dead last among all Power 5 schools, and their per-carry average of 2.7 yards is somehow even more shocking. Running backs Dylan Edwards, Anthony Hankerson and Alton McCaskill — who’s slowly returning to form after a serious knee injury kept him out all last season — will have to do much better than that for Colorado to embark on sustained drives.

   The problem is that UCLA has the nation’s best run defense, allowing only 68.6 yards per game. It’s hard to imagine the Buffs doing well in that department on Saturday, and that means that Shedeur will have to prepare for the usual, heavy pass rush. The Bruins already have 24 sacks on the season, and disruptive defensive lineman Laiatu Latu has 6.5 of those.

   Sanders may have a knack for the comeback, but the Bruins don’t make things easy. UCLA has outscored opponents 92-41 in the second half and a mind-bending 47-7 in the fourth quarter. If the Buffs are to win on Saturday, they’ll likely have to hold a lead of their own.

When the Bruins have the ball

   Kelly has kept things close to the vest regarding the quarterback position, but presumably, the Buffs will face junior Ethan Garbers, who replaced freshman Dante Moore last week in their win over Stanford. Garbers only has 134 career passing attempts, throwing for seven touchdowns and six interceptions. Early in the season, the Buffs’ defense was creating turnovers left and right, but they only have four in the last four games — and none in their last two. They’ll have to pick Garbers off once or twice on Saturday in order to give themselves a chance to win. Quarterback Collin Schlee was injured against Oregon State on Oct. 14, but according to Kelly, Schlee was “on a trajectory” to return against Colorado. Schlee’s a runner, not a thrower, but Colorado still needs to keep an eye out on substitution packages, just in case.

   “You prepare for the team; you don’t prepare for the individual,” Deion Sanders said this week. “…With [UCLA], you prepare more for their coach. Their coach is phenomenal; I’m a Chip Kelly fan. I love what he’s brought to college football; I love what he’s brought to football, period… I respect the heck out of him and I admire his accomplishments thus far in the game of football.”

   On the whole, the Bruins have been effective on offense, putting up 31.3 points per game with a remarkably balanced approach; averaging 249 passing yards per game, and another 216 on the ground. Remember the Buffs’ poor rushing offense meeting the nation’s best a few paragraphs ago? This situation’s the inverse. Colorado allows 473.7 yards per game; last in the nation in total defense, and they’re coughing up 157 yards per game to opposing runners. Junior Carson Steele and sophomore TJ Harden have combined for 987 yards and 10 touchdowns already, and they’ll be the defense’s top priorities.

What if?

   “No matter how much you prepare, you’ve got to execute,” Deion Sanders explained this week. “We’ve got to do better, and I’m pretty sure we will.” For ‘Coach Prime,’ getting his players to focus might be the biggest challenge; the Buffs are tied with New Mexico for a dubious distinction: their 9.9 penalties per game lead all of FBS football. Winning this game will be a tall task already, but self-inflicted wounds will end those chances completely. Colorado can’t make mistakes and expect to win this game, or perhaps even keep it close. But an improved running game, avoiding turnovers and generating one or two of their own gives them an outside chance to make things interesting. The Buffaloes will have to steal a game or two that no one expects them to win in order to become bowl-eligible, and Saturday’s contest certainly applies. For Sanders’ beleaguered squad, success may have to measured in increments, but who knows? That’s why they play the games.