On Saturday, the unbeaten, 19th-ranked Colorado Buffaloes start Pac-12 conference play for the final time, and they’ll do so with the entire country focused on Deion “Coach Prime” Sanders’ exciting squad. Whether it’s Dwyane “The Rock” Johnson, Li’l Wayne, seemingly half of the NBA and the NFL, or others, the Buffs have almost immediately picked up bandwagons full of fans; a notion that would have seemed ridiculous only a year ago. Following Saturday’s tilt in always-tough Autzen Stadium against 10th-ranked Oregon, we’ll probably find out how loyal all those newfound fans really are, because while not it’s entirely out of the realm of possibility that Colorado could pull off the upset of the season — again — it’s close.

   After the Buffaloes’ struggles were on full display against the Colorado State Rams last week, Sanders didn’t hold back. “We haven’t played a complete game. We have not played a game where the offense, defense, as well as special teams has all shown up in the same manner.” He made this week’s challenge clear. “If the offense is playing well, the defense is hot garbage. If the defense is playing well, [the] offense is horrible and special teams aren’t special — so we’ve got to put it all together to be able to defeat a team like Oregon.”

When the Buffaloes have the ball

   After only three games, Shedeur Sanders is a full-fledged Heisman Trophy candidate, a cold-blooded surgeon operating to the tune of 417 yards per game, second-best in the nation. He’s thrown 10 touchdown passes — the same total that the Buffs had all last season — and only a single interception. He’s leading the country in third-down passing yards, and in the fourth quarters of games, his numbers astound. Sanders is completing 84.6 percent of his pass attempts and has three touchdowns in the final frame. He’s already delivered the late-game lead while trailing four times this season.

   Dan Lanning, Oregon’s head coach, is rightly impressed. “[Shedeur’s] playing as well as anybody right now,” Lanning said. “He has a really good grasp of their system, and I think that they do a great job of connecting on balls down the field, having a lot of changeups, creating some efficiencies in their offense with the tempo that they move with.”

   Sanders won’t be able to throw to fellow Heisman candidate Travis Hunter, who was lost to injury against Colorado State, but Xavier Weaver (25 catches, 386 yards and two touchdowns), Jimmy Horn, Jr. (26-247-2) and Tar’Varish Dawson (11-110-1) give him plenty of targets on the outside. Freshman running back Dylan Edwards (14-160-3) is a weapon in the passing game, and after Hunter was lost, junior tight end Michael Harrison (11-113-2) broke the double-overtime game open, leading to the Buffs’ dramatic win.

   Though Sanders will have to be wary of taking too many hits and sacks, the Buffs will be able to move the ball through the air; it’s the ground game that’s causing the most consternation. Edwards (25 carries for 136 yards and a touchdown) has been the only back to be able to overcome a subpar offensive line that’s second-worst in the nation when it comes to rushing attempts with at least one missed block. Colorado ranks 132nd with a nightmarish 23.1 percent, though it’s possible that Edwards could get some help from Alton McCaskill, a transfer from Houston that looks to be ready to return from a torn ACL. In 2021, McCaskill was the Big 12’s Freshman of the Year after rushing for 961 yards and a whopping 16 touchdowns. Anything that McCaskill might be able to provide would go a long way on Saturday.

When the Ducks have the ball

   Behind quarterback Bo Nix and an explosive offense, the Ducks are averaging 58 points per game. Even if their schedule (which included blowout wins over Portland State and Hawaii) hasn’t been as taxing as Colorado’s, those numbers still stand out. They’ve scored touchdowns in 21 of their 35 total drives and had field goals on six others. Nix has an FBS-high 50 starts under his belt, and his experience shows. It’ll be all but impossible for the Buffaloes to amass enough pressure to rattle him; Nix has only had to deal with six quarterback hurries all season. His top target, Troy Franklin, already has 17 catches for 292 yards and three touchdowns. Fellow pass-catchers Gary Bryant, Jr. (11-159-2) and Tez Johnson (11-155-3) are impressive in their own right, and even though the Buffaloes’ backfield is solid even without cornerback Travis Hunter, safeties Shilo Sanders and Trevor Woods will be forced to play deep, giving plenty of room underneath for Nix and Co. to operate.

   As dangerous as Oregon is through the air, their ground game might loom as an even larger challenge for a Colorado defense that’s surrendering 195.3 rushing yards per game; the fourth-worst among all “Power 5” teams. The Ducks’ 229.3 yards on the ground ranks 11th in the nation, and every player who’s carried the ball more than nine times is averaging at least 5.8 yards per carry. Bucky Irving (27 carries for 216 yards and three touchdowns) averages an even 8.0 yards per, while Jordan James (21-155-5) averages 7.4. Oregon’s capability on the ground is propelled by a offensive line that ranks as the nation’s best, per Pro Football Focus.

   Quite simply, if Lanning wanted to, he could have his Ducks keep the ball on the ground, chew up the clock, and walk out with an easy win… but he won’t.

What if?

   Fortunately for the Buffs, Oregon’s pricey, nationwide, somewhat garish and almost unprecedented advertising campaign for Nix’s Heisman candidacy means that the Ducks will be happy to make this game a high-flying affair — and because Colorado has the hyper-clutch Shedeur Sanders and a fleet of speedy receivers, Lanning’s team will at least allow the Buffs a puncher’s chance.

   That still may not be enough. For the fourth consecutive game, the Buffaloes find themselves as the primary television draw for a national audience, but this time, America’s new darlings are almost certainly going to do something that they haven’t since Deion Sanders revitalized the program: lose. And it might not even be close. Even if Hunter was available, the Buffaloes’ defense simply isn’t up to the task of stopping Nix and and the high-flying Ducks all afternoon long, and despite Shedeur Sanders’ regular heroics, Colorado won’t be able to keep pace unless their running game improves exponentially.

   It’s possible that the Buffs would be able to cover the 21-point spread, which would likely help the narrative heading into next week’s highly anticipated home game against USC, but a loss is still a loss. While the fanciful notion of a conference title or more would vanish, the reality is the Buffaloes’ goal of six wins and a bowl berth would still be within reach.

   CU’s hoped-for rebirth as a national power is still ahead of schedule, and it’ll stay that way… no matter what happens on Saturday.