The Cornhuskers and Buffaloes — old rivals from their days in the Big Eight and Big 12 conferences — meet in Boulder, Colorado, on Saturday for an early measuring-stick game that suddenly surged to the top of the week’s must-see lists.
That’s because the Buffs, winners of one game in 2022, have become the talk of the country following their 45-42 win at nationally ranked TCU, last season’s College Football Playoff runner-up.
It wasn’t just that the Buffs won as three-touchdown underdogs. It was how, with Shedeur Sanders passing for 510 yards in the best FBS debut by a quarterback since at least 1996, and possibly all-time, and two-way star Travis Hunter playing more than 120 snaps.
The Huskers looked a lot like the floundering teams coached by Scott Frost in their opener, committing four turnovers and a couple of devastating penalties in a 13-10 loss at Minnesota on Thursday.
Rhule said he was impressed but not surprised as he watched Colorado take down TCU.
“Coach Sanders is a football guy,” he said. “He’s won in everything he’s done in football. He’s won as a player, he’s won as a coach. Everyone maybe thinks on the outside, not me, ‘Well, this is all a show.’ He’s the most serious person about football. His poster was on people’s walls for a reason when he was a player. He’s one of the hardest-practicing, hardest-playing people that’s ever played the game. Why would we think his team wouldn’t be the same?”
Rhule relishes his reputation as a program builder, having turned around Temple and Baylor before struggling in two-plus years coaching the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. Rhule’s plan at Temple and Baylor rewarded patience. The first couple of years at both schools were rough, and the fruits of his labor didn’t become apparent until the third season.
His method seems old-fashioned in 2023. He maintains it takes time to build a program with a strong foundation and staying power, and he thinks it’s best to do it with high school recruits who are developed and with select transfers who fill immediate needs.
“The way I think you build a program — it’s built to last,” he said. “It’s not just a flash in the pan.”
The transfer portal didn’t exist when Rhule was getting started at his previous two college stops.
“The rules are a little different now, but I respect anybody that’s just trying to figure out how to win,” Rhule said. “There are different ways of doing it. However Coach Sanders is doing it, however (Wisconsin’s) Luke Fickell is doing it, however everybody is doing it, it’s not for me to say.
“For me, it’s, ‘Hey, this is how we’re doing it.’ And this recruiting class that we have right now is a really big one for us as we move forward. But, obviously, (the Buffs) are going to be a ranked team. So what they’re doing is working.”
The openers for Nebraska and Colorado illustrated the coaches’ different tacts.
Nebraska had 54 players participate against Minnesota, and 45 of them were on the Cornhuskers’ roster in 2022. Of the 22 starters, only quarterback Jeff Sims and center Ben Scott were at different schools last season.
Colorado used 57 players against TCU, and only 11 of them were with the Buffaloes a year ago. Of the CU starters, only offensive linemen Van Wells and Gerad Christian-Lichtenhan, linebacker Marvin Ham and safety Trevor Woods were holdovers.
“Coach Prime,” as he’s known, made good on his promise to flip the roster. He suggested aloud that many of the CU players who planned to return should consider entering the transfer portal instead.
He has used the time-worn “us against the world” mantra to motivate his players to prove wrong the naysayers who expect failure from a team made up almost entirely of newcomers. He famously said he “keeps receipts” to track each time his team accomplishes something no one thought it could do.
“I’m here and I ain’t going nowhere,” he said after the opener. “I’m about to get comfortable in a minute. Because guess what? These young men in there right now, they believe. Not all of them believed before. But right now, they came up, one-by-one, twos-by-twos, ‘Coach, we believe.’
“Now they believe. Now Boulder believes. People in the front office, people in the building, the fans, the students — now everybody wants to believe. I’m good with that. We’ve got room.”
AP Sports Writer Pat Graham in Denver contributed to this report.