UNDER FURTHER REVIEW – Curtain’s about to rise on Prime, Payton eras

As Hank Williams Jr. once upon a time sang: Are you ready for some football?

The National Football League’s dress rehearsals are over, and the first college football games of 2023 (that count) were played last Saturday—in Dublin, Los Angeles, Jackson (Mississippi) and a few other outposts.

(In case you missed that abbreviated start, Notre Dame swamped Navy 42-3; Southern Cal tuned up for its September 30 date at Colorado by drubbing San Jose State 56-28; and Jackson State won its post-Deion opener 37-7 over South Carolina State.)

Coach Prime debuts on Saturday at TCU. Coming off a berth in the College Football Playoffs after the 2022 regular season, the Horned Frogs begin 2023 ranked No. 17.

That’s a tough way for CU (ranked 81st among 133 schools despite coming off a 1-11 season) to start the Neon Deion Era, but Coach Sanders has all but told everyone not to worry.

Following a makeover of historic magnitude—one that created a buzz of both anticipation and outcry—only nine scholarship players return from last year’s doleful Buffaloes squad.

But Ralphie VI is still there, so not everything has changed.

TCU is one of five opponents on CU’s 12-game schedule in the top 18 nationally in the preseason poll. USC is No. 6; Utah, 14; Oregon, 15; and Oregon State, 18.

Among the other seven games, there are no apparent layups. Colorado State is the foe in Week 3. The Rams have about 50 newcomers themselves, in Jay Norvell’s second season as head coach.

Two other teams that played in bowl games last season, UCLA and Washington State, also await. UCLA is ranked just outside the Top 25 heading into the season.

So, it could be another long one. But then again, you never know. Jackson State went 4-8 the year before Coach Prime took over. After a Covid-shortened 4-3 season in 2019, back-to-back years of 11-2 and 12-1 followed.

CU faithful, eager for a return to the glory days of Bill McCartney, are more than hopeful.

Same goes for Broncomaniacs. Equally success-challenged since that Peyton Manning-led Super Bowl L conquest after the 2015 season, they’re counting on magic from Sean Payton in his first season as head coach.

That could be a tall order, too.

Denver’s 17-game 2023 schedule is among the 12 toughest of all 32, based on both opponents’ winning percentage in 2022 and their predicted records for the coming season.

Seven of the Broncos’ games are against 2022 playoff teams—Kansas City and the Chargers twice each, plus Buffalo, Minnesota and Miami. (Plus, the New York Jets now have Aaron Rodgers.)

Like Coach Prime in Boulder, Coach Payton has brought many new faces to Dove Valley. Almost half of the opening day 53-man active roster figures to be new to the Broncos.

Denver finished 5-12 last year, so some new blood is not a bad thing. Maybe it will fuel the kind of first-year success Payton enjoyed when he took over the Saints in 2006.

New Orleans won only three and lost 13 the year before his arrival there. His inaugural team went 10-6, finished first in the NFC South, and made it to the Conference Championship game.

Payton’s first team missed a trip to the Super Bowl because its four turnovers, an intentional-grounding safety and a missed field goal, combined, enabled the Chicago Bears to win easily (39-14), despite being outgained 375-335.

The Broncos open the 2023 season at home against the hated Raiders, coached by Josh McDaniels, who directed Denver to 11 wins and 17 losses in 2009-10 before being fired. 

Can this opener be the beginning of a similar march back to the postseason? Last Saturday night’s rout of the Rams certainly inspires belief that something good is possible. Though, neither team’s starters saw action.

The day before the Broncos host the Raiders, CU renews an old rivalry with Nebraska in its home opener. The Buffs have won six of the last 12 meetings against the Cornhuskers but were 0-9 before that. 

Nebraska has had six straight losing seasons and will be playing for a new head coach, too, in Matt Ruhle. Thus, ’Husker fans also have renewed hope.

We should get an idea pretty quickly how both Prime and Payton will fare in 2023.

All things considered, I think winning records—as in 7-5 and 9-8, respectively—would be huge steps in the right direction.

Denny Dressman is a veteran of 43 years in the newspaper business, including 25 at the Rocky Mountain News, where he began as executive sports editor. He is the author of 15 books, nine of them sports-related. You can write to Denny at dennydressman@comcast.net.