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University of Colorado Boulder’s Owen McCown throws against the UCLA defense   during the game on September 24, 2022. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
University of Colorado Boulder’s Owen McCown throws against the UCLA defense during the game on September 24, 2022. (Cliff Grassmick/Staff Photographer)
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Like many of the Colorado football players, Deion Smith had high expectations coming into this season.

He never envisioned CU to be in its current position approaching the middle of October: 0-5 record (0-2 Pac-12) and head coach Karl Dorrell no longer with the team.

“If you’d have told us this fall and looking forward to our season it would have been like this, nobody would have ever expected it,” the junior running back said Tuesday.

Nevertheless, that’s the reality for CU, which hosts California (3-2, 1-1) on Saturday at Folsom Field (12:01 p.m., Pac-12 Network). Dorrell and defensive coordinator Chris Wilson were fired on Oct. 2 and the Buffs are now led by interim head coach Mike Sanford. After a bye, the Buffaloes are gearing up for their first game in nearly three years without Dorrell.

“The big thing for us is just adjusting and trying to find our new norm and do whatever it takes to just kind of get it out of the mud basically,” Smith said. “We’ve been saying that for weeks but that’s basically all we’re going to try to do is figure out a fresh start, a new start and the biggest thing for us is trying to turn the page.”

No team in the country needs a fresh start like the Buffs, the only winless team in the Football Bowl Subdivision. That fresh start has included a jolt of daily energy on the practice field.

“We’re really excited for this renewed, just sense of urgency for us to be able to take the field,” Sanford said. “The players have been working incredibly hard. I thought that from a bye week perspective, it couldn’t have gone better. But the bye week is in our rearview mirror, and now it’s all about what lies ahead.”

Ahead of CU is seven more games in the regular season and the Buffs are doing all they can to make them better than the first five, which all resulted in blowout losses. In the past week, the Buffs haven’t practiced like an 0-5 team, however.

“I feel like it’s dramatic; it’s day and night,” Smith said of the change since Dorrell was fired. “The biggest thing I notice is energy. We’ve got a lot of high intensity people just coming out to practice. Practices are more intense; they take a lot out of you.”

Smith was quick to point out, however, that the Buffs were pleased with their energy and effort in practice before the coaching change, too.

“It’s kind of hard for me to make that analysis right now, just because I felt like we had good energy before this,” he said. “I feel like we had good energy in the weeks prior to this and even fall camp. But for some reason, we just couldn’t make it happen on Saturday. The biggest thing for me is just trying to figure out if this difference is going to make a difference on Saturday, which I truly believe down deep down in my heart it will. But, I mean, the only thing we can do is get to Saturday and see what happens.”

Sanford’s job is to make sure the Buffs are better on Saturdays. To that end, the Buffs are practicing differently than they did under Dorrell.

“Energy is one thing, but also structure and processes is another,” he said. “Just defining what our daily process is, we have themed practices throughout the course of the week that are new.”

Tuesdays, for example, are physical days and Sanford said the Buffs have a moniker inside the building for each day. Wednesday will be about “winning football games,” with an emphasis on competing in particular situations, such as third downs, red zone, and end-of-game scenarios. There’s also a reward system in place every day for forcing turnovers (on defense) or avoiding them (on offense).

Winning on Saturday is the ultimate test, but Sanford said the Buffs can’t put all of their focus on game day.

“(We are) practicing with real intentionality, to make it as game-like as possible,” Sanford said. “That certainly is a change that we’ve instilled. The crowd noise, the music, the chaos, the competition.”

In addition to blasting Metallica over the loudspeakers, and running the opponents’ plays to get ready, the Buffs are running their offense versus their defense and making a competition out of certain aspects of practice.

“If it’s (only) about Saturday, then why are we practicing?” Sanford said. “Ultimately, you need to see that growth from Tuesday, Wednesday, Thursday, Friday, and then you have that ultimate belief that you can go into that game with the confidence and the belief and trust in one another to have the results that we’re all looking for.”

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