Caleb Williams, Shedeur Sanders represent CFB's changing landscape

LOS ANGELES -- On a recent Saturday night in September, Lincoln Riley leaned forward in his chair to answer a question, searching his mind for a reason not to agree with its premise. USC had just dominated Stanford 56-10 for its third win of the season and looked every bit the part of the best offense in the country.

Is there anything not clicking on offense for you guys right now?

"It's one game," Riley said, downplaying the notion. He glanced at the box score. "I mean, how long do you have?"

Over Riley's left shoulder, a relaxed Caleb Williams leaned back in his chair after only needing to play one half of football and answered the same inquiry without saying a word. The defending Heisman Trophy winner smiled, pressed his lips together and shook his head.

The truth was that, as much as Riley's propensity is to look at opportunities for improvement, the Trojans' offense appeared smoother than ever in that game -- Riley and Williams, in sync in their approach and execution as it's felt from the moment they both arrived in Southern California. After Williams followed Riley's shocking move to USC from Oklahoma with one of his own, the pairing created an immediate foundation from which to not just build out a roster that fit their style and skill set, but also to turn around a program that had won four games the year prior into one that turned over its roster, which saw immediate results and attracted national attention.

This week, they're facing an opponent who has also done just that. Through four weeks under Deion Sanders, and after bringing in 51 new players by way of the transfer portal (USC, by comparison, had 26 last year) Colorado has tripled its win total from 2022 and is the talk of the sport.

"There are a lot more similarities in the transformation here and what [Sanders] has done at Colorado than there is not," Riley said this week of the Buffs' roster overhaul. "He's done a great job with the roster. Look at the results."

Even Williams complimented the turnaround in Boulder.

"It's been good for 'em, something that Colorado's needed and haven't had in a while and Deion and his son and Travis [Hunter] and all those other players have done a good job," Williams said.

At the center of a matchup that feels dreamt up by TV executives, with Colorado's record-breaking attention and the Prime Time effect colliding against Lincoln Riley and the brand of USC, are two quarterbacks who have no shortage of hype surrounding them on their own.

Williams is the presumptive No. 1 pick in next year's draft, often lauded as a generational talent who would have been the top pick in this past draft had he been eligible. Shedeur Sanders, meanwhile, has silenced any notion of him being just Deion's son and had been one of the most prolific quarterbacks in the country until the most recent game against Oregon. The way he has continued his success from Jackson State to a Power 5 program has the junior as the No. 3 quarterback in this year's class, according to ESPN's Mel Kiper (and the potential No. 1, should he wait, for 2025).

But beyond their talent on the field and prospects going forward, Shedeur and Williams -- and their respective coaches -- represent something larger in the sport: the ability to move from team to team in the era of the transfer portal and help jump-start a quick turnaround that attracts talent to a team due to a coach, a system or a star player. Or, in their case, all of the above.

"I think it's a key part," Riley said of having a tight-knit coach and quarterback relationship. "You got two coaches that came in with guys that they've obviously trusted in and I don't think you can put a price tag on that from the team aspect and building the culture in the beginning."

COLLEGE FOOTBALL HAS, especially in recent years, been ruled by the pairing of coach and quarterback. The system that once made coaches the fixtures amid constantly evolving rosters has now elevated the quarterback position to what is seen in the NFL, where the player under center is the face and fulcrum of the entire franchise as well as the ticket to a title. The advent of the transfer portal and NIL has only highlighted this.

Where before certain loaded recruiting classes were formed around high school teammates or friends, now players can look at what Williams has done at USC alongside Riley or what Shedeur and Deion have going on in Boulder and decide, in tandem, to go there by way of the portal two or even three years into their initial college choices.

At USC, this happened before Williams even took a snap. By the time the 2022 season started, the team had added Jordan Addison, the Biletnikoff winner, to its ranks. In the lead-up to this season, with Williams already having shown the rest of the country what he could do, the influx of talent to USC continued. Players from Arizona, South Carolina, Georgia and other programs made the move to play alongside Williams and Riley.

At Colorado, the polarizing overhaul Deion engineered featured four- and three-star wide receivers and running backs from Auburn, Houston, Kentucky and South Florida making their way to Boulder. The expectation is that once the portal opens up this season, players with more talent and from better teams will want to join.

"Now that there's some proof of concept there, they're going to be a monster," said Zach Soskin, who helps broker NIL deals between team collectives and players and is familiar with the inner workings of the transfer portal. "Coaches around the country are already worried their players are going to leave for Colorado."

It's evident that what is going on at Colorado almost goes beyond results. Due to the hot 3-0 start Deion's team engineered, the first impression is already taken care of. During that time when the Buffaloes have attracted eyes from every corner of the nation, they've already sold their product: Colorado football is cool now. Deion has made it so. Shedeur and players like Hunter have only solidified that notion. And in the Sean Lewis offense, Shedeur in particular has shown what kind of potential any player who might join it will tap into.

"What you see is an explosive offense and a quarterback and someone in the vicinity of 80% completion percentage, which obviously raises eyebrows," USC defensive coordinator Alex Grinch said of Shedeur. "The ability to extend plays and still throw the ball down field is obviously alarming as you watch it."

Already this season, Shedeur has thrown for 1,410 yards and 11 touchdowns and engineered clutch drives against TCU and Colorado State. But for all the hype Shedeur has welcomed this year, it's crucial to note that he had been doing this at Jackson State, where he threw for 3,732 yards and 40 touchdowns last season as well as 3,231 yards and 30 touchdowns the year before.

Deion knows what he has in his son. He's been saying this since he was at Jackson State and it's why now, every time he gets asked about any struggles, like the ones Colorado faced against Oregon in a blowout loss where Shedeur struggled (159 passing yards and only one touchdown, albeit a 70% completion rate), he repeats the same refrain.

"We got to do a better job protecting him," Deion said this week after Shedeur was sacked seven times in Eugene and pressured all throughout the game.

Williams knows a thing about that, too. His success and ability to showcase the peak of his talent last season was aided by having a strong relationship with his offensive line, whom he brought to the Heisman ceremony and his first pitch at a Dodgers game. Yet even when they have stumbled, Williams has been able to extend plays and throw down the field, turning every snap into a potential highlight reel.

After a Heisman season that featured over 4,500 passing yards and 42 touchdowns, Williams is well on his way to an encore. The junior has 1,200 passing yards and 15 touchdowns (plus three rushing scores) and zero interceptions through four games this season, three of which he barely played, if at all, in the second half of the game.

Deion, like the rest of the sports world, has taken notice of Williams' escapades, but as a showman and a prolific brand himself, he's also taken note of something else.

If there's another through line between the two quarterbacks so far, it's this: Williams and Shedeur, often alongside Deion, have been staples of several commercials.

"I love seeing his personality," Deion said of Williams' appearances, which seem to have doubled since he won the Heisman.

Their participation in those has been by design as both have been selective in which name, image and likeness deals they choose to partake in. Both, in fact, share an NIL sponsor: Beats by Dre.

For Shedeur and Colorado as a whole, the process of acquiring NIL deals has taken on a new form. Due to the team's growing popularity, Shedeur has his choice of deals as brands are actively seeking out Colorado for deals in order to get a piece of the excitement surrounding the team. An NIL agent who brought Shedeur a six-figure deal recently said the quarterback turned it down without a counteroffer.

Williams, who seems to appear in a new college football-adjacent commercial every Saturday, was, alongside his dad Carl and team, patient and savvy when it came to NIL. When Williams began to attract interest while at Oklahoma, they mostly waited, banking on their belief that Williams was headed for bigger things. Following his Heisman season, everyone from Dr Pepper to AT&T wanted in. They know they're now investing in the next No. 1 pick.

While Williams seems like a shoo-in to be the first name NFL commissioner Roger Goodell calls next year, Deion has been vocal about the fact that Shedeur will bide his time before going to the NFL, noting that with NIL, Shedeur can "make just as much money here as you can [in the NFL] unless you're one of the first five picks."

"Shedeur doesn't want to be two to nobody," Deion said in an interview with Bleacher Report. "He don't get down like that. People are projecting him behind Caleb Williams. And Caleb Williams is phenomenal. But Shedeur ain't no backseat rider. He drives his Maybach. He doesn't have a driver in it -- he drives it."

PERFORMANCE AND POPULARITY aside, the persona that both of these quarterbacks have has its equal pull on skill players around the country, which has already had a direct effect on recruiting.

Players like running back MarShawn Lloyd, wide receiver Dorian Singer and offensive lineman Michael Tarquin, who represent transfers USC brought in this season in large part due to the success that Williams and the offense had, have only been reaffirmed in their choice once they arrived on campus and began playing alongside Williams.

"It's everything I thought it would be," Lloyd said.

It's important to note, however, the uniqueness of Williams' situation. The blueprint he's crafted as not just an athlete but a brand, combined with his appeal to every player or opponent that seems to be in his orbit, is not easily replicable.

But while Williams' situation is special, Shedeur's is too. Within the eye of the Deion hype storm, Shedeur has stood out on his own and created his own storyline. Colorado's not just set to bring in talented players via the transfer portal, it's also bound to continue to improve on its high school recruiting from the effect of this season alone.

It's why even if Shedeur and Colorado go on to lose to USC after losing to Oregon, in some ways, they've already won this season. Their first impression combined with the sheer gravitational pull of Deion and everything he's doing in Boulder has set the Buffs up to be a destination for players next year and beyond.

"I think part of it is their personality that is appealing to other players, too," Soskin said. "And more importantly, their coaches let them be them. It's in line with player empowerment."

Soskin believes that, when surveying the coaching styles across the country, more and more players are gravitating toward styles and systems like Riley's and Deion's. Most players may eventually want to be turned into a first-round draft pick by Nick Saban, but that path isn't for everyone, especially when plenty others have shown alternatives.

"At the end of the day, our job as coaches is to do what's necessary to help make these programs the best we possibly can," Riley said. "I don't know [Deion], I've never met him, but he seems to be very genuine and in his approach. And listen, everybody's different. Everybody's got different personalities. I think leadership ... when you're fake and try to be something you're not, I think people see right through that."

While Riley and Deion will espouse the many different, valid factors it's taken for USC and Colorado to be turned around in such short order, it's hard to see a world in which each team would be in its respective place without its quarterback, let alone the partnership it has with the head coach who has let his team be itself on and off the field. With Shedeur, the relationship is obviously a familial one. But with Williams, it may as well be.

"It's unique," wide receivers coach Luke Huard said of the relationship between Riley and Williams. "The communication that he has with Caleb, it's fun to watch. There's no doubt that they have a special language for sure. And, when you have the play caller and the quarterback that are so much on the same wavelength, you know, it's so much easier to make adjustments."

The partnerships, of course, can't last forever.

Despite the off-field appeal Williams and Shedeur both possess, come Saturday and come the first snap of the football, they'll be opponents nonetheless. And while both Deion and Riley have drowned each other in respect and admiration so far, there's no doubt each of them want to emerge on top, not just Saturday but beyond.

Soon, perhaps after both of their foundational quarterbacks have moved on to the NFL, they'll likely find themselves fighting for the same players.