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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

The Countdown

No. 108: Buffalo

More than one fan base is upset about seeing Turner Gill leave for Kansas.

Since 1999, when Buffalo joined the F.B.S., only one man has had the dedication and coaching acumen to turn the Bulls into a winner. His name is Turner Gill, and he’s the new coach at Kansas. This isn’t good. Buffalo won 20 games in four years under the former Nebraska assistant; Buffalo won 10 games in the seven years prior to his arrival. No, this isn’t good.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Buffalo, N.Y.

Nickname
Bulls

Returning starters
13 (5 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 78

2009 record
(5-7, 3-5)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 81

2010 schedule

  • Sept. 2
    Rhode Island
  • Sept. 11
    at Baylor
  • Sept. 18
    U.C.F.
  • Sept. 25
    at Connecticut
  • Oct. 2
    at Bowling Green
  • Oct. 16
    at N. Illinois
  • Oct. 23
    Temple
  • Oct. 30
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 4
    at Ohio
  • Nov. 12
    Ball State
  • Nov. 20
    Eastern Michigan
  • Nov. 26
    at Akron

Last year’s prediction

Of course, it would be easy to write off Buffalo’s strong finish last fall as a flash in the pan, and predict the Bulls to slide back off the MAC map. Losing Willy, though I hate to harp on it, could be used as reason enough for Buffalo to finish in the second half of the East division. It would be easy, but I believe it would be incorrect. Yes, losing the best quarterback in school history will be difficult, but I am confident that Gill — who knows a thing or two about quarterbacks — will put Maynard in the position to succeed. This fall, I predict the Bulls to reach bowl eligibility for the second straight season, but to finish second to a talented Temple team in the East. Buffalo has come a long way.

2009 recap

In a nutshell Gill’s final season fell short of expectations only when held against the MAC title-winning team of 2008. When held against the spectrum of Buffalo’s inept history, 2009 was a resounding success. The Bulls won five games, giving it 18 wins over the past three seasons; that’s the fourth-most over a three-year span in program history. What separated last year’s team from the 2008 Bulls was an inability to win close games in MAC play: Buffalo lost three conference affairs by a field goal or less — over three consecutive weeks from Oct. 24 through Nov. 10 — compared to three wins by six points or less in 2008.

High point Buffalo did mount a pair of two-game winning streaks, one in the midseason and one to end the year. Neither meant much, obviously, though it was nice for the Bulls to end the season riding a short period of stellar play.

Low point The 1-4 start made the quest for bowl eligibility an uphill battle, but Buffalo’s postseason hopes were dashed in a painful 0-3 stretch from Oct. 24 – Nov. 10. This period, which began with Buffalo standing at 3-4, saw the Bulls lose in overtime to Western Michigan, blow a 13-point lead in the fourth quarter to Bowling Green and come up just short to eventual division champion Ohio.

Tidbit Buffalo’s eight-win total in 2008 marked the first time since 1986 that the Bulls had more victories in a season than the Buffalo Bills, who went 4-12 that year compared to the Bills’ 9-2 finish.

Tidbit (hmm edition) It’s the ugly side of college football: recruiting. Very rarely do the Bulls battle California for a recruit, yet shortly after last season ended — and Gill left for Kansas — Buffalo found itself fighting to retain the services of Zach Maynard, its starting quarterback and the clear leader of the offense heading into 2010. How does this make sense? Maynard’s brother, Keenan Allen, was a highly-touted recruit in the 2010 cycle, a five-star cornerback with offers from coast to coast. There was one catch with his recruitment: a program had also to offer a scholarship to Maynard, his half-brother. Cal was one such program to do so — Nick Saban and Alabama said thanks, but no thanks — and Allen, and Maynard, jumped at the offer. I understand Maynard and Allen broke no rules. Still, I’m not a fan of this situation.

Former players in the N.F.L.

6 S Mike Newton (Indianapolis), OG Jamey Richard (Indianapolis Colts), WR Naaman Roosevelt (Buffalo), DE Trevor Scott (Oakland), RB James Starks (Green Bay), QB Drew Willy (Indianapolis).

Arbitrary top five list

Worst Buffalo Bills’ first round draft picks since 2000
1. Erik Flowers, 2000. Defensive end from Arizona State.
2. John McCargo, 2006. Defensive tackle from N.C. State.
3. Mike Williams, 2002. Offensive tackle from Texas.
4. J.P. Losman, 2004. Quarterback from Tulane.
5. Aaron Maybin, 2009. Defensive end from Penn State.

Coaching

Jeff Quinn (Elmhurst College ’84), entering his first season at Buffalo. After more than a quarter-century as a college assistant, Quinn finally gets his chance. His 27-year coaching career has seen him pass successful stints on both the F.C.S. and F.B.S. level, most notably as an assistant under the current Notre Dame coach Brian Kelly. Quinn was Kelly’s top offensive lieutenant at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, winning conference championships at each stop. He spent 15 seasons at Grand Valley State – the final 13 under Kelly – winning a pair of F.C.S. national championships from 2002-3. He followed Kelly to two successive F.B.S. stops, beginning with Central Michigan in 2004. As Kelly’s lead assistant, Quinn helped C.M.U. go from four wins in his debut season to a 10-4 mark in 2006, which included a MAC championship and a Motor City Bowl win over Middle Tennessee State. Quinn was the interim coach for that game, following Kelly’s early departure for Cincinnati. Quinn joined his mentor shortly thereafter, taking the same position with the Bearcats, and helped U.C. to the best three-year stretch in program history. Cincinnati went 34-6 from 2007-9, winning a pair of Big East titles — and playing in a pair of B.C.S. bowl games — and rolling through the 2009 regular season undefeated. As at Central Michigan, Quinn led Cincinnati into last season’s Sugar Bowl after Kelly agreed to terms with Notre Dame. It is in this area that Quinn has a leg up on fellow rookie coaches in the F.B.S.; not only does he bring 27 years of assistant experience to the table, but he has twice led a team — as the head man — through bowl preparations. He might not be Turner Gill. But he’s the best that Buffalo could do in this situation.

Players to watch

After losing James Starks to a knee injury prior to last season, many believed Buffalo would struggle matching the production of the program’s all-time leading rusher. In fact, the Bulls did more than just replace Starks; the team averaged nearly 31 more rushing yards per game than in 2008. Two backs will compete for the starting role, though each will play a major part in Buffalo’s success on the ground. Both are seniors: Ike Nduka and Brandon Thermilus. Nduka was a breakout performer in 2009, leading the team in rushing (598), touchdowns (6) and yards per carry (6.2) after not having a single carry during his first two seasons. His rushing total came in only eight games, in fact, making Nduka a contender to crack the 1,000-yard mark given a healthy, 12-game season in 2010. Thermilus started five games a year ago, rushing for 560 yards and 4 scores; he had 249 yards rushing and a pair of touchdowns while covering for Nduka over the final three games of the year.

Aiding in the growth of the running game are four returning starters up front, let by second-team all-MAC selection Peter Bittner. The left guard enters his final season with 38 career starts, the most of any returning player on the roster. Both starting tackles also return, with senior Jordan Jerrold and junior Matt Ostrowski bringing 36 starts of their own to the 2010 season. Josh Violanti, a junior, will start the season at center after moving into the starting lineup five games into last season. The Bulls do have a find a new right guard; knowing Quinn’s background, it’s fitting that the leading contender is senior Brian Kelly.

The passing game will be a major work in progress, what with Maynard’s trek to the West Coast and the graduation of all-MAC pass-catchers Naaman Roosevelt — the finest receiver in school history — Brett Hamlin and Jesse Rack. Roosevelt and Hamlin rank first and third, respectively, on the school’s all-time receptions list, while Rack pulled in 30 receptions and 7 touchdowns as a senior. The Bulls will need a big junior season from Terrell Jackson, who finished with 25 receptions for 250 yards as a sophomore. He came on strong down the stretch, notching 14 grabs for 147 over the final three games of the year. There isn’t much experience behind Jackson: Marcus Rivers, another junior, has seven career catches, while Saron Hood and Ed Young were part-time contributors in 2009.

Strong in the back, weak up front. The Bulls are in very good shape at linebacker and in secondary, where six combined starters return in 2010. The defensive backfield is led by three-time first-team all-MAC safety Davonte Shannon, who with another solid season as a senior will join the former Toledo Rocket Barry Church as one of the finest MAC safeties of the last decade. As a junior, Shannon led Buffalo in tackles (87), tackles for loss (8.5) and interceptions (2). He’s a very, very good college football player. Shannon will be joined in the secondary by starting cornerbacks Josh Thomas and Dominic Cook, who have combined to make 54 starts over their first three seasons. In 2009, Cook posted an interception and a team-best 10 pass breakups. Additional cornerback depth comes from Sherrod Lott, who made a half-dozen starts as Buffalo’s nickel back a year ago.

The linebacker corps returns four players with starting experience in 2009. The first is Justin Winters, who finished third on the team in tackles a year ago with 79 (4.5 for loss). The senior was an all-MAC pick in 2008. Scott Pettigrew, like Winters a two-year starter, had 55 stops and 1.5 sacks last fall. Both Winters and Pettigrew are all-conference contenders in 2010, obviously. Both senior Raphael Akobundu and sophomore started at least two games in 2009; Akobundu has 15 career starts, though only two came a year ago. There’s plenty of depth here: both Josh Copeland and John Syty will continue to serve as key reserves, while sophomores Fred Branch and Dalonte Wallace will look to increase upon their sizable playing time as freshmen.

Here’s the bad news: the defensive line will not be a strength. Two starters do return however, including sophomore end Nate Means, the best freshman lineman in the MAC a year ago. Means, who had 25 tackles (5.5 for loss) and 5 sacks last fall, has the potential to blossom into one of the conference’s top defensive lineman over his next three seasons. The second returning starter is senior tackle Anel Montanez, who keys Buffalo’s run defense from the middle of the line. Montanez had 35 tackles (4 for loss) last fall, his second season in the starting lineup. Finding two new starters, let alone depth behind the four starters, will be a struggle. Richie Smith, a junior, is the likely starter at tackle next to Montanez. He’s played in all 24 games over the last two seasons — not making any starts, however — and posted nine tackles and a sack a year ago.

Position battles to watch

Quarterback Maynard’s departure opens up a major hole at quarterback. There are three contenders for the starting role — five if you count the pair of freshman quarterbacks Quinn signed in his debut recruiting class. The leader in the clubhouse is Jerry Davis, who was Maynard’s top backup a season ago. He played in five games on the year, completing 8 of his 15 attempts for 145 yards and a score. He is — by far — the most experienced signal caller on the roster; no other contender for the 2010 job has attempted a single pass for the Bulls. In fact, there is only one other scholarship quarterback on the roster: redshirt freshman Alex Dennison. Another option, junior Cory Jorgenson, may be a walk-on, but he has spent three years with the program, more than both Davis and Dennison. Two more freshman will join the mix in the fall: Alex Zorich, who played high school football at prestigious Cardinal Mooney in Youngstown, Oh., and Rudy Johnson. Five candidates, with Davis the leader, but none proven on the college level.

Game(s) to watch

A very winnable stretch over the last month of the season. While it will be difficult for Buffalo to unseat Ohio, the Bulls could earn a split against Miami (Ohio), Ball State, Eastern Michigan and Akron.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Here’s what I don’t like about Buffalo in 2010: no Turner Gill. I think I’ve made that pretty clear. Beyond believing Gill to be one of the finest young coaches in the country, there is no ignoring the lack of success the program has had when led by anyone other than the new Kansas coach; even the addition of Quinn, who is wildly deserving of this position, cannot offset my concern about the future of this program, let alone how the Bulls will fare in 2010. In Quinn’s favor is a relatively easy schedule, which features at least one winnable game in non-conference play and the aforementioned favorable stretch in MAC action. Yet, as stated, I have a few concerns. First is the status of the offense, which will be significantly weaker at quarterback and receiver. The defensive line is not in great shape, though perhaps the Bulls can offset that weakness with a strong back seven on defense. That back seven does rank among the best in the MAC, but will it be enough to help Buffalo improve upon last season’s defensive decline? I like Quinn, I like the staff he has compiled, and I do think he can bring Buffalo back into bowl play; the groundwork Gill laid in his four years will speed up this process. But I believe 2010 will be a rebuilding year for this program: let’s see if Quinn has the dedication and coaching acumen to replicate Gill’s success.

Dream season No Gill, no problem. The Bulls go 8-4, matching the program’s top win total on the F.B.S. level, and finish second in the East division.

Nightmare season Buffalo returns to pre-Gill form: 2-10, 1-7 in the MAC.

In case you were wondering

Where do Buffalo fans congregate? Begin with UBFan.com, which is a terrific option when looking for Buffalo football chatter. You can also check out Buffalo Insiders, though that Scout-run site doesn’t have half the action of the fan-run UBFan.com. As a reader below points out, for a blog’s take, look no further than UB Bull Run.

Up Next

Who is No. 107? Among the many accomplished alumni of our next university is one of three film directors to have won an Academy Award for best director and the Palme D’Or at the Cannes Film Festival for the same film.

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Comments

  1. willy2rack says:

    Thanks for the write up. I see why you pick us so low…you will be surprised! We finally got a nice draw of the weaker MAC teams.

    There is a killer ubblog. Run by bull in exile.

    Its http://www.ubbullrun.com/

    Can you add it to “where Buffalo fans congregate”

    Paul: Just added it, thanks for the note. Blog looks great.

  2. zibby says:

    James Starks injured his shoulder, not his knee. I don’t see Thermilus getting a lot of carries. He’ll probably only see time in short yardage situations. Nduka, Gill and Oliver will get more carries. DE Means’ name is not Nate; it’s Stephen. Maynard’s departure is NOT a major hole. He was major reason why UB struggled last year and was ill-suited for Quinn’s offense. You’re also giving Turner Gill too much credit. He deserves credit for instilling belief in the players, but his coaching left a lot to be desired. He wasn’t able to get Maynard to play well enough and UB blew four second-half leads last year.

    Also, Mike Williams is by far the biggest Bills’ bust. He was a #4 overall pick.

  3. W2R, Thanks for the shout out…

    108 Seems a bit low for UB this year, I would have ranked them in the high nineties I really think that Buffalo will be a low middle of the pack MAC team (Ahead of Miami, BSU, Akron, EMU, and perhaps BGSU/WMU)…

    Truth be told Maynard most likely does not win out the starting job this season under Quinn. He was not know for his leadership and was outplayed by Davis in the Ohio game.

  4. Freakville says:

    Delbert Mann from Vandy?

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