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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. 110: Buffalo

It’s not necessary to go into great detail explaining how Buffalo won the MAC title back in 2008, because the answer is simple: the Bulls won because they had a multiple-year starting quarterback in Drew Willy, a senior; the MAC’s best running back in James Starks; the MAC’s best receiver in Naaman Roosevelt; one of the most opportunistic defenses in all of college football; and the ability to win games in the fourth quarter. The first four qualities are simple, at least, if difficult to replicate – if not impossible for Buffalo to replicate on an annual basis. The final positive, the ability to stay calm and cool in the eye of the storm, has everything to do with confidence: Turner Gill was somehow able to convince one of the nation’s weakest programs that it was supposed to beat teams it had failed to beat with any consistency since joining the MAC in 1999. This achievement is Gill’s lasting legacy with the Bulls.

Conference
MAC, East

Location
Buffalo, N.Y.

Nickname
Bulls

Returning starters
16 (8 offense, 8 defense)

Last year’s ranking
No. 111

2011 record
(3-9, 2-6)

Last year’s
re-ranking

No. 108

2012 schedule

  • Sept. 1
    at Georgia
  • Sept. 8
    Morgan St.
  • Sept. 19
    Kent St.
  • Sept. 29
    at Connecticut
  • Oct. 6
    at Ohio
  • Oct. 13
    at Northern Illinois
  • Oct. 20
    Pittsburgh
  • Oct. 27
    Toledo
  • Nov. 3
    Miami (Ohio)
  • Nov. 10
    Western Mich.
  • Nov. 17
    at UMass
  • Nov. 23
    at Bowling Green (in Columbus, Oh.)

Last year’s prediction

Little picture: this isn’t a great team, or even a very good one, to be honest. There are questions marks all over the offense, though the changes are for the better, and it’s hard to imagine the defense remaining as stout while replacing eight lost starters. Big picture, little picture. As was the case with Kent State, Buffalo fans are patient enough to wait through another down year if it means better days are ahead. What’s one more losing season?

2011 recap

In a nutshell At least Buffalo was better than Akron – a whole lot better, actually. Despite the distance the Bulls put between themselves and the Zips, last fall failed to include the sort of progression most expected from Jeff Quinn’s second season with the program. There were close losses, including two to Ball State and Northern Illinois by a combined four points, but there were also a handful of one-sided defeats, including losses to Temple, Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green by a combined score of 117-41. Not a good team by any stretch, but the Bulls were slightly improved over 2010. The offense moved from last in the MAC in the scoring to ninth, even if the Bulls didn’t score nearly enough points to keep pace in the high-octane MAC. The defense took a slight step back, but the only MAC team that played a lick of defense was Temple; the rest went blow-for-blow on offense.

High point Buffalo beat the MAC East winner, Ohio, by a single point, and lost to the MAC West and overall MAC champion, Northern Illinois, by a single point. Both were pretty impressive achievements, even if the Bulls felt better about the win than the loss. This I assume, though I think it’s a safe assumption to make: Buffalo scored 20 unanswered points in the fourth quarter to draw within 31-30, but missed the potential game-tying extra point with 14 seconds left. Despite the painful conclusion, that the Bulls kept fighting reflected well on Quinn and his staff.

Low point The games that got out of hand. The Bulls made Tennessee fans happy on Oct. 1 in a 41-10 loss, which was a sort of public service, I suppose. Miami (Ohio) scored the game’s final 27 points in its 41-13 win. And Temple’s defense put the clamps down on Buffalo in a 34-0 whitewashing, limiting the Bulls to 155 yards of total offense.

Tidbit Buffalo does not hold a career winning record against any of the current members of the MAC. The Bulls were 12-4 against Temple, but as we know, the Owls are joining the Big East in 2012. Buffalo is 9-9 against Kent State, including wins in four of the last five games in the series, but is also 0-5 against both Eastern Michigan and Western Michigan. Adding Massachusetts into the mix – the Bulls are 4-5 against the Minutemen – gives Buffalo a career mark of 35-87 against the rest of the MAC.

Tidbit (finishing strong edition) A loss to Bowling Green in the season finale prevented Buffalo from matching a feat it has achieved only seven times since 1965: winning at least two straight games to end the regular season. The Bulls most recently did this in 2009, when it won two straight to finish 5-7. The rest of the list: 1996, with three straight wins; 1986, with four straight; 1983, four straight; 1969, four straight; 1968, three straight; and 1965, three straight.

Former players in the N.F.L.

5 S Mike Newton (Indianapolis), WR Naaman Roosevelt (Buffalo), DE Trevor Scott (New England), RB James Starks (Green Bay), CB Josh Thomas (Carolina).

Arbitrary top five list

Richard Russo novels set in Upstate New York
1. “Empire Falls,” 2001.
2. “Nobody’s Fool,” 1993.
3. “Mohawk,” 1986.
4. “Straight Man,” 1997.
5. “The Risk Pool,” 1988.

Coaching

Jeff Quinn (Elmhurst College ’84), 5-19 after two seasons at Buffalo. After more than a quarter-century as a college assistant, Quinn finally got his chance — though he hasn’t had a great start. 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 Brian Kelly at three stops. Quinn was Kelly’s top offensive lieutenant at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati, winning conference championships with each program. 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, a year capped by 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 rolling through the 2009 regular season undefeated. As at Central Michigan, Quinn led Cincinnati into the 2010 Sugar Bowl after Kelly agreed to terms with Notre Dame. It is in this area that Quinn had a leg up on fellow rookie coaches in the F.B.S.; not only did he bring 27 years of assistant experience to the table, but he had twice led a team — as the head coach — through bowl preparations. That hasn’t meant much thus far, but creating a winning program at Buffalo is a marathon, not a race.

Tidbit (coaching edition) If you get the strange sensation when watching Buffalo play this fall that you’ve seen one of Quinn’s assistants before, don’t worry: it’s only Lou Tepper. Yes, that Lou Tepper, the former Illinois head coach who was last seen, from 2006-10, as the head coach at Indiana University in Pennsylvania. I would be very upset if Tepper has traded in his round, brown frames for contact lenses. He was hired to replace William Inge, who left one Buffalo – the Bulls – for the other Buffalo – the Bills. Tepper’s been around the block, as you’d expect: Colorado, Virginia Tech, Illinois as an assistant and L.S.U., the latter as Gerry DiNardo’s defensive coordinator from 1997-99. Buffalo also named former James Madison safeties coach Maurice Linguist as the new cornerbacks coach. Linguist could help the Bulls make some inroads in the Atlantic region recruiting grounds.

Players to watch

The offense runs right through the powerful, stocky legs of junior running back Branden Oliver. After failing to gain any traction as Buffalo’s lead back for much of 2010 — averaging 2.9 yards per carry on 102 touches — Oliver broke out in a major way last fall, setting new program records for carries (306), yards (1,395) and all-purpose yards (1,760). Oliver cracked the 100-yard mark eight times, including in each of Buffalo’s first and last three games of the season. Twelve months after entering the summer as the Bulls’ de facto running back — the starter, but not necessarily due to his own production — Oliver is now the MAC’s most proven back, the Bulls’ best back since James Starks and, by leaps and bounds, the heart of soul of this entire team.

Oliver is the only 1,000-yard back returning to the MAC in 2012, thanks to Bernard Pierce’s decision to leave Temple a year early. He’s a clear contender for conference offensive player of the year honors, though Buffalo might need to win a few more games for Oliver’s candidacy to be taken more seriously. What the Bulls need is another back to help him carry the load. Last fall, Oliver and starting quarterback Chazz Anderson accounted for more than 85 percent of Buffalo’s rushing yards. Two shiftier backs, junior Brandon Murie and sophomore Anthone Taylor, should get eight or more touches per game to help keep Oliver fresh.

There are issues in the passing game, beginning with Anderson’s departure, which leaves Buffalo’s quarterback position in flux, and extending to the receiver corps. Three leading seniors have exhausted their eligibility, led by Marcus Rivers, last year’s leading receiver. The issue isn’t finding starters, however: Buffalo has a pretty clear top quartet. Depth behind the top group is the more pressing concern, especially with little proven production among a crop of underclassmen looking at larger roles in 2012.

Junior Alex Neutz (43 receptions for 641 yards) has the potential for a breakout season, should he remain healthy; he’s joined on the outside by another junior, Fred Lee (20 for 139). Two sophomores, Devon Hughes (18 for 123) and Cordero Dixon, are competing for the starting job in the slot. Neutz is a strong target — an all-MAC candidate — but the Bulls really need a fresh face to step up and add valuable production. Keep an eye on tight end Alex Dennison, a converted quarterback who could stretch the middle of the field.

If last year was any indication, Buffalo’s offensive line is rounding into form. An issue two seasons ago, the Bulls’ front five took a nice step forward in 2011, though the group must continue to improve in pass protection — especially if the Bulls go with a less mobile quarterback. I love Quinn’s decision to move gifted sophomore Andre Davis, a 12-game starter at right guard last fall, out to left tackle, where he’ll replace Matt Ostrowski, the Bulls’ only lost starter up front.

That’s not the only move Buffalo will make heading into August: last year’s starter at center, senior Graham Whinery, will move to right guard, replacing Davis. Whinery and right tackle Gokhan Ozkan will form a solid, though not spectacular, strong side of the line. Junior Jasen Carlson should maintain his grasp on the left guard job, though Dillon Guy, who opened last season as the starter, is another option. The lone new starter is center Trevor Sales, a former transfer from Delaware State.

When taking two factors under consideration, it’s safe to say that the defense didn’t play all that terribly last fall. For starters, the Bulls needed to retool the entire secondary, breaking in four new starters, and lacked enviable experience along the front seven. Secondly, the MAC as a whole scored more points than ever a season ago; that Buffalo allowed another field goal or so per game when compared to 2010 was to be only expected — in fact, it could have been far worse.

This isn’t to say that Buffalo doesn’t have substantial room for improvement. One positional group lacks behind the rest: the Bulls need to get more from its three-man front. The biggest key is senior Wyatt Cahill (15 tackles), a former JUCO transfer who steps in for Richie Smith at nose tackle. He’ll be spelled at times by sophomore Dalton Barksdale, the bigger of the two tackles, with both lining up alongside each other on occasion when Tepper moves Buffalo into a four-linemen front. The Bulls will rely on starting ends Steven Means (33 tackles, 2.5 sacks) and Colby Way (49 tackles, 7.5 for loss), each of whom also has the ability to move inside in certain packages.

The biggest positive about Buffalo’s defensive front is its flexibility. Playing bigger ends in the 3-4 does allow for different looks when the Bulls add a fourth down linemen; in addition, the Bulls have a few linebackers capable of moving down to end on clear passing downs. Despite this flexibility, however, the Bulls simply don’t get enough pressure on the quarterback. Nor does the front seven as a whole stop the run with any consistency, though the group did have its moments — as against Northern Illinois, for instance. The line is getting better, yes. But there’s still work to be done.

The back seven remains nearly intact. The lone loss on the second level is inside linebacker Fred Branch, last year’s leading tackler. With all due respect to Branch, a multiple-year contributor, Buffalo can replace his production with some ease: heading into the summer, the Bulls had moved outside linebacker Jaleel Verseer (49 tackles) inside into Branch’s old spot. Verseer will line up next to sophomore Lee Skinner (80 tackles), who had a nice rookie campaign.

I think that’s how it’ll play out inside. However, Buffalo might be better suited moving senior Scott Pettigrew (32 tackles), a valuable reserve, into the starting role inside and keeping Verseer at outside linebacker. Doing so would put Buffalo’s most experienced linebackers on the field at one time; instead, the Bulls seem poised to play Verseer inside while allowing seniors Dalonte Wallace and Imani Chatman, special teams contributors, to battle for the starting role in Verseer’s former spot outside.

I feel like I’m forgetting someone. Checklist: Verseer, Skinner, Pettigrew, Wallace, Chatman… Yeah, I’m missing someone. Any discussion of Buffalo’s defense must devote extensive space to junior outside linebacker Khalil Mack, a reigning first-team all-MAC pick and, as he heads into his third season, a borderline all-American candidate.

Mack is, in short, a menace. He has 35.0 tackles for loss over his first two years, 20.5 a season ago, not to mention another litany of impressive defensive statistics: 21 quarterback hurries, 7 forced fumbles and 12 pass breakups, for starters. The word gets tossed around — in this space as well — but Mack is a true game-changer, a rush end who can sack the quarterback, run in space and make the one play that can turn a game around. He’s a special player.

The secondary has proved that it can play with, and even shut down, average to poor passing games. Buffalo’s not the only team that can stifle quarterbacks at Akron, Eastern Michigan and Connecticut; the key is doing the same against teams more capable of moving the ball through the air, especially with Pittsburgh, Toledo, Miami (Ohio), Georgia and Western Michigan on the schedule. Look for Buffalo to fail to match last year’s finish against the pass, when it ranked 36th nationally. But the Bulls do return three starters, so perhaps this experience can help overcome the beefed-up slate of strong passing teams.

Junior Najja Johnson (39 tackles) has a nose for the football, as evidenced by his 16 pass breakups last fall, which tied for eighth in the country. A former walk-on, Johnson is joined at cornerback by sophomore Cortney Lester (54 tackles, 2 interceptions), a converted wide receiver. Now in his second season on the defensive side of the ball, Lester is one returning starter who should clearly be stronger in 2012.

Another sophomore, Whitney Sherry, will get first crack at replacing Josh Copeland at free safety. Buffalo brings back senior Isaac Baugh (36 tackles) at strong safety, but he’s not the unquestioned starter: there’s also Okoye Houston, and the two should split time come September. I’m not sold on this secondary, but it’s not as the group stands as a huge concern. I simply wonder if it can slow down the better teams on the schedule.

Position battle(s) to watch

Quarterbacks Chazz Anderson, the one-year rental from Cincinnati — via the now-popular graduate waiver — did a pretty nice job with the Bulls, as most expected he would. He was clearly comfortable working in Quinn’s offense, thanks to his built-in familiarity with the system, though Anderson was stymied at times by a lack of talented options in the passing game. One thing Anderson did do was show up: not just literally, taking nearly every snap for the Bulls, but in how he always did everything in his power to balance out Buffalo’s strong ground game with the odd big play through the air. Despite taking a slide over the year’s final three games, Anderson will be missed.

The Bulls know they’ll run the ball better than most teams in the MAC, though, as noted, the offense could use another option at running back. How the Bulls fare in replacing Anderson will determine whether this offense as a whole can match up with the rest of the league. Quinn and his staff auditioned four quarterbacks for the starting role during the spring: a senior, a junior and two redshirt freshmen. The older duo, Jerry Davis and Alex Zordich, combined to start all 12 games — Davis eight, Zordich four — during Quinn’s debut season in 2010. While each showed an ability to move the chains with their feet, the pair combined to throw 22 interceptions; as a team, Buffalo finished 118th nationally with 23 picks. The two redshirt freshmen, Joe Licata and Tony Daniel, are intriguing prospects — especially Licata, one of the most prolific passers to come out of New York over the last decade.

Buffalo’s post-spring depth chart lists Zordich and Licata as co-starters, with Davis and Daniel running third and fourth, respectively. I don’t think Daniel is going to play this fall, but it’s likely too soon to write off Davis as a contender for a starting job. If Quinn does come down to Zordich and Licata, where he goes might depend on two factors: one, whether Licata has any ability as a runner — unknown, as of today; and two, whether the offense wants to play a Tony Pike-like starter, one who is a pure passer, or if the offense demands a quarterback, like Zordich, capable of making plays with his feet outside the pocket.

Game(s) to watch

It’s the strangest schedule of any team thus far, and likely the strangest schedule we’ll see all summer. A road game, followed by two home games, followed by three road games, followed by four home games, followed by two road games. You can probably write off the first four road games: Georgia, Connecticut, Ohio and Northern Illinois. That makes the two September games in Buffalo — Morgan State and Kent State — absolute must-wins.

Season breakdown & prediction

In a nutshell Quinn’s the answer for Buffalo. I hope that five wins over two years — and another middling finish this fall — doesn’t lead the university’s decision-makers to believe that the program can do much better, because it can’t. What the Bulls need isn’t a recruiter: what Buffalo needs is a disciplined and sure-handed coach, one with a proven track record of building lesser talent on each side of the ball into a solid, cohesive group capable of competing for conference championships. Quinn is doing this with the Bulls, even if this specific team lags behind the top teams in the MAC East: Ohio in particular, Kent State, Miami (Ohio) and Bowling Green a tad less so. For this year’s team, a lack of proven options at quarterback and a still-growing defense — not to mention some issues at receiver and at backup running back — prevents Buffalo from being taken seriously as a team that can jump from three wins into bowl play. In addition, I’m worried that this strange, momentum-killing schedule could lead to extended losing streaks. Even the four-game home stretch in October and November includes three reigning bowl teams and a fourth, Miami (Ohio), that should battle for six or seven wins. I don’t doubt that the Bulls could win four games, but at least two are coming over Morgan State and Massachusetts. For at least one more year, don’t pay attention to the final record. Buffalo is getting better. Quinn can win here, just not quite yet.

Dream season The Bulls turn the corner in Quinn’s third year, moving from second-to-last in the MAC East to first, upsetting Ohio and Miami (Ohio) along the way.

Nightmare season Buffalo’s getting there, but the program takes a step back in advance of a projected step forward next fall. The Bulls fall down to two wins — Morgan State and Massachusetts — and finish last in the East division.

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. For a blog’s take, look no further than UB Bull Run.

Buffalo’s all-name nominee LB Wonderful Monds.

Word Count

Through 15 teams 48,986.

Up Next

Who is No. 109? One of the biggest employers in the city housing tomorrow’s university has its headquarters in a town whose past inhabitants include a president of The Church of Latter-Day Saints, a First Lady of the United States and a sister of a President of the United States.

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Comments

  1. Joel says:

    New Mexico State?

  2. David says:

    the town with the famous residents is Farmington, CT, which is the home of several corporations

    another former resident was the son of a President

  3. David says:

    Otis Elevator — Bloomington, Indiana — the Hoosiers are next

  4. Dave says:

    Will there be a playoff to decide the all-name champ???

  5. Dr. Nick says:

    Sorry to nitpick but Grand Valley State is a D-II program, not an FCS program.

  6. Pittalum says:

    Lolz you said Pitt, and by extension Tino Sunseri, is better than average at passing. That’s pretty funny

  7. dave says:

    LETS GO BUFFALO!!!!!!

    BU-FF-AL-O – GO!!!

  8. Noefli says:

    I expect big things from Barksdale on name alone.

  9. [...] outsourcing the details on Buffalo to Paul Myerberg, who ranks the Bulls at #110.  In a nutshell, Georgia’s first opponent of the 2012 season is [...]

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