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2016 Hustle Belt Preseason Preview: Buffalo Bulls

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Timothy T. Ludwig-USA TODAY Sports

The rebuilding effort begins in earnest in 2016 for Lance Leipold, who must replace senior starters at quarterback, running back, wide receiver, tight end, and multiple spots on the offensive line in his second year running the show in Amherst, New York. Buffalo returns large chunks of their successful defense from a year ago, but will need to find its stride quickly on offense to make a bowl game after consecutive five-win seasons.

FIVE PLAYERS TO KNOW

QB Tyree Jackson, R-Fr

Jackson may not end up starting this year in favor of Iowa State graduate transfer Grant Rohach, but his presence will loom large over UB's season. The signal caller from Michigan's Mona Shores high school attracted late interest from Pitt and other big-name schools, but stuck with Buffalo before redshirting during Joe Licata's senior season. Since arriving on campus, Jackson has grown to 6-7 and 245 pounds and is by all accounts UB's next longterm starter. Two weeks from the season opener against Albany, Leipold is unwilling to name a pecking order, but if Rohach struggles at any time, expect broadcasters and fans to quickly call for Jackson.

RB Jordan Johnson, Sr

Johnson has spent a few years behind Anthone Taylor, but now has the top spot on the two-deep all to himself. Arguably, it should have been his last year, when Johnson was UB's most consistent offensive threat, scoring twelve touchdowns to lead the team. A member of a fabled Sweet Home High School class that never lost a game from freshman to JV to varsity football, Johnson has not yet gotten the attention other local stars have at UB, but this year could be different.

LB Khalil Hodge, So

If the JUCO transfer from the City College of San Francisco lives up to his performances in the spring and summer, you won't be able to watch a game this year without hearing a comparison to another Buffalo Khalil. Hodge likely won't be a future first-rounder, but he does project to step into the middle of a front seven that was UB's biggest provider of clutch plays last year. UB needs to collectively replace Kyril Threats, Nick Gilbo, and Okezie Alozie, and Hodge, who amassed 262 tackles his senior year of high school, looks to have the middle linebacker spot locked down.

CB Boise Ross, Sr

At multiple points in the first half of the 2015 season, Ross led the nation in passes defended. His production dipped in the second half of the season, but only because teams avoided throwing near him. The converted wide receiver now enjoys a spot on the Jim Thorpe Award Watch List as one of the top defensive backs in college football and is fully capable of taking over half the field at a time. He's likely Buffalo's best shot at an NFL draft pick next spring.

LS Corbin Grassman, Jr

Will he play the same role as the first four names? No. But I miss the short-lived #LongSnapperWars and you should too.

FOUR GAMES NOT TO MISS

17 September at Nevada

For one, this Week 3 clash will be broadcast on Twitter as part of a recent Mountain West deal with CampusInsiders. For two, it's probably the most intriguing of a nonconference slate that otherwise includes Albany, Army, and Boston College. UB squandered a number of opportunities in last year's home loss to the Wolf Pack, and face a tougher challenge in 2016 on the road. A win, however, might show the Bulls are set to outperform expectations.

8 October vs Kent State

Buffalo's MAC opener is another that should help set expectations for the team. Last year's last-win over the Golden Flashes was a sign of things to come in its ugliness, as UB struggled on both offense and defense in their final win of the season. A tight game in 2016 could dampen hope early, while a strong win would bolster fans' hopes for improvement.

3 November at Ohio

Regardless of quality over the rest of the season, UB-Ohio matches have lately gone to the home team in embarrasing fashion. A poorly-constructed schedule forces the Bulls to finish the season with 11 games without a bye, and the November roadie against the Bobcats caps one of two stretches of three games in 13 days. This may very well be a near-must-win for bowl eligibility, and it's hard to see much going in UB's favor at this point.

12 November vs Miami

The Miami game kicks off a second stretch of three games in 13 days and is absolutely crucial as UB finishes the season at Western Michigan and at Bowling Green. It's possible that the Bulls' six easiest games are all at home, but if bowl eligibility is in play in 2016, it sure feels like Buffalo needs to have it wrapped up by the end of this one.

THREE WAYS THE SEASON IS A SUCCESS

Bowl Eligbility

After consecutive five-win seasons, the program could really use even a slight improvement in the clearest indicator: wins and losses. With so many losses on the offensive side of the ball, six wins may be a tall task even if last year's team got to five with a largely underperforming and mismanaged offensive attack. Given the schedule, UB will likely need to go 4-2 at an absolute minimum at home to make 6-6 a reality.

Underclass Production

Success in Year Three for Lance Leipold means stability through and after Year Two. In addition to Hodge and maybe Jackson, listed above, UB has an opportunity to lay the groundwork for a future core with players like Tim Roberts, Kamathi Holsey, Duke Hwang, and Cameron Lewis.

Offensive Line Chemistry

The quicker the new-look-line gels, the better the season will go for the Bulls. Leipold only has two senior offensive linemen on his roster, so it's not unreasonable to expect 2016 to end with a clear plan for the unit in 2017.

TWO THINGS TO WATCH FOR

Can the linebackers put together another season of big plays?

By far UB's strongest unit in 2015, the linebackers kept Buffalo in a number of games with big turnovers, fourth-down stops, and momentum-shifting hits. Are those plays the result of luck or some special sauce in Brian Borland's defense.

Can the offensive line pave any space for Jordan Johnson or buy any time for the quarterback du jour?

UB's likely doomed against Boston College's front seven no matter what, but could be in for a long season if things never come together for the offensive line. The Bulls offense struggled to give the D much rest at times in 2015, but it could be worse with so few returning starters.

ONE BOLD PREDICTION

Speedy safety Tim Roberts and his Polamalu hair break out and make their way onto an All-MAC team.