On a chilly Friday afternoon at UB Stadium, Buffalo shed off its touchdown-underdog status and stunned the Ohio Bobcats to achieve bowl eligibility. Ohio dropped its last two on the road to finish the season and will not participate in the MAC Championship, while Buffalo rode a three-game win streak to surge to a .500 record.
Here's what we learned from Buffalo's 31-24 win:
Buffalo is much better than its 6-6 record suggests
Buffalo opened the season 0-2 and suffered from a four-game skid around midseason. But all of these games were incredibly close and some may have resulted in victories had the Bulls not faced several quarterback injuries.
The team's point differentials in losses are as follows:
- 10 points at Minnesota (5-6)
- 4 points at Army (8-3)
- 3 points (7OT) vs. Western Michigan (6-6)
- 1 point vs. Northern Illinois
- 10 points at Miami OH (5-7)
- 1 point at Akron (7-5)
Starting quarterback Tyree Jackson suffered an injury prior to the Western Michigan game before returning against Akron. Drew Anderson, his replacement, starred in the 7OT loss to Western Michigan before injuring his shoulder in the narrow defeat at the hands of Northern Illinois. Had Jackson or Anderson finished the NIU game or started at Miami, the Bulls could be looking at an 8-4 record, possibly challenging Akron for the MAC East title.
Buffalo's offense scored at least 30 in each of its three contests with a healthy Jackson, and the Bulls finished 2016 as one of the hottest teams in the conference. The Bulls lost four of six games by less than five points — a sign that Buffalo can compete with a myriad of teams and is no longer the 2-10 squad it was a year ago.
Lance Leipold is finally getting the results he needed
Leipold was hired by the University prior to the 2015 season. After a 5-7 record in his first year at the helm, Leipold's stock plummeted following a disastrous 2-10 season in 2016. After opening the new year 0-2 and blowing a late lead to an in-state opponent in Army, thing were not looking positive for the third-year head coach.
But Leipold's program finally came to life once the Bulls reinvented themselves as a passing offense. Relying on Tyree Jackson and Drew Anderson to tear up opposing defenses through the air was a great gamble for the coach, and his team has since earned 300% of the wins it did last year.
Buffalo may or may not earn a bowl bid thanks to the MAC sporting seven eligible teams, but Leipold extended his career in blue and white and is finally returning the program to heights it last reached with Khalil Mack on the roster in 2013.
Turnovers killed Ohio's season
In all four Bobcats' losses, turnovers should rank first on the list as the deciding factor. Ohio lost plenty of momentum with consecutive fumbles at Purdue, couldn't hold onto the ball against Central Michigan, and lost the turnover battle 3-0 to Akron.
Driving late down 31-24, Ohio was about to erase a 17-point deficit and tie Buffalo to force overtime. Instead, the Bulls' defensive standout Khalil Hodge intercepted Nathan Rourke on 4th down on the Buffalo 13. Just plays earlier, the Bobcats were granted with a favorable 1st and 10 at the 11.
Although that turnover ultimately decided the outcome, the most costly takeaway occurred at the beginning of the afternoon. Trailing 7-0, Rourke took a sack, fumbled and Buffalo returned the pigskin to the blue end zone to snatch the Bobcats' momentum and lead 14-0.
After beating Toledo and looking like the favorite to win the MAC, Ohio collapsed and Frank Solich's team can thank turnovers (primarily fumbles) for preventing it from defending its MAC East title.
Side note: I feel like I'm doing the Bobcats a major disservice if I don't mention how well Rourke played in his first year as the signal caller. The sophomore option QB was nothing short of spectacular, as evidenced by his 21 rushing touchdowns, 15 passing touchdowns, and captaining an offense that averaged about 40 points per game. The future is bright in Athens, Ohio as long as Rourke is taking snaps in the backfield.
The nation needs to know about Anthony Johnson
Buffalo fans are familiar with the junior wideout from Rock Hill, South Carolina. As are all of the cornerbacks #83 has battled throughout the year.
But when listening to Fred Biletnikoff Award candidates and potential All-Americans at the wide receiver position, one name always gets left out: Anthony Johnson. The Buffalo receiver finished with 155 yards and two touchdowns against the Ohio secondary on Black Friday. Johnson scored first half touchdowns of 31 and 54 yards, propelling Buffalo to an early lead over the MAC East's best overall record.
Johnson finished the 2017 regular season with 1,356 yards (currently first in the FBS, although some of his competition has played just 11 games) on 76 catches. Additionally, he scored 14 receiving touchdowns, which is good for second in the country.
He possesses a very talented set of hands, runs effective deep ball routes, and impresses on jump balls with his 6-foot-2, 207-pound frame. Johnson isn't often labeled as the country's best receiver but he should definitely be in the conversation with the James Washingtons and Michael Gallups of the nation.
Western Michigan vs. Buffalo, eighth overtime
There are just 78 bowl slots this season (RIP Poinsettia Bowl). Only 72 teams qualify for bowl eligibility entering rivalry week, but four more will be added to the list thanks to four 5-6 vs. 5-6 matchups (Cal-UCLA, Utah-Colorado, Purdue-Indiana, Middle Tennessee-Old Dominion).
Then, there are 5-win teams that could squeak out a sixth win Saturday, such as UNLV (vs. Nevada), Louisiana Tech (vs. UTSA), Louisiana (vs. Georgia Southern), and Duke (vs. Wake Forest). Oh, and don't forget the infamous 4-6 Florida State, a team with six losses to above-.500 teams that certainly won't miss bowl season assuming it rolls by Florida and Louisiana-Monroe.
Now, we're talking about AT LEAST 80 teams fighting for 78 spots. Considering more than half of the MAC is bowl eligible and given the MAC's recent track record in bowl games (0-6 in 2016), it's hard to see the bowl committees selecting all seven eligible teams into the postseason.
It will be Western Michigan vs. Buffalo, eighth overtime.
Assuming 6-6 Power Five teams fill slots before an extra MAC team can earn its bid, Western Michigan and Buffalo may have to compete for the conference's final selection into bowl season. Although Buffalo finished the season strong with three-straight wins and a prolific offense, my guess would be Western Michigan gets the nod for a multitude of reasons:
- Western Michigan beat Buffalo head-to-head in an unforgettable 71-68 game in 7OT
- Western Michigan earned national recognition many times in the past 365 days, from winning the MAC, playing Wisconsin in the Cotton Bowl, and nearly knocking off USC in Week 1
- The Quick Lane Bowl could fill seats with Western Michigan fans easily, but Buffalo faithful would have to travel extensively to any reasonable bowl destination
If Buffalo earns the bid, it'd be because the Bulls are playing as the better team right now since Western Michigan has struggled in the absence of Jon Wassink and Jamauri Bogan.
We'll see how the bowls pan out on the morning of December 3, but don't be surprised if either Buffalo or Western Michigan is forced to watch the games from home come mid-December. It would be a bitter way for the Bulls to end a thrilling, successful season that ended in an upset victory over 8-4 Ohio.