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2017 Hustle Belt Preseason Football Preview: Buffalo Bulls

2017 will be a make-or-break season for Lance Leipold and the Bulls.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Boston College Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Buffalo Bulls had a underwhelming season last year to say the least.

The Bulls finished with a 2-10 (1-7 MAC) record last season, with those two victories coming against Army (in overtime) and Akron.

The Bulls have some promise, but developing over the next few years will be key. This is the third year of Lance Leipold at the helm, and his reputation was built around building programs with little resources. Buffalo has reeled in an interesting recruits that could give Bulls fans some hope for the future.

At the same time, a lot of eyes will be on what happens this season, given Buffalo’s recent cut of varsity sports, with someof that money flowing back over to the football program.

The Bulls open their season against a tough Minnesota squad. Maybe not a game the Bulls can win, but definitely a contest they can compete and try different players in. Once the Bulls figure out their young firepower the rest of the MAC will need to keep a close eye them.

Five Players to Watch

Ledarius Mack, #52 ILB (Jr.)

One could call it: The Return of the Mack.

Ledarius Mack, a transfer from ACA College in Miami, Florida, might not be at Buffalo if it was not for his brother. Khalil Mack tweeted out saying that Buffalo slept on his brother by not offering him a scholarship.

Lo and behold, the Bulls offered Mack’s brother a scholarship only a month or so after that tweet came out. In nine games for ASA College last season, Mack accumulated 24 tackles, 1.5 sacks and one interception. Those don’t seem like great numbers, but one needs some context: Khalil was not a highly talented recruit with big numbers, but he developed later on. This could be the same situation for his brother Ledarius Mack, who had similar measurables to Khalil going to Buffalo.

Tyree Jackson, #3 QB (R-So.)

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

The 6’7”, 245 lb. quarterback put on quite a display in the nine games he started.

As only a two star rated quarterback out of high school, Tyree Jackson impressed a lot of people. Jackson threw for 1,772 yards, nine touchdowns, and nine interceptions. Jackson also owned Buffalo’s two victories as the starter, platooning with Iowa State transfer Grant Rohach.

If this team is going to move to the next level, Jackson will have to be even better. It will not be easy, considering his number one target, Mason Schreck, just got drafted, and his top two receiver targets, Marcus McGill and Malcolm Robinson, are no longer with the team. Jackson will need to use his dual-threat ability to lead this offense to success.

Tyler Mabry, #81 TE (R-So.)

Jackson is still young, which means he will need a safety blanket. Tight end Mason Schreckplayed that role last year and he ended up with 59 catches, 651 yards, and four touchdowns. Tyler Mabry could be that player this year for Jackson. Mabry is a big 6’3”, 250 lb. target that has shown great hands in limited action (nine receptions for 95 yards). He will need to work on his speed, but Jackson has someone he can trust in the redzone.

Rodney Scott III, #82 WR (Fr.)

Hopefully Scott will be able to make an immediate impact in this offense because it needs it. The three star recruit from Miami, Florida is Buffalo’s top rated signing. Scott was nominated to play in the 2017 U.S. Army All-American Bowl and had offers from some big schools (e.g. Alabama, Florida, Georgia etc…). The 6’0” receiver has great hands and will most likely be put right into the starting roster in their first game against Minnesota.

Khalil Hodge, #4 MLB (Jr.)

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

Hodge had an unbelievable season last year for the Bulls after transferring from City College of San Francisco.

Hodge earned All-MAC honours, logging 123 tackles and one sack. Hodge will be leading the defense this season. With that responsibility, Hodge will try to pull his team up from the worst run defense in the MAC last season. He and his defense will also try to keep the top spot in the MAC with their stout pass defense, allowing only 181.5 yards per game last season.

Hodge has always summed up a big number of tackles. In his senior season in high school he racked up a monstrous 262 tackles. The 235 lb. middle linebacker is definitely a MAC Defensive Player of the Year candidate coming into the 2017 season.

Four Can’t Miss Games

Sept. 9 at Army West Point

NCAA Football: Heart of Dallas Bowl-Army vs North Texas Sean Pokorny-USA TODAY Sports

The Bulls won their first game against the Army Black Knights last year around this time in overtime, and this could very well be there first win this year as well. This game will set the tone for the rest of the year. Army’s run prominent offense will test the Bulls shaky run defense. Tyree Jackson succeeded in scoring three touchdowns against the Black Knights and will look do the same thing on the Sept. 9.

Sept. 23 vs. Florida Atlantic

NCAA Football: Florida Atlantic at Rice Troy Taormina-USA TODAY Sports

Buffalo has a unique opportunity to face a team with similar expectations in Florida Atlantic that is under new leadership in Lane Kiffin.

FAU finished 3-9 (2-6 C-USA) last season but showed a lot of guts down the stretch, including an insane 56 points scored in a loss to Middle Tennessee State (who, may it be known, socred 77 points).

This game could serve as a measuring stick for Buffalo’s development as a program from the recruiting angle and prove to be a fun watch for two teams with very similar playing styles.

Sept. 30 at Kent State

NCAA Football: Kent State at Penn State Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Depending on how their non-conference games go, it will be interesting to see of they are favoured against a Kent State team that struggled last season.

The Golden Flashes ran roughshod over the Bulls 44-20 last year, exposing the Bulls’ poor run defense last year as emergency QB Nick Holley rushed for 224 yards and four touchdowns in that game.

Holley will look to repeat that effort from the running back spot as dual-threat QB Mylik Mitchell looks to return to the roster after sustaining a season-ending injury against Alabama last year.

Mitchell and Jackson are both quarterbacks who can use their feet to change the pace of the game and it should be a fun watch. This game will be a good test for the Bulls to see where they fit in the MAC East in their first conference game of the season.

Nov. 7 vs Bowling Green

NCAA Football: Bowling Green at Northern Illinois Mike DiNovo-USA TODAY Sports

This will be an important game for the Bulls because it is a game they can win and it might decide, depending on what they do earlier on in the season, if they will be bowl eligible.

Of course, these are quite high expectations for a team that finished last in the MAC just last season, but you have to let people dream.

Buffalo lost their last game of the season in the last few seconds to Bowling Green last year and was competitive throughout, even despite not having Jackson available. Grant Rohach threw for 334 yards and two touchdowns in the game, which kept Buffalo in it until the very end. With Jackson in and the new recruits in, Bulls could definitely find success against teams on the same level as Bowling Green and Kent State.

Two Things to Watch For

Run Defense

Buffalo had the worst run defense in the MAC last year. They really addressed it this offseason bringing in four linebackers and three defensive linemen through recruiting. Bringing in defensive depth will give them the ability to rotate through better players. If the Bulls stellar pass defense is anything like last year’s, they could potentially have a top three defense in the MAC.

Controlling Turnovers & Consistency

Jackson had nine interceptions in his nine starts last year. With his favourite target Mason Schreck gone, Jackson will have to look at his young receiving core for consistency.

Jackson has the ability to limit turnovers by getting out of trouble with his legs. Running back Jonathan Hawkins will be taking over for Jordan Johnson, who rushed for over 1,000 yards last season. Hawkins will need to relieve Jackson with consistent gains through the running game in order to keep the Buffalo offense balanced.

A Bold Prediction

The Bulls will have to take advantage of their relatively easy non-conference schedule. Minnesota and FAU are two games that they will have to battle in, but against Colgate and Army they should find a path to victory.

In terms of a bold prediction, there’s reason to believe the Bulls could end up at 6-6 or 5-7. Buffalo’s ceiling is at 6-6 unless they pull a miraculous upset. Playing in the MAC East gives the Bulls an easier schedule, and a little bit more leeway. Bowl eligibility is not a stretch for this young corps, especially if the pieces come together.

In reality, the team is probably closer to 4 or 5 wins, but even that would already mark a 100 percent improvement over last year’s win mark. Those are the signs of progress the team is looking for after beng proverbially lost in the gridiron desert for the last three seasons.