The 2018 football season was the greatest in Buffalo Bulls history. For the first time at the FBS level, Buffalo notched the 10-win mark and won over 70% of its games. The Bulls garnered a program-best 29 AP votes in a week after a 9-1 start and seized the MAC East for the first time since 2008.
While the 2018 season was by all means an resounding success, it wasn’t complete with the storybook ending Buffalo fans envisioned. The Bulls lost three of their last four games, a skid which blossomed with a 52-17 thumping from Ohio on midweek MACtion. After a quick recovery win over Bowling Green, Buffalo finalized its ticket to Detroit to compete for the conference’s crown. On the verge of their first MAC title in a decade, the Bulls held a 29-10 lead over Northern Illinois toward the end of the third quarter.
In the last 15:17 of the evening, NIU roared back with three unanswered touchdowns, pulling off the improbable comeback on the MAC’s greatest stage. Buffalo was unable to rebound three weeks later, falling 42-32 to Troy in the Dollar General Bowl and closing the season with two grueling defeats as the favored team.
Buffalo hasn’t taken the field since that December night, but Lance Leipold’s squad will display a much different look when it takes the field at UB Stadium on August 29.
Key Losses — Tyree and his Targets are No More
A horde of talent exited Upstate New York this offseason, ranging from draft declarees to graduates to transfers. Some of Buffalo’s most accomplished players in program history — Tyree Jackson, Anthony Johnson, and Khalil Hodge — are among the departures.
The burning question this offseason is, can Buffalo replace Tyree Jackson? The 2018 MAC Offensive Player of the Year tested the transfer portal last December before entering the NFL Draft. Although undrafted, the 6’7”, 249-pound quarterback was immediately scooped up by none other than the local Buffalo Bills as a free agent.
Jackson’s cannon arm guided Buffalo’s offense to new heights as he threw for over 3,000 yards and 28 touchdowns on opposing defenses. He remained healthy all season for the first time in his collegiate career, allowing Buffalo to enjoy stability at the quarterback position after a 3-man carousel in 2017.
Not only will Jackson’s production be a difficult facet to replicate, but easing into the quarterback vacancy will be no cakewalk without the team’s top five receiving targets from 2018.
Two-time First Team All-MAC wide receiver Anthony Johnson graduated after back-to-back campaigns over the century mark in receiving. An undrafted free agent pickup by the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Johnson’s hands, strength, and ability to fight for yards after the catch were virtually unmatched by any other receiver in the conference the past two seasons. To make matters worse at the position, Johnson’s sidekick and Second Team All-MAC wide receiver K.J. Osborn transferred to Miami (FL) after a breakout 892-yard season.
Slot wideout Charlie Jones — the team’s primary return specialist — transferred to Iowa, and First Team All-MAC tight end Tyler Mabry transferred to Maryland. With George Rushing graduating, junior wide receiver Antonio Nunn (12 receptions in 2018) is Buffalo’s most experienced pass catcher.
Buffalo also lost running back Emmanuel Reed to the transfer market. Reed, the team’s leading rusher in 2017, escaped a crowded and competitive backfield in favor of Maine. James O’Hagan, another First Team All-MAC selection, signed with the New York Giants as an undrafted free agent after a successful stint as Buffalo’s center.
Defensively, Buffalo lost some of its most effective starters to graduation. A gaping hole opens up in the middle of the unit without tackling machine Khalil Hodge at inside linebacker. The team’s most talented pass rusher, Charles Harris (6.5 sacks in 2018), also graduated from the program this offseason, as did outside linebacker Jordan Collier and cornerback Brandon Williams — causing Buffalo to lose four of its top six tacklers.
Key Returns — Patterson Brothers and Company
No coach poaching here. Lance Leipold is back on a 5-year contract which was agreed upon in February. The coach who built a D3 powerhouse at his alma mater Wisconsin-Whitewater seemed to be a gamble of a hire in 2015, but Leipold has shifted the program 180 degrees from 10 losses to 10 wins in a matter of two seasons. He’ll lose veteran leadership with the likes of Tyree Jackson and Khalil Hodge, but there is a bevy of young talent expected to keep Buffalo afloat in the MAC East.
Buffalo had a traffic jam of running backs competing for the top spot last fall, but a budding freshman superstar Jaret Patterson emerged as the top dog. While receiving limited touches for the first four games of the season, Patterson still managed to fall just 22 yards shy of 1,000 . The quick-cutting running back located the end zone quite frequently, accumulating 14 rushing touchdowns — tying the conference-best for running backs.
Along with Patterson to provide depth in the backfield is Kevin Marks, who ran for 845 yards in 2018. Marks remained a consistent threat all year long and was instrumental in Buffalo’s statement road win over Temple by contributing 138 yards and two touchdowns in the 7-point victory.
Blocking for Patterson and Marks will be star senior left tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk, a Second Team All-MAC lineman from 2018. Senior Paul Nosworthy and junior Kayode Awosika are other veteran upperclassmen expected to anchor the trenches up front. Even with the loss of O’Hagan, Ksiezarczyk and Co. should remain one of the more powerful blocking units in the conference.
The most influential defender returning to the program is outside linebacker James Patterson. James, Jaret’s twin brother, ranked first on the defense in tackles for loss (9.0) and forced fumbles (4) in his freshman season. James Patterson trailed just behind Khalil Hodge in total tackles with 77 and has all the makings of the next great Buffalo linebacker to follow in the footsteps of the Khalils — Mack and Hodge.
Besides Patterson, the defense will be bolstered by veterans including Taylor Riggins, who is fresh off a 5-sack season from the defensive end spot. Free safety Tyrone Hill, the team’s best zone coverage weapon, was a key component in Buffalo’s 19th-ranked yards per game pass defense from 2018 that will be lurking in the secondary once more.
In the linebacking corps, Kadofi Wright returns alongside Patterson to provide experience at the position in place of Collier. The 6’3” will see increased action but shined as a reserve sophomore linebacker with 3.5 tackles for loss and 27 tackles.
The Bulls sported an above average defense last season, ranking 32nd in yards allowed per game and 48th in points allowed per game. No freshmen are expected to start on the unit, so it will be up to the returning body to determine how far the defense can carry Buffalo in 2019 without Hodge, Harris, Collier, and Williams.
With its returning personnel, Buffalo should be readily equipped at running back, offensive line, and outside linebacker as the team looks to defend its MAC East title.
What’s New — Quarterback Competition
Outside of running back and offensive line, there will be a complete renovation on the offensive side of the ball.
Jackson’s replacement is expected to be redshirt sophomore Kyle Vantrease, who started one game and threw 57 passes as a freshman in relief of injuries to Tyree Jackson and former Buffalo quarterback Drew Anderson. Competing with Vantrease for the lead signal caller will be junior Dominic Johnson (a small forward on Buffalo’s basketball team) and redshirt freshman Matt Myers.
Vantrease is by far the most seasoned of the bunch and even made several garbage time appearances in 2018, totaling nine pass attempts. He’s thrown for 375 yards on 66 attempts as a Bull, firing in two touchdown passes and two interceptions. Despite a small sample size, accuracy may be a concern as Vantrease connected on fewer than 44% of his passes. But Leipold, a former college quarterback, specializes in the position so expect plenty of coaching to be directed toward Vantrease as August approaches.
Only 22 programs threw more touchdown passes than Buffalo in 2018, but the team will completely overhaul its air attack with a new man under center and new weapons.
Wide receiver is the position with the most turnover this offseason. Antonio Nunn will step into the Anthony Johnson role after just 27 career receptions spaced out over two seasons. LeMaro Smith Jr. and Tito Overton, who have combined for just one collegiate reception, may be the second and third options to join Nunn in the receiving game. Tight end Tyler Mabry will be replaced by Zac Lefebvre, a junior who saw action in six contests and hauled in 10 receptions a season ago.
Adam Mitcheson, Buffalo’s all-time leading scorer, is done kicking field goals and extra points after four years of service. The reigns have been passed to sophomore Alex McNulty, who briefly appeared in 2018 to kick one successful field goal and a handful of extra points (3-of-4).
2019 Buffalo Bulls Schedule
|August 29 - Thu||vs. Robert Morris (FCS)||N/A|
|September 7 - Sat||@ Penn State||N/A|
|September 14 - Sat||@ Liberty||N/A|
|September 21 - Sat||vs. Temple||W, 36-29|
|September 28 - Sat||@ Miami OH||W, 51-42|
|October 5 - Sat||vs. Ohio||L, 17-52|
|October 12 - Sat||@ Akron||W, 24-6|
|October 26 - Sat||vs. Central Michigan||W, 34-24|
|November 2 - Sat||@ Eastern Michigan||W, 35-28|
|November 14 - Thu||@ Kent State||W, 48-14|
|November 20 - Wed||vs. Toledo||W, 31-17|
|November 29 - Fri||vs. Bowling Green||W, 44-14|
Buffalo plays nine of its 12 regular season opponents from 2018. The only team on the schedule the Bulls failed to defeat last year was the Ohio Bobcats, who annihilated them 52-17 in Athens. That game at UB Stadium will certainly be circled on the calendar, for revenge purposes and the fact that Ohio is Buffalo’s greatest threat to claiming the MAC East throne. Unlike Buffalo, Ohio returns a starting quarterback, but both the Bobcats and Bulls suffered plenty of key losses in the skill positions and linebackers.
Buffalo’s schedule works favorably for fans of weekend games. The Bulls play six consecutive Saturdays from Week 2 to Week 7 before earning their bye week in mid-October. Their schedule only features one midweek matchup, a Wednesday night showdown against Toledo in the penultimate game of the regular season.
In all likelihood, Buffalo faces its toughest competition one week after facing its easiest. The Bulls travel to the second-largest stadium in the country for a bout in Happy Valley with the Nittany Lions. Penn State hasn’t fallen to a MAC team since Ohio pulled off a road upset in 2012. The two collided in Beaver Stadium in 2015, albeit both weaker programs at the time, and Penn State pulled off a 27-14 victory in Saquon Barkley’s first-ever 100-yard game. This is the only Power 5 competition on Buffalo’s schedule this season, an astronomically more challenging draw than Rutgers from 2018’s schedule.
The second year of the home-and-home with Temple transpires in UB Stadium on September 21. Buffalo’s résumé defining win occurred in Philadelphia last season, but the Owls drastically improved after the loss and won 8 of their next 10 under new quarterback Anthony Russo. The rematch may be the most compelling matchup on the schedule and Buffalo can open 2019 with a favorable trajectory if it can execute against the Owls and begin 3-1.
The defending MAC East champions may not enter 2019 as the division favorites, but Buffalo has overcome the odds before. Leipold’s Bulls have surpassed expectations two years in a row after three consecutive losing seasons.
Buffalo should be a contender in a wide open MAC East, which features a frontrunner in Frank Solich’s ever-consistent Ohio Bobcats. An effective replacement at quarterback combined with the strong running game established last season should be enough to carry Buffalo’s offense back to eight or more victories. Defensively, Buffalo must excel in stopping the run to gain an edge over other MAC programs, especially the speed-option heavy Bobcats.
If Buffalo can exact vengeance on Ohio when the programs meet in New York on October 5, the program should be perfectly set up for another MAC Championship Game appearance. But, replacing last year’s successful cast is no easy task.
One of the Bulls’ program objectives that’s still left unchecked is their first bowl win. Buffalo has only participated in three bowl games (2008, 2013, 2018), which all resulted in losses. The Bulls never have played in the postseason in consecutive years, although they were bowl eligible each of the last two seasons. All of these firsts are achievable in Leipold’s rising program heading into 2019.