Buffalo finally broke the 10-win barrier after a breakout 2019 season. Now, it’s time for the follow-up act.
The college football offseason can be difficult, especially for teams whose success relied heavily on exiting talent. Some of Buffalo’s most integral players from the 10-4 season are headed to the waters of the NFL or have exercised their transfer options. The Bulls still boast some of the conference’s best players including the Patterson brothers and offensive tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk, but questions still lurk surrounding this program.
Here are the storylines that will resonate throughout Buffalo’s quest to return to Detroit for redemption at a MAC Championship.
How effective will Tyree Jackson’s replacement be?
Buffalo’s cycled through quality quarterbacks including Drew Willy and Joe Licata. But Tyree Jackson was the first from the program to take home the MAC Offensive Player of the Year award. The 6’7” quarterback led Buffalo to 10 regular season wins and passed for over 3,000 yards and nearly 30 touchdowns in an all-around dominant season.
Jackson was Buffalo’s primary starter for each of the last three seasons although he dealt with injury issues in 2016 and 2017. There weren’t too many college quarterbacks that shared Jackson’s arm strength and ability to consistently connect on 25+ yard throws. Jackson’s experience and his quarterbacking skills will greatly be missed and it’s time for Lance Leipold to turn to a new face at the position.
The apparent candidate for the role is redshirt sophomore Kyle Vantrease. Vantrease earned playing time in two games and even started against Miami (OH) in 2017 due to injuries to Jackson and backup QB Drew Anderson. In that start, he threw his only two touchdowns of his college career. His accuracy wasn’t as promising, completing 17-of-41 passes against the RedHawks.
Jackson returned to the field the following game, shelving Vantrease for the remainder of the season. Vantrease played garbage time in three blowouts in 2018, completing 4-of-9 passes for 20 yards. Overall, he’s completed 29 of his 66 career attempts for 375 yards, complemented with a pair of touchdowns and interceptions.
In the quarterback competition with Vantrease is junior Dominic Johnson, who has actually seen more action on the hardwood than the gridiron as a Buffalo Bull. Johnson the 6’5” small forward has scored 9 career points and hauled in 11 rebounds, while Johnson the quarterback has thrown one completion for four yards and one interception.
The other quarterback on the depth chart is redshirt freshman Matt Myers. Myers committed to Buffalo two summers ago as a local prospect. The pro-style quarterback has yet to see collegiate action but could be called upon if Leipold isn’t satisfied with the performance of Vantrease and Johnson through the first few weeks.
Buffalo opens with FCS doormat Robert Morris, so it’s the perfect opportunity for Leipold to experiment with the trio of signal callers while enjoying what should be a landslide victory.
Will WR exodus set up Antonio Nunn for a breakout season?
Anthony Johnson graduated, K.J. Osborn transferred to Miami (FL), Charlie Jones transferred to Iowa, George Rushing graduated, and tight end Tyler Mabry transferred to Maryland.
The mass exodus of Buffalo’s receiving corps might be one of the biggest positional losses in the FBS. With the top five receiving yards leaders from 2018 out of the program, that leaves Antonio Nunn as the most seasoned veteran. Nunn has shown promise in two seasons, catching 15 passes for 301 yards in 2017 and 12 for 146 in 2018, accumulating one touchdown per season.
Buffalo must first find a passer to connect with Nunn in effort to recreate the Jackson-to-Johnson combo that exposed secondaries for the past two seasons. Nunn will be joined by Tito Overton and LeMaro Smith Jr. at the position, as well as Zac Lefebvre at the tight end. The inexperience of the rest of the group requires Nunn to rise to the occasion and lead as Buffalo’s top wideout. It’s a perfect opportunity for him to make a name for himself and follow in the footsteps of Anthony Johnson.
How will Buffalo fare in these two circled games?
Without a doubt, Buffalo’s toughest opponent on the schedule is Penn State in Week 2. In all likelihood, especially with inexperience at quarterback, wide receiver, and several gaping holes left by defensive departures, this game is a long shot for Buffalo. But crazier things have happened, as Appalachian State was a fourth down stop away from upsetting the Nittany Lions in Happy Valley last fall despite a brand new starting quarterback in Zac Thomas.
But there are two tough games on the schedule Buffalo is more than capable of winning. And luckily for the Bulls, both games will transpire in their own hometown. Temple visits Saturday, Sept. 21 in a rematch of last year’s 36-29 thriller. Buffalo staved off the Owls’ comeback attempt in Philadelphia, securing its strongest win of the 2018 season. Temple’s surprising 0-2 start quickly flipped into a successful 8-win season behind returning starting quarterback Anthony Russo.
What’s new for Temple heading into the revenge match? Head coach Rod Carey, the same coach whose team engineered a 19-point comeback win in the 2018 MAC Championship Game in Detroit, shattered Buffalo’s vision of a first conference title in a decade. Now he’s the head man at Temple, a consistently decent program in a Power 6 conference. Taking down Rod Carey and the Owls is the type of win that can springboard Buffalo’s confidence heading into conference play, potentially with a 3-1 record.
Speaking of conference play, Buffalo should vividly remember the feeling of the 52-17 loss to Ohio in Athens last fall. Nearly everything that could go wrong went wrong that evening, but the slate is clean and the game moves to UB Stadium on Oct. 5. Buffalo and Ohio are the top two programs in the MAC East and avenging the loss from last season would grant the Bulls the tiebreaker they need to head back to Detroit.
Can Buffalo hoist a bowl trophy?
Ohio is the only MAC program in the last three seasons to successfully triumph in a bowl game, and the Bobcats have done so twice. The rest of the conference is 0-15 since 2016.
Buffalo left 2018 with a sour taste in its mouth after losing 42-32 to Troy despite entering the game as a slight favorite. The Bulls have competed in three bowls at the FBS level, falling short in 2008 after winning the MAC and 2013 with Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver.
With the likes of Robert Morris, Liberty, Akron, Central Michigan, Kent State, and Bowling Green on the schedule, Buffalo is primed to qualify for consecutive bowl games.
Bowls are the pinnacle of college football. It’s where the money is handed out, it’s where careers come to a close, it’s the national television opportunity, and it’s where all the work put in each season culminates. Now it’s time to hold a trophy to finish the year, wherever Buffalo winds up.