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State of the Program 2019: Buffalo Bulls

Lance Leipold appears to have Buffalo on the upswing. There’s still plenty of firsts the Bulls still need to accomplish.

Illustration: James H. Jimenez | Photo: Timothy T. Ludwig (USA Today Sports)

The Buffalo Bulls took a giant leap in 2018, bursting through the program’s previous ceiling while garnering more national recognition than ever.

In his first three years at Buffalo, Lance Leipold’s program was nothing more than mundane. But at the end of 2017, when the Bulls rattled off 3-straight wins to close a 6-6 season, it seemed like Leipold was starting to set this program on the right footing.

That win streak carried over into 2018, and Buffalo raced to a 4-0 start. After an ugly, but excusable hiccup at home against Army, Buffalo won five in a row to secure one of the nation’s best records at 9-1. While never appearing in the AP Poll, Buffalo shattered a program record receiving 29 AP votes in a single week, checking in at #31 in the country.

This version of Buffalo was leaps and bounds above any before its kind, including the 2008 squad that upset an undefeated Ball State team in the MAC Championship Game. The 2018 team set a major milestone in the young FBS program’s life by achieving 10 wins for the first time. With a 16-10 record in two seasons, Buffalo is fresh off its best 2-year stretch since joining the FBS in 1999.

While Leipold’s massive 4-win improvement from 2016 to 2017 and 4-win improvement from 2017 to 2018 create the appearance of a rising program, it may be too soon to tell. Buffalo suffered losses of imperative All-MAC players including starting quarterback Tyree Jackson, wide receiver Anthony Johnson, and inside linebacker Khalil Hodge.

So can the coaching personnel and the remaining batch of talent establish consistency for this program?

Buffalo Bowls

Achieving consistency in the MAC is difficult. The conference is a revolving door for coaches, except for college football’s oldest coach, Frank Solich. Solich’s presence at Ohio for nearly 15 years has caused the Bobcats to soar above previous expectations and earn bowl eligibility for 10-straight seasons.

Meanwhile, Buffalo has never participated in bowl games in consecutive years.

Winning the MAC East is a feasible goal for Buffalo, although the Bulls will likely open as division underdogs to budding rival Ohio this season. An re-appearance in Detroit for the MAC Championship Game would make the 2019 season a resounding success by all means. But, if Buffalo wishes to continue the program’s upswing and avoid becoming a one-hit-wonder, qualifying for a bowl game is a must.

Every on-the-rise program’s fear is to become a flash in the pan like the Colorado Buffaloes, whose 10-win 2016 was sandwiched in between 10 losing seasons on one side, and two and counting on the other. The previous Buffalo team that went bowling couldn’t recover from key losses such as Khalil Mack and Branden Oliver, following its 8-5 campaign with a 5-6 finish.

After three bowl appearances in program history, each separated by five seasons, Buffalo still holds zero bowl victories to its name. The Bulls are one of three MAC schools, along with Ball State and Kent State, to hold this unwanted distinction. Buffalo was granted a golden opportunity to break the spell against Troy last December, but quarterback Sawyer Smith’s immaculate 320-yard, 4-touchdown performance through the air led Troy to a 42-32 win, dampening an otherwise excellent season.

Acquiring and Developing Talent

Recruiting can be an overrated aspect of college football considering programs like UCF and Wisconsin continually beat programs that out-recruit them. But Buffalo’s recruiting has been overly concerning in recent seasons, checking in ranked: 106, 136, 113, 118, and 118 in the past five years, sometimes below FCS programs. The Bulls have done a fantastic job developing prospects under Leipold on the field, as evidenced by Tyree Jackson, Anthony Johnson, and others, but Buffalo still has yet to establish a reliable NFL pipeline.

Since Leipold coached his first game in the fall of 2015, tight end Mason Schreck — a 7th round selection in 2017 — is the only NFL Draft pick the program has produced. The 2019 team won’t rely on many seniors as Buffalo now owns one of the conference’s more youthful rosters, so it is unlikely the 2020 draft will feature many Bulls. Offensive tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk is Buffalo’s top senior prospect and a 2018 Second Team All-MAC selection, serving as the best bet to represent the Bulls next spring.

Leipold’s Future

As mentioned before, MAC coaches aren’t made to stay. Either they’re fired, they’re promoted, or they’re named Frank Solich. Matt Campbell, P.J. Fleck, and Rod Carey all turned consistent success in the MAC into higher-paying, Power 5/AAC jobs. Lance Leipold may be 1-3 years away from experiencing the same fate.

Leipold spearheaded a dynasty at the Division III level when he finished 109-6 at his alma mater Wisconsin-Whitewater, winning six national championships in the span of eight years. At Buffalo, he inherited a program that enjoyed two .500+ seasons since 1999, and he produced two more in his third and fourth years. Winning a MAC title and a bowl game are still on the to-do checklist for Buffalo, and by achieving one of these feats, Leipold may receive phone calls from athletic directors around the country — especially given the frequent turnover of Power 5/AAC coaches due to short leashes and unrealistic fanbase expectations. He signed a 5-year extension in February, but as Buffalo fans learned from their basketball head coach Nate Oats, those extensions are trivial buyouts for other athletic departments.

Visibility

From AP Poll votes to Tyree Jackson winning the MAC Offensive Player of the Year to March Madness victories, Buffalo athletics has become a more frequent topic in college sports discussion throughout the past few seasons. Buffalo’s fan support is augmenting too, as attendance numbers increased in 2018. More people flocked to UB Stadium to watch the Bulls play Army last season than any Buffalo home game since Baylor paid a visit in 2014 — the fall after Buffalo’s previous winning season.

Will Buffalo attempt to leverage this success and visibility into a potential spot in the American Conference? Connecticut exited for the Big East in all non-football sports, and AAC commissioner Mike Aresco announced the Huskies would not stay as a football-only member. If the conference seeks a 12th member and Buffalo continues its success in football and basketball, the Bulls could flee to the AAC to replace UConn as the conference’s northeast footprint. The move creates higher revenue for the athletic department from the TV contract, bowl games, and more, but the AAC may prefer staying put at 11 teams, similar to the Big 12 ignoring expansion requests in 2016.