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2020 Mid-American Conference Football Season Preview: Buffalo Bulls

The 2019 MAC team with the best overall record aims for a 2020 MAC title behind star RB Jaret Patterson.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 26 Central Michigan at Buffalo Photo by Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

When the dust settled on the 2019 season, the Buffalo Bulls finished 8-5. Most importantly, the Bulls took home a piece of history when they recorded their first-ever bowl victory by blowing out Charlotte 31-9 in the Bahamas Bowl. In a chaotic year shrouded in a preposterous cloud of parity, Buffalo’s 8-5 mark stood as the best record in terms of winning percentage in the entire Mid-American Conference.

But come November and December, Buffalo wasn’t playing like an 8-5 team. Lance Leipold’s program was clearly a step ahead of that. Except for a 21-point blown fourth quarter lead in a Thursday night matchup at Kent State, Buffalo didn’t lose a single game after October 5. The Bulls weren’t eking out close victories — they ethered their opponents. Their final seven games produced a 6-1 record and an aggregate score of 263-110 — an average score of 38-16. Buffalo’s defense held its opponent to under three touchdowns in five of those contests, while the team scored 43+ points in four such games.

The first portion of the 2019 season featured a lot of experimenting, but there were four key midseason adjustments which led to Buffalo’s season-ending rampage of success.

Jaret Patterson mania

Jaret Patterson rose from an overlooked high school recruit in the state of Maryland to a top five running back in college football in less than a two year span. As a true sophomore, Patterson finished fifth in the entire FBS in rushing yards and eighth in rushing touchdowns. Oklahoma State running back Chuba Hubbard is the only active college football player to accumulate more rushing yards in 2019 than Patterson.

Patterson’s run of dominance last fall didn’t even arrive until midseason, when Buffalo shifted his usage rate. The sophomore earned 26 or more carries in each of the Bulls’ last six games and his team finished 5-1 in that span. Prior to midseason, Patterson only earned that number of touches once — a thrashing of a very talented Temple team. Every time Patterson received 26 or more carries, he converted it into 130+ yards. He rushed for 140 in each of his final six games, setting a career-high on Nov. 20 with 192 yards and four touchdowns against Toledo. One week later, he already obliterated those numbers by posting new personal-bests of 298 rushing yards and six touchdowns on Bowling Green’s defense.

Buffalo started feeding Patterson, and he lived up to the team’s high demand. The Maryland native never showed fatigue even when earning north of 30 carries. Buffalo ran such a ground-heavy offense that there were enough carries for fellow sophomore Kevin Marks to post a 1,000-yard rushing season. The Patterson-Marks backfield was one of two in the country to produce two 1,000-yard running backs in 2019, and once Buffalo began running opponents into the ground with the tandem, football became a lot easier for the Bulls.

Top-tier offensive line play

In Buffalo’s five games prior to October, the Bulls yielded seven sacks. In Buffalo’s final eight games, only one sack was allowed by the offensive line. Only Air Force allowed fewer sacks per outing than Buffalo’s sturdy offensive line — the most impressive position group in the MAC from October onward. The Bulls were the kings of run blocking and protecting the quarterback. Even Charlotte third round pick and star pass rusher Alex Highsmith couldn’t manage to break through against the unit in the Bahamas Bowl. Here’s one problem though: three of the five members are gone.

Evin Ksiezarczyk, Paul Nosworthy, and Tomas Jack-Kurdyla all graduated. What’s left of the premier offensive line is Kayode Awosika, who is expected to transition from right tackle to left this fall, and center Mike Novitsky. Hopefully for Buffalo, that experience can elevate the three new starters and continue the run of excellence the offensive line sparked last October.

Relentless pass rush

Not only did Buffalo dominate the trenches on offense — the physical defensive line caused problems for blockers. The defensive end pairing of Malcolm Koonce and Taylor Riggins was one of the most forceful combos in college football, combining for 16.5 sacks, and the duo is back for 2020. Buffalo’s 38 sacks in 2019 were tied with Miami (OH) for 13th in the country and first in the MAC. The line loses a talented pass rusher in Ledarius Mack, but Koonce and Riggins (20.5 combined TFLs) should be enough star power to produce the best defensive line in the MAC in 2020. As time progressed through last season, the pass rush improved — especially Riggins’ dominance — and that was one of the factors which allowed Buffalo to shed a 2-4 start and finish 8-5.

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 22 Buffalo at Rutgers Photo by John Jones/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Switching quarterbacks to Kyle Vantrease

Not many teams in college football would experience much success if they moved their punter to No. 1 on the quarterback depth, but Buffalo isn’t most college football teams. Yes, Kyle Vantrease transitioned directly from punter to his normal position of quarterback last season. In a bizarre circumstance, the team’s standard punter Evan Finegan suffered a gruesome season-ending leg injury at Penn State, forcing Vantrease (who punted in high school) to fill in on special teams.

Even though the makeshift punter averaged 35 yards per attempt, Vantrease was clearly best at quarterback. After then-freshman Matt Myers struggled with a 46.7 completion percentage and 2-3 record, Vantrease claimed the starting spot for the rest of the season. He finished 6-2, threw for nearly 1,200 yards, and tossed eight touchdowns compared to just two interceptions. Buffalo didn’t require him to throw much, but he made efficient and smart decisions in the pocket. A solid scrambler, Leipold liked to call his number in short yardage situations. The naked bootleg became a staple of the Vantrease offense and he finished the season with six rushing touchdowns.

What to watch for in 2020

Patterson and Marks tandem

The first several weeks of the 2020 college football season passed with the MAC in a state of postponement, but Jaret Patterson lobbied for his beloved conference to return on social media. He’s excited to prove his skill to the entire country once again, and given the offensive outbursts we’ve seen through six weeks of action, expect at least 120 yards per game from the junior halfback this season. Patterson won’t play enough games to secure the rushing title, but he’s destined to break out for a 30-carry, 180-yard game at any time. His arsenal of skills includes valuable speed, an elite knack for breaking tackles, and the ability to keep the legs churning to gain extra yards through contact. It will be interesting to see how Buffalo handles Patterson’s workload, and if he receives a similar number of touches to what he earned at the end of last year.

When Patterson isn’t in the backfield, there’s no need to fret because Kevin Marks is viable threat as well. While Patterson registered 1,799 rushing yards and 19 touchdowns a year ago, Marks added 1,035 and eight. When dividing between the two star backs, Patterson (5.8 yards per carry) received approximately 59% of the carries while Marks (4.6 yards per carry) was featured on the other 41%. Exhibiting that versatility in the backfield is what allows Buffalo to have so much success, despite the Bulls passing under 25 times nearly every game.

Passing game improvements

Buffalo was fairly dominant as a one-dimensional offense last season. Kyle Vantrease already showed a massive improvement from his 2017 playing days to 2019, so the Bulls’ offense can take one giant leap forward if Vantrease continues his development. He never attempted more than 25 passes in an outing last season and only threw a combined 31 in the Bulls’ final two victories of the season over Bowling Green and Charlotte.

Vantrease is gifted with one of the MAC’s best wide receivers on offense. Antonio Nunn has an incredible catch radius and led the program with 49 receptions, 687 yards, and six touchdowns in 2019 — responsible for over 38% of receiving production. The other two targets Vantrease frequented were wide receiver Daniel Lee and tight end Zac Lefebvre. As a talented blocker who presents a valuable threat in the flats, Lefebvre should have a vital role in lifting the Bulls’ offensive line play as well as their passing game. With a returning cast of targets, if Vantrease presents the threat to open up the field in the passing game, the Bulls’ offense easily soars to one of the premier units in the nation.

Defensive standouts

If you want a guarantee about the MAC this season, here’s one — the Buffalo Bulls will have the best defensive line in the conference. Sack machines Taylor Riggins and Bahamas Bowl Defensive MVP Malcolm Koonce are back manning the ends and the 6’4”, 325-pound Eddie Wilson is the perfect clog for opponents’ rushing lanes.

At linebacker, Jaret Patterson’s fraternal twin brother James Patterson is one of the team’s go-to run stoppers. He managed 77 tackles, nine tackles for loss, and four forced fumbles as a true freshman. James Patterson missed three games last season, so his numbers took a dip. But now he’s an upperclassman and shifting from outside to middle linebacker and will function at the heart of the defense.

Losing departed senior Joey Banks was a big hit to the secondary, as the safety led the team in tackles and interceptions a season ago. Filling in his void will be strong safety E.J. Brown, an All-American JUCO transfer. Even without Banks, Buffalo still returns a valuable contributor at safety in Tyrone Hill. The free safety is the team’s returning tackles leader and should play an integral role in zone coverage with 10 pass breakups in 2019.

Ending the drought

Buffalo’s 11-year MAC championship drought isn’t as dreary as Ohio’s 50 years and counting, but the Bulls feel past due for a conference championship in the Lance Leipold era. They could taste it in 2019. Buffalo blew a 19-point lead it held in the waning moments of the third quarter against an underdog Northern Illinois team.

But if last year started in October, the Bulls easily rise to the mountaintop of the conference for the first time since 2008. The year 2020 is already chaotic in college football due to its unpredictable, spontaneous nature. In a normal season, Buffalo should be favored to end the drought and win the conference, but it’s 2020 and a 6-game schedule provides minimal margin for error, especially with no tune-up non-conference games to play first. Still, Buffalo has the talent to win the MAC Championship Game on Dec. 18, and the 11-year stretch of futility should come to an end soon.

Buffalo schedule

  • Wed, Nov. 4: Buffalo at Northern Illinois
  • Tue, Nov. 10: Miami (OH) at Buffalo
  • Tue, Nov. 17: Buffalo at Bowling Green
  • Sat, Nov. 28: Kent State at Buffalo
  • Sat, Dec. 5: Buffalo at Ohio
  • Sat, Dec. 12: Akron at Buffalo
  • Fri, Dec. 18: MAC Championship Game at Ford Field in Detroit, MI

Season prediction

Buffalo was the best MAC team by record in 2019, and the Bulls have full potential to repeat that feat in 2020. The games will hold heavier weights in 2020 since there are only six weeks before the MAC Championship on Friday, Dec. 18. Thus, Buffalo has no time to experiment and must go full throttle as soon as it kicks off Nov. 4 in DeKalb. The Bulls have a lot of returning production outside the offensive line, so they’ll be favored to win the conference after the 6-1 finish to 2019. Going undefeated is hard, even in a 6-game season. Assuming zero COVID-19 related cancelations, Buffalo can win the MAC East at 5-1 in the regular season, as long as it holds a favorable tiebreaker with another contender such as Miami (OH), Kent State, or Ohio.

With the MAC East holding more firepower than the MAC West in 2020, Buffalo wins its first MAC Championship since 2008. Assuming they earn a bid to bowl season, the Bulls knock off their opponent, Coastal Carolina, in the LendingTree Bowl in Mobile, AL, and finish 2020 with a 7-1 record.