- Time and date: Saturday, September 2 at 3:30 p.m. ET
- Network: FS1
- Location: Camp Randall Stadium — Madison, WI
- Spread: Wisconsin (-28)
- Over/under: 54
- All-time series: Wisconsin leads, 1-0
- Last meeting: Wisconsin 35, Buffalo 3 — November 18, 2006
- Current streak: Wisconsin, 1 (2006)
Setting the scene
One of the best daytime atmospheres in college football returns in Saturday’s late afternoon slate.
The “Jump Around” makes its way back to Camp Randall Stadium at Wisconsin, and there’s a reason for the 80,000 spectators to jump a little bit higher this year as Luke Fickell makes his highly-anticipated debut in Madison. Fickell posted a 53-11 record over the last five seasons at Cincinnati, won two conference championships, and qualified for the College Football Playoff in 2021. Now, he looks to replicate that success in Big Ten country.
On the other sideline is a Buffalo program which rediscovered its winning ways last season. The Bulls stumbled out of the gate to a disastrous 0-3 record, but then rebounded for five consecutive victories to lead the MAC standings until the first week of November. They wound up winning their third bowl game in a 4-year span, and now in year three under head coach Maurice Linguist, Buffalo has a renewed sense of belief in what’s capable in 2023.
Buffalo Bulls outlook
Buffalo is one four MAC programs coming off a winning season, and the Bulls return a litany of their best players from that 2022 squad.
The headliners of the roster reside mainly on the defensive side as Shaun Dolac and Marcus Fuqua are some of the best at their positions in the entire country. Dolac led all FBS players in solo tackles with 97 a year ago, finishing second in total tackles with 147. The dynamite run stopper also added 13.5 tackles for loss, 4.5 sacks, seven pass deflections, and three forced fumbles — wreaking havoc in essentially every area of the field en route to First Team All-MAC honors.
Fuqua’s accolades extend beyond First Team All-MAC, as the free safety attained a spot on the AP All-American team after tying for the nation’s lead in interceptions with seven. The ballhawk logged multiple interceptions in two separate contests last year, including a three-pick outing against MAC champion Toledo. He also recovered two fumbles in a takeaway-happy Buffalo defense. In addition to his turnover-inducing habits, Fuqua produced 65 tackles and broke up five passes.
Wisconsin has leaned toward the run in extreme fashion in the past, but given the Badgers’ new coaching personnel, expect them to be more balanced in 2023. Thus, the versatile talents of Dolac and Fuqua will have varying roles cut out for them in slowing down Wisconsin’s new-look offense.
Elsewhere on defense, Buffalo presents a stout front four. Defensive tackle Daymond Williams appeared on the Outland Trophy watchlist after back-to-back seasons with 10.5 tackles for loss. Williams is surrounded with experienced senior talent all across the line, as Jaylon Bass and George Wolo return at defensive tackle while Max Michel and C.J. Bazile remain at defensive end. Still, Buffalo remains on a mission to spark its pass rush as no player registered more than 4.5 sacks last year and no defensive end exceeded 3.0.
On the other side of the trenches, the Bulls retain three offensive line starters. Gabe Wallace is the main one to watch at left guard as the only returning starter with an All-MAC appearance to his name. Buffalo has seen tremendous line play the past few years, especially on the exterior, seeing at least one tackle qualify for all-conference designation every year since 2018.
The line will pave the way for a familiar trio of running backs. Buffalo split its carries between three 300+ yard rushers in 2022 and all three remain on campus for 2023. The primary two backs are the thunder and lightning combo of Mike Washington and Ron Cook Jr. Washington (625 rushing yards, 7 touchdowns) is a 6’2”, 215 pound power back, while Cook (600 rushing yards, 4 touchdowns) serves as the ideal foil as a 5’9”, 190 pound speedster and talented return specialist. Rounding out the trio is Al-Jay Henderson, who played a significant role toward the end of the season fielding 28 carries across November games against Central Michigan and Kent State.
The chief facilitator of the offense is also a familiar name. Cole Snyder took the Week 1 starting duties for Buffalo last September after transferring from Rutgers, and he never relinquished his role in 13 starts. Snyder became the third quarterback in program history to eclipse the 3,000-yard mark, and he delivered 18 touchdowns and eight interceptions with a 58.8 competition rate. Snyder looks to take the jump to the next level in 2023, but he’ll have to do it with a new cast of wide receiver talent.
Buffalo lost both components of its dynamic receiver duo of Quian Williams and Justin Marshall, who combined for 125 receptions, 1,580 receiving yards, and 14 touchdowns in 2022. Even third option Jamari Gassett departed via the transfer portal, causing the Bulls to completely reload that position group. Cole Harrity is the most experienced incumbent piece with 13 receptions last fall, but the Bulls added longtime Duke wide receiver Darrell Harding in January. Harding caught 35 passes in four years with the Blue Devils and looks to replicate the success of recent transfer receivers at Buffalo, which include Williams and Marshall.
Wisconsin Badgers outlook
Wisconsin is as consistent of a college football program as they come. The Badgers are fresh off their 21st consecutive winning season, which only trails Boise State’s 25-straight among FBS programs. The prior year’s 7-6 record was accomplished in a tumultuous season which featured a dreary 2-3 start and the firing of eighth-year head coach Paul Chryst.
The Badgers made perhaps the biggest splash coaching hire this offseason by poaching Fickell from Cincinnati, where he registered five consecutive seasons of nine or more wins complemented with four ranked finishes. Not only does the winningest coach in Bearcat history enter Madison, but the Badgers also landed North Carolina offensive coordinator Phil Longo. In Chapel Hill, Longo spurred the development of quarterbacks Sam Howell and Drake Maye — the Washington Commanders current starter and a top 10 Heisman finisher from 2022.
The quarterback Longo will work with in Madison is already an accomplished veteran. Tanner Mordecai arrives from SMU after eclipsing 3,500 passing yards and 30 touchdowns in consecutive seasons. The All-AAC quarterback became accustomed to explosive passing performances with the Mustangs, firing for 300+ yards 13 times in the prior two seasons. Wisconsin is not accustomed to such numbers, but the pairing of Longo and Mordecai — who once registered 379 passing yards and nine touchdowns in a single outing — could redefine the style of the Badgers’ offense.
Yet Wisconsin — which has a claim to Running Back U after producing the likes of Montee Ball, Melvin Gordon, James White, Corey Clement, and Jonathan Taylor all since 2010 — sustains that tradition with junior tailback Braelon Allen. The 6’2”, 245 pound force is as close of a player to Derrick Henry as there is in college football right now. Possessing an ideal combination of size and speed, Allen is fresh off consecutive 1,200-yard, 10+ touchdown seasons. In two years, the 19-year old crossed the 100-yard barrier 15 times and given Wisconsin’s improved passing attack, defenses may have to shift some focus away from the two-time All-Big Ten running back this fall.
The lead receiver in the Badgers’ offense is Chimere Dike, who will test the limits of a Buffalo passing defense which ranked 73rd nationally in 2022. Dike was the overwhelming No. 1 option last fall in Madison, securing team-highs in receptions (47), yards (689), and touchdowns (6) among all receivers. Other notable pieces of the receiving corps were obtained through the transfer portal as Oklahoma State’s Bryson Green and Cincinnati’s Will Pauling arrive to complement Mordecai and Dike in the passing offense.
For a program renowned for supreme offensive line talent, it came as a surprise that the line was not one of the strengths of the Badgers in 2022. Jack Nelson, a former guard who moved to left tackle last year, is the main talent to watch in the trenches, but Cincinnati transfers Jake Renfro and Joe Huber could play significant roles up front alongside Nelson and Co.
Wisconsin’s still maintained its dominant defensive brand by ranking 17th in fewest points allowed per game in 2022, but the program loses longtime defensive coordinator Jim Leonhard in favor of Mike Tressel. Tressel conducted a 3-3-5 defense under Fickell at Cincinnati, so there may be some adjustment after running a 3-4 base with frequent 2-4-5 looks under Leonhard.
The Badgers ranked 11th nationally in yards surrendered at 303.5 per contest, and that unit must reload in the absence of Keeanu Benton, Nick Herbig, and John Torchio — their only three All-Big Ten defenders in 2022.
Maema Njongmeta should be the prevailing talent on the unit this year. Operating in an inside linebacker role, Njongmeta contributed a team-high 95 tackles, 11.5 tackles for loss, and 3.5 sacks on the Badgers’ highly-touted defense. The No. 2 and No. 3 tacklers also return in the form of linebackers Jordan Turner and C.J. Goetz, so the Badgers remain loaded in that position group.
The defensive line is spiced up with the addition of Temple transfer Darian Varner, who chipped in 7.5 sacks and 12.5 tackles for loss as an edge rusher in 2022. Without the opportunistic Torchio at safety (five interceptions last season), Wisconsin must find a ballhawk contributing to the turnover battle. Boston College transfer Jason Maitre is the new addition on the back end who looks to fill that void after accruing five years of on-field experience in Chestnut Hill.
There is a reason Wisconsin enters the season with a No. 19 ranking next to its name after finishing 7-6 the prior year. The Badgers significantly upgraded the offense this offseason simply by adding a talented gunslinger in Tanner Mordecai and an offensive coordinator who expands the verticality of a passing attack which finished 114th nationally in 2022.
With the lethal combination of Mordecai at quarterback and Braelon Allen in the backfield, Wisconsin should have no problem finding the end zone in Saturday’s opener. In 12 games against FBS competition, the Badgers only surpassed 30 points three times, but that should become a more frequent occasion in Phil Longo’s offense, even with the updated clock rules.
For Buffalo, it’s a difficult matchup. The Bulls may very well still contend for the MAC East, but generating consistent offense against a stout Wisconsin linebacking corps won’t be easy. Buffalo is very adept at forcing turnovers, so that could be the element which swings this game more in its favor. But expect this MAC-Big Ten clash to play out similarly to the Bulls’ opener at Maryland last September.
Prediction: Wisconsin 38, Buffalo 13