After opening with a couple of tough losses to start last season, the Bulls won their next seven in a row, the final six of those in style. The offense was efficient, the defense was outstanding, and Buffalo was playing at a high level in the weak MAC East. Then the schedule got tough, beating just Miami and finishing 1-3, including a loss to San Diego State in their bowl game. Still, the Bulls made just the second bowl game in their history, which has to be cause for some celebration, and coach Jeff Quinn looks to be building nicely here. Throw in new turf and new helmets, and the Bulls administration seems to be invested in make the football program a success. Can they take another step forward in 2014?
Joe Licata is arguably Buffalo's best quarterback since the outstanding Drew Willy; throwing for 2,824 yards and 24 touchdowns, with eight interceptions, last season. While he had some great games (Kent State, Toledo) that made you go "Wow!", he was inconsistent and wasn't the answer when the running attack fell short. The junior missed spring camp due to hip surgery, but he'll be leading the attack again come August.
Licata will be expected to improve this season, but he'll have to do it without his top two targets, Alex Neutz and Fred Lee, who combined for 119 receptions, 1,716 yards and 17 touchdowns. Now some young guys need to step it up in their absence. Boise Ross is the leading returning receiver, but caught just 13 passes last year. However, he has excellent speed and could open up defenses for the others. Devon Hughes (7-91-2), a former three-star recruit, and John Dunmore (3-30) are the other likely starters, and this group is high on potential. Tight ends Mason Schreck and Matt Weiser combined for 32 receptions, and should continue to be productive this season.
Branden Oliver's production (1,535 yards, 15 touchdowns) will be missed, but Buffalo certainly aren't thin at running back. Anthone Taylor is the leading returning rusher with 399 yards and three scores, and should be more productive with increased carries, but the Bulls will likely spread the load. James Potts was third with 201 yards, and is solid when healthy. Devin Campbell split out to receiver last season, but should contribute in the backfield in 2014. He was second on the team with 502 yards and 2 scores in 2012 though, and is a speedy outside runner.
Leading the way will be an offensive line that returns four starters from last year, although the sole loss is all-MAC pick Jasen Carlson. The offense struggled without him late in the season. Trevor Sales and Jake Silas are locks at center and right tackle respectively, but the other three starters may have work to do. John Kling started the second half of the year at left tackle, and looks like he'll stay there, but expect at least some improvement now he has starter reps. Andre Davis showed versatility by playing both tackle and guard last season, but will likely replace Carlson, and he should be decent. Dillon Guy has the edge at right guard. This is a massive offensive line that could be a big factor in the cold winters late in the season.
The Bulls defense was an aggressive, playmaking unit, but if the play wasn't made, the defense often got burned. Now they have to rebuild without some of their stars, including the amazing Khalil Mack, who was drafted fifth overall by the Oakland Raiders in the NFL draft. Thankfully, two of the linebacker corps return, along with some experienced reserves, so the Bulls are in good shape there. Outside linebacker Adam Redden may be following his buddy into the pro ranks this year. He missed three games late in the season, but still made 12.5 of his 65 tackles behind the line of scrimmage, 4.5 of them sacks. Lee Skinner was second the team with 89 tackles, and added 5 sacks, from his inside spot. Joining him will be Jack Stockman, who started just four games, but made 59 tackles. Jarrett Franklin, was part of the rotation last season, and now gets the opportunity to take Mack's place. Best of luck to him.
The defensive line returns Kristjan Sokoli, a big, athletic nose tackle who does a good job of tying up blockers despite being somewhat undersized for the position. However, he has to work this season without last year's ends, Colby Way and Beau Bachtelle. Way in particular will be missed, as he showed some pass rush ability (5 sacks), always a bonus with 3-4 linemen. Tedroy Lynch showed he could also get after the quarterback last season, with 2.5 sacks and 4 hurries as a reserve. He'll take up one end, with big Dalton Barksdale taking up the other. If Lynch can rush the passer in a full-time role, this line could be on a par with 2013's edition.
Cortney Lester was a pretty good corner last season, picking off three passes and breaking up six, and he could be ready for another step forward this season. The bad news is, he's the only returning starter. Marqus Baker is a seasoned reserve who will join him on the other side, but he has big shoes to fill in Najja Johnson. The safeties, Okoye Houston and Derek Brim, were a good pairing last season, but they both need to be replaced. Whitney Sherry has been in the rotation for a couple of years now, and should be a reliable free safety, while Okezie Alozie is another regular reserve who will bring some impressive athleticism to strong safety.
Patrick Clarke has a cannon for a leg, hitting a couple over 50 yards, but he wasn't accurate, making just seven of 14 field goals. Tyler Grassman is the opposite - he's not a boomer, but he does a great job of pinning opponents. Campbell is a decent kick returner, taking one to the house, but the Bulls could stand to improve their punt returns. A lot. Both coverage units were very good, and the unit also blocked four kicks.
|@ Bowling Green
|@ Eastern Michigan
Talk about being set up for success. The Bulls should be decent all across the board again, even with all the changes, and the schedule is as close to being a cakewalk as one can get. They open at home to Duquesne from the FCS, then take a trip to Army. The Black Knights have been competitive though, despite not having the results to show for it, and their offense can give anyone nightmares. Baylor visits next, in what should be another tough game after last year, before closing out the non-conference slate with a visit from Norfolk State.
They open league play with rebuilding Miami, but follow that up with their toughest conference game, a trip to Bowling Green. Eastern Michigan is something of an unknown quantity under a new head coach, but they lack depth, then the Bulls face improving Central Michigan at home. A trip to Ohio should be tricky, then home games against Akron and Kent State could decide the fate of the MAC East. If the Bulls need a win at the end of the season, they'll be glad to have Massachusetts, even on the road.
Let's get the bad news out of the way - with two FCS teams on the schedule, the Bulls need to win seven games to be bowl eligible. The good news is - they should win more. Let's be honest, the Bulls aren't beating Baylor, and they probably won't beat Bowling Green either, but the rest of the schedule is very manageable. In a best-case scenario, Buffalo could pull off 10 wins and potentially make the title game, but eight or nine is more plausible.