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MAC Football Previews: Buffalo Bulls

The offense returns nearly all its flash, while the defense shifts schemes under a new regime.

Kevin Hoffman-USA TODAY Sports

There's no way to simply summarize Buffalo's 2014 season. Lackluster early season performances gave way to the midseason firing of Jeff Quinn and lackluster midseason performances, and late season improvement was interrupted by an historic, truck-eating snowstorm.

After all that tumult, UB's first season under Lance Leipold and his staff might not as new-look as you'd expect after a coaching change. The strength of the team - the offense - returns eight starters to a system just as run-heavy as Jeff Quinn's and looks a good bet to once again top 30 points per game.

There are more questions on defense, where Buffalo's switch to a 4-3 system has instigated a domino effect of position changes and six open starting slots means the possibilities are endless before (and likely through) the season-opener against Albany.

Schedule

Date Team Time (ET)
Sept. 5 vs. Albany 3:30 pm
Sept. 12 @ Penn State 12 pm
Sept. 19 @ Florida Atlantic 12 pm
Sept. 26 vs. Nevada TBA
Oct. 3 vs. Bowling Green 3:30 pm

BYE
Oct. 17 @ Central Michigan TBA
Oct. 24 vs. Ohio TBA
Oct. 29 (Thur.) @ Miami 7:30 pm
Nov. 5 (Thur.) @ Kent St. 7:30 pm
Nov. 11 (Wed.) vs. Northern Illinois 8 pm
Nov. 21 @ Akron TBA
Nov. 27 (Fri.) vs. UMass TBA


Road trips to Happy Valley and Boca Raton highlight the out of conference schedule for UB. Penn State comes off a narrow victory in the Pinstripe Bowl and is a good team, but isn't the Baylor juggernaut Bulls fans have seen early in the last two seasons. Florida Atlantic's home/road splits were severe in 2014, but the Owls finished the season with five straight losses and were terrible against the run.

A home game against Nevada is the most intriguing: In past seasons the Wolf Pack have been pretty good and are likely in good shape for the future, but this season Brian Polian's team will be filling holes at quarterback, offensive line, and the secondary with a good bit of unproven youth. They're the second-strongest team on UB's OOC slate, but catch the Bulls on the road after games against Texas A&M and Arizona State. Whether it's FAU or Nevada to go with in-state FCS 'rival' Albany, 2-2 should be the goal for Buffalo, and 3-1 might not be a huge surprise given the offense.

In the MAC, UB once again catches Bowling Green first and Akron and UMass late. The middle of the season is the crucial stretch, as the five games between bye week and late-November return to weekend games feature three road games and a home contest against Northern Illinois.

Head Coach

Lance Leipold's hire and resume is exciting, not just within the lens of the MAC, but to all of college football. The fastest coach in history to 100 wins and six-time AFCA National Coach of the Year is one of just 11 active NCAA coaches with multiple national championships, having won six in eight years at Division-III Wisconsin-Whitewater.

In hiring Leipold, Athletic Director Danny White placed a premium on head coaching experience over the level of competition, and the new head coach has been stoically nonplussed when pressed on the step up, maintaining that "football is football." The step up presents gifts as well as challenges, too; he and his staff, many of whom followed from Whitewater, can devote more time to gameplanning and recruiting now that none need to teach courses in tandem with their coaching positions.

Five Key Players

Joe Licata, SR, Quarterback

It's not absurd to think Licata, who led the conference in touchdown passes in 2014, could be in for his best season yet. All but one of his pass catchers return, Leipold's pro-style offense suits his strengths perfectly, and he claims to be at 100% and 20 pounds lighter after an offseason surgery for a torn labrum that bothered him last season.

Anthone Taylor, SR, Running Back

The successor to Branden Oliver stepped into the starter's role last season and rushed for 1,400 yards and 12 touchdowns in 11 games, earning him a spot on the Doak Walker Watch List to open this season. Taylor's heavy, between-the-tackles running style masks deceptive speed when he gets to the outside.

Jarrett Franklin, JR, Outside Linebacker

Franklin is, along with Okezie Alozie, one of the leading tacklers returning for the Bulls and will play a critical role in the heart of the defense. After stepping into a regular role as a true freshman behind Khalil Mack, Franklin will need to take advantage of two seasons' experience and step into a leadership role in the defense.

Okezie Alozie, SR, Outside Linebacker

Alozie, on the other hand, moves from an early-career role as a safety into a spot in the front seven. In Lou Tepper's defense Alozie played much as Adam Redden did; a free-ranging hard hitter who was just as likely to attack the backfield as he was to drop into deep coverage. This year he's likely to maintain a more limited range.

Tyler Grassman, JR, Punter

Laugh if you like, but if UB's offense falters as it did for spells last season, Grassman's leg can swing field position and games. He doesn't have the longest punts in the conference, but limits returns like no one else in the conference. In 2014 only nine punts were returned, for just 32 yards total.

The Bulls' Strong Suit

Eight returning starters on offense put UB on course for another high-scoring season. 2014's leading passer, rusher, and receiver are all back, but so are three more of the team's top five receivers, every rushing yard, and both tight ends. Joe Licata has in the past frequently spread the ball around to six or more receivers a game, and he comes into 2015 already with demonstrated chemistry with much of the two-deep.

Unknowns

The defense, bad to start the year before late improvement, is going over a full overhaul and could be a bit undersized in the front seven, though the secondary looks to be improved with promising young names like Ryan Williamson at safety and converted WR Boise Ross and now-healthy Marqus Baker at cornerback.

The Bulls will have to find a new kicker to replace four-year starter Patrick Clarke, who fell off year-over-year until a 6-14 performance as a senior. Redshirt-freshman Adam Mitcheson is the lone kicker on the roster.

tl; dr

It doesn't take much squinting to see a bowl-eligible team in UB's 2014 campaign, when incomplete performances doomed winnable games against Army, Eastern Michigan, and Central Michigan, and bowl eligibility is not an unreasonable goal. Working for the Bulls in 2015 is a host of returning offensive firepower and a new coaching staff who's enjoyed unprecedented success, while a transitioning defense, somewhat unfavorable schedule, and a new coaching staff making an unprecedented step up in competition work against Buffalo fates.