2015 CFB Preview – Buffalo

 
   

It’s interesting to see where the expectations are now for Buffalo football.

By Pete Fiutak | @PeteFiutak

Jeff Quinn couldn’t recapture the MAC championship glory Turner Gill created in his one magical 2008 season, but he did a relatively decent job with a program that has struggled to put together anything consistent. But UB wants more.

Quinn got the Bulls bowling in 2013 on the way to an 8-5 season, and he started out the 2014 season 3-4, but losing to Eastern Michigan appeared to be enough to make a change midway through Season Five, and now it’s up to Lance Leipold to make the program a true MAC player.

Had the Kent State game not been cancelled due to weather, the Bulls almost certainly would’ve finished 6-6 – it’s not like this was one of the true dregs the MAC occasionally puts out there, like Eastern Michigan last year – so it’s not like Leipold is starting from scratch.

Unbelievable at the D-III level with Wisconsin-Whitewater, he went 109-6 in eight years with six national championships and five perfect seasons – five of the last six campaigns. A disastrous year for the Warhawks was a 7-3 campaign in 2012, meaning that half of his losses in eight years came in one season.

Expect Buffalo to be a strong, powerful team under Leipold. His Whitewater teams had ultra-efficient passing games, were stingy with the mistakes, and were balanced with the ability to adapt and adjust to almost every style. Can that be Buffalo in the near future?

Last year’s Bulls were efficient throwing the ball and did a nice job of getting the offense moving, especially late in the season. The O put up 30 points or more seven times in the 11 games, and the pieces are there to be explosive under the new coaching staff.

With eight starters returning on offense, depending on the alignment, and just enough decent pieces on defense to work around, coming up with a winning season is a real possibility.

And if Leipold is Leipold and can come up with even a little of the D-III magic he showed at the lower level, the rest of the MAC will be in trouble.

What You Need To Know About The Offense: Can the running game keep everything rolling and get even stronger? Anthone Taylor is a good, tough runner to build the offense around, and that’s just the start. The Bulls are loaded with veterans with QB Joe Licata and the receiving corps of Ron Willoughby, Marcus McGill and Jacob Martinez back to make up for the loss of Devon Hughes. The ground attack should be fantastic, the passing game that was 17th in the nation in efficiency should be dangerous, and the production should be there if the line can rebuild with three starters needing to be replaced.

What You Need To Know About The Defense: The defense has to find two new starters up front for NG Kristjan Sokoli and Tedroy Lynch, but Brandon Crawford is a good end to start with. The outside linebackers – Jarrett Franklin and Okezie Alozie – are back, and they need to rock with Lee Skinner and Jake Stockman gone on the inside. Three starters have to be replaced in the secondary that needs for wide receiver Boise Ross to be fantastic at one corner. The key will be big plays after generating just two picks last season, and the pass rush has to improve, but there are enough good pieces in place to hope for there not to be a drop-off.

What to watch for on offense: There will be a solid passing game, but look for the new coaching staff to make a big push to get nasty and tough with the running game right away. Leipold worked with Turner Gill and the Nebraska world in the early 2000s – part of the reason he was a good tie-in with UB – and he connected with Bret Bielema during their respective time coaching Wisconsin schools, so he’s going to want to control games with Anthone Taylor and the ground attack. There’s some work to do up front on offense, but expect UL to be physical.

What to watch for on defense: Even with several key parts needing to be replaced, the run defense should rock. Defensive coordinator Brian Borland created something special over his time in Whitewater, and now his first job will be to improve a secondary that got lit up on a regular basis. Three starters have to be replaced in the secondary that had its moments as the MAC season went on. The pass rush has to help the cause with half of the sack production gone, but …

The team will be far better if … The secondary comes up with a big play here and there. Two – that’s how many interceptions the Buffalo defense came up with, getting one against Bowling Green, and one more against Central Michigan. Overall, the pass defense wasn’t too bad – allowing fewer than 200 yards in six of the 11 games and only allowing quarterbacks to hit on 50% of their throws – but it allowed a few too many deep plays and was among the worst in the nation in pass efficiency D. With three starters gone in the secondary, there’s work to be done.

The schedule: It’s a nasty first half of the MAC season. The Bulls have to deal with powerhouse Bowling Green before going to Central Michigan and handling Ohio. They have to win at least one of those.
– As if the first past of the MAC world wasn’t nasty enough, three of the next four games after the Ohio date are on the road. Miami, Kent State and Akron are manageable, but again, they’re on the road.
– As if that wasn’t enough, the home game in the midst of all the road games is against Northern Illinois. There’s no Toledo from the West, but playing CMU and NIU isn’t a plus.
– Despite all the issue, if UB is any good, there’s a chance to go on a roll over the second half of the season. Outside of the NIU game, the Bulls could be favored in four of the last five games.
– If UB can beat Nevada at home – hardly a given considering the Wolf Pack should be good enough to challenge in the Mountain West – going 3-1 in non-conference play isn’t out of the question.
– WATCH OUT FOR … Akron. The Bulls play four road games in six weeks over the second half of the season, and the trip to Akron is the final one. It’s also coming off the Northern Illinois game.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Anthone Taylor. Before he became a massive surprise for the San Diego Chargers, Branden Oliver was a 1,535-yard, 15-touchdown back for UB in 2013 and was a 1,395-yard, 13-score runner in 2011 – he was banged up in 2012 but still led the team in rushing. How was he going to be replaced? The pounding Taylor stepped up into the No. 1 spot and turned into the workhorse for the attack, averaging five yards per carry and taking over the offense at times. Able to handle the ball 30+ times when needed, he can take a pounding.

Best defensive player: Senior S Okezie Alozie. Is he a linebacker, or is he a safety? He’s a little of both for a defense that needs him to be a hybrid type who can do everything for the back seven. He’s a good hitter and grew into more of a pass rusher as the season went on, but now he might be moved around a bit to turn into a true safety. Tied with LB Jarrett Franklin as one of the team’s leading returning tacklers, he’s going to be a veteran presence the new coaching staff will rely on.

Key player to a successful season: Junior DE Brandon Crawford. The defensive front is going to be the team’s biggest concern going into the season with NG Kristjan Sokoli and Tedroy Lynch gone along with backups Dalton Barksdale and Kendall Roberson – the team needs to figure out the line in a hurry. Crawford is a true 3-4 end who can get into the backfield from time to time, but he’ll need to be the steady leader against the run. The D will be fine in time, but the more Crawford can produce and be the one to work around, the better.

The season will be a success if … the Bulls get to six wins. There might be a ton of work to do defensively, and it’s a new coaching staff stepping in, but if the team is merely competent, it needs to beat Albany, Miami University, Kent State, Akron and UMass for a base of five wins. Assume UB will lose at least one of those – with the dates at MU, KSU and Akron on the road – so it’ll have to beat a Florida Atlantic, Bowling Green, Ohio and/or Central Michigan along the way. 6-6 might not be what Leipold is used to, but it would be a good first year.

Key game: Oct. 3 vs. Bowling Green. There are certain games that would make a massive statement for an era, and opening up the MAC season with a win over the two-time East champs would be something special with a week off to rest up following the showdown. If the Bulls win this, then all of a sudden the narrative changes for the expectations.

2014 Fun Stats:
– Fumbles: Opponents 18 (lost 13) – Buffalo 12 (lost 6)
– Penalties: Opponents 72 for 646 yards – Buffalo 58 for 588 yards
– Field Goals: Opponents 8-of-10 – Buffalo 6-of-14

Players You Need To Know

1. RB Anthone Taylor, Sr.
The offense lost heart-and-soul back and San Diego Charger breakthrough star Branden Oliver, but the ground game kept on rolling with Taylor taking off for 1,403 yards and 12 touchdowns, and catching 16 passes for 108 yards. The 5-10, 207-pounder wasn’t much of a home run hitter, but he was a workhorse with five games with 30+ carries and 68 carries over the final two games including a 36-carry, 237-yard, two score effort in the finale against UMass. Compact and tough, he can handle the offense with just enough wiggle to get through the hole, and the power to get the extra yard.

2. QB Joe Licata, Sr.
The veteran got through a few quarterback rotations to take over the job last year, throwing for 2,647 yards and 29 touchdowns with 11 picks, hitting 65% of his passes. Now he knows what he’s doing and should be one of the MAC’s top quarterbacks with a great receiving corps to work with. 6-2 and 227 pounds, he has decent size and a good arm, closing out on fire connecting on 36-of-48 passes for 448 yards and eight touchdowns with a pick over the final two games. He’s not going to run much, but he scored twice on the ground last year.

3. RB/KR Devin Campbell, Sr.
Part running back, part receiver, part kick returner, he’s one of the team’s most dangerous all-around playmakers running for 161 yards in a reserve role, catching 24 passes for 182 yards and four scores, and earning All-MAC honors as a kick returner averaging 23.3 yards per try. Will he get the ball more for the offense this year after not getting a carry over the final three games and being used more as a receiver? At 5-11 and 203 pounds he has decent size to go along with the speed – he needs the ball in his hands more.

4. WR Ron Willoughby, Sr.
A career reserve, the senior took over a starting role last year and turned into the team’s leading receiver starting out the year with ten catches for 132 yards and two scores against Duquesne and finishing with 50 grabs for 771 yards and nine touchdowns. Consistent and occasionally explosive, he handles himself well in one-on-one coverage, and at 6-4 and 199 pounds he has the size to battle with any corner.

5. LB Okezie Alozie, Sr.
A safety who’s used like a linebacker, the 6-0, 217-pound Alozie will be one of the key returning defenders for a team that loses a ton of talent. Good at getting into the backfield, he made three sacks and five tackles for loss along with 49 tackles and a forced fumble. Decent when the ball is in the air, he’s better when he has to hold up against the run as a consistent force in the open field.

6. LB Jarrett Franklin, Jr.
The team’s leading returning tackler came up with 49 stops with a sack and five tackles for loss, and now he has to be the main man for a linebacking corps that gets depleted. He’s not big at 6-0 and 217 pounds, but he can pop, spending a year behind Khalil Mack and last year working on the outside as a steady hitter. He should be one of the team’s leading tacklers and will be sent into the backfield more.

7. TE Matt Weiser, Sr.
Tight end has been a strength for the Bulls with Weiser combining with Mason Schreck for a good 1-2 punch. The 6-5, 229-pound Schreck is a former quarterback who made ten catches for 106 yards, while Weiser is bit bigger and stronger at 6-5 and 245 pounds, and while he’s a decent receiver – making 15 catches for 286 yards and four scores – he’s a stronger blocker. He can stretch the field a little bit.

8. WR Jacob Martinez, Soph.
The 6-2, 187-pound Florida native might eventually become the team’s star receiver with decent size to go along with tremendous speed. The former high school quarterback grew into a dependable and reliable target finishing with 28 catches for 280 yards and three scores, topping out with an eight-catch, 94-yard, one score day against Miami University. He worked behind Devin Hughes, and now he should take on a bigger role.

9. CB Boise Ross, Jr.
Originally a good receiver prospect, he started out his career making 13 catches for 156 yards in 2013 and started out last year with eight catches for 69 yards in the first two games. But with so many good receivers, he was moved over to the defensive side making 26 tackles with a pick and, against Ohio, a 75-yard fumble return for a touchdown. With the secondary depleted, he needs to turn into the team’s top cover corner.

10. DE Brandon Crawford, Jr.
The potential is there to be fantastic, but now he has to rise up and become the star up front. At 6-2 and 275 pounds he has intriguing size to go along with a good burst off the ball making 19 tackles with three sacks and three broken up passes. With four key players gone out of the front three rotation, it’s Crawford’s world on the end.

Head Coach: Lance Leipold
1st year
9th year overall: 109-6
Schedule
Sept. 5 Albany
Sept. 12 at Penn State
Sept. 19 at Fla Atlantic
Sept. 26 Nevada
Oct. 3 Bowling Green
Oct. 10 OPEN DATE
Oct. 17 at Central Michigan
Oct. 24 Ohio
Oct. 29 at Miami Univ.
Nov. 5 at Kent State
Nov. 11 Northern Illinois
Nov. 21 at Akron
Nov. 27 Massachusetts
Ten Best UB Players
1. RB Anthone Taylor, Sr.
2. QB Joe Licata, Sr.
3. RB/KR Devin Campbell, Sr.
4. WR Ron Willoughby, Sr.
5. LB Okezie Alozie, Sr.
6. LB Jarrett Franklin, Jr.
7. TE Matt Weiser, Sr.
8. WR Jacob Martinez, Soph.
9. CB Boise Ross, Jr.
10. DE Brandon Crawford, Jr.