The 2011 Buffalo Bulls vs. the Northern Illinois Huskies. University of Buffalo athletic department.
For three seasons, Buffalo has been trying, and failing, to recreate the (luck-aided) magic of its 2008 MAC title campaign. With running back Branden Oliver, linebacker Khalil Mack and company returning this fall, the Bulls should once again improve in Jeff Quinn's third season in charge, but the ceiling appears only so high with a return of luck and timing. Related: Buffalo's complete 2012 statistical profile, including projected starters, year-to-year trends, and rankings galore. Follow @SBNationCFB
In 2008, Turner Gill led Buffalo to a conference title with a perfect storm of "underdog program" factors.
- He uncovered some lovely diamond-in-the-rough talent in quarterback-turned-running back James Starks (original Rivals rating: low-two stars), quarterback Drew Willy (mid-two stars), receiver Naaman Roosevelt (the lowest two-star rating possible) and defenders Justin Winters (no rating), Domonic Cook (low-two stars) and Mike Thompson (two stars).
- His defense forced a ridiculous 25 fumbles, the highest total in the last five years. Not only that, but they got pretty lucky when the ball hit the ground. Of the 55 fumbles that occurred in their games (16 of theirs, 39 of their opponents'), they recovered 62 percent of them. And of the 46 UB passes opponents defended, only six were intercepted. Averages say that should have been closer to 10. Consequently, then, they had an unsustainable plus-20 turnover margin that probably should have been closer to about plus-10.
- They kept games close (six of their eight regular season MAC games were decided by one possession) and hoped for the best.
- They won the MAC East with a 5-3 record. That was one of only two times in the last 10 years that such a record won the East, and the only time it won the East as a solo crown.
- In the MAC title game, they encountered a Ball State team attempting to avoid distraction from rumors of their coach's imminent departure (Brady Hoke would leave for San Diego State less than two weeks later), forced five turnovers (against a team that had committed just 11 in the regular season) and returned two fumbles for touchdowns in a stunning, 18-point win.
A good number of pieces -- Starks, Roosevelt, most of the defense -- returned for the 2009 season amid reasonably high expectations, but the luck turned and the Bulls fell to 83rd in F/+ and 5-7 overall. They lost four of six one-possession games. The formula was difficult to replicate even with a similar cast of characters.
Make no mistake: Gill's Bulls were a fascinating team in 2008. They avoided mistakes, and they forced a ton from their opponents. And it's not like they were terrible -- they did, after all, rank a respectable 62nd in the 2008 F/+ ratings. Still, they were unsustainably lucky, and they were milking an unsustainable level of talent out of what were, even for the MAC, some incredibly unheralded recruiting classes. Gill's formula is not one with which you can create a year-to-year winner.
So here's the question: Is there such a formula? When Gill left for Kansas (whoops), Buffalo replaced him with a rather well-regarded assistant coach (Jeff Quinn, Brian Kelly's righthand man at both Central Michigan and Cincinnati), who in turn has built a steady, experienced coaching staff -- offensive coordinator Alex Wood and defensive coordinator Lou Tepper are each, to say the least, old hands. (Too old, perhaps?) But Buffalo is just 5-19 in two seasons under Quinn; only four of their 19 losses have been within one possession, and with what seems like a solid offensive staff, they have averaged just 18.2 points per game.
Among other things Buffalo has going against it is the simple fact that the local talent base is nonexistent. The city of Buffalo itself has produced two recruits who received better than a two-star rating from Rivals since 2002 (one received the lowest three-star rating, one the lowest four), neither of whom chose the local school (or, in fairness, produced at anything approaching the level of Roosevelt, from St. Joseph's High School). Any major talents in northern New York have historically been scooped up by Big East schools or Penn State, leaving UB to either fight with Temple, et al, for scraps from Pensylvania and Maryland or battle the rest of the MAC for Ohio and Michigan kids. Only, they are further away from Ohio and Michigan than most of the rest of the MAC. While they should expect better than the No. 119 two-year recruiting average, it is difficult to say they should expect TOO much better than that.
(And the thing about relying on diamonds in the rough like Starks and Roosevelt is that, once they leave, there's nothing saying the next batch will be as shiny. Even in the MAC, more well-regarded talent is still more likely to lead to wins.)
How exactly, then, do you build a winning college football program in Buffalo? I honestly don't know the answer. But I do know that Quinn has himself a rather experienced team heading into Year Three, one that should be even more experienced in Year Four. Whatever he might be capable of doing at UB, he will do it in the next two seasons. And if you like underdog stories, then Quinn's Bulls -- basically, the MAC's Louisiana-Lafayette, only without anything close to the surrounding base of talent -- are for you.
Buffalo's offensive struggles masked the fact that they had potentially their best defense ever. The Bulls have improved on that side of the ball in each of the last five years, but after losing a potential star quarterback to transfer when Turner Gill left for Kansas, the offense just had nothing. No quarterback, no running back ... when injuries began to take their toll, the offense went from bad to, well, worst. […]
Buffalo has ranked below even the service academies in recruiting these past few years, and while they have developed talent rather effectively -- they have produced more NFL players than most of the lowest-ranked recruiting teams -- it still means a constant uphill battle. There are some interesting pieces here [...] but the odds are stacked against Buffalo in 2011. This is the MAC, so their time will probably come again soon enough, but ... probably not this fall.
Buffalo's team took shape in a much different fashion than in 2010. What was a good defense cratered, while a terrible offense rebounded. They built an inefficient but explosive running game, and they played much better in the trenches. The result: a slightly better team. They improved from 2-10 to 3-9, from 110th in the F/+ rankings to 104th.
Buffalo's 2011 offense seemed at odds a bit between what it wanted to do and what it was actually capable of doing. The Bulls passed slightly more than the national average on both standard and passing downs despite the fact that it couldn't actually throw the ball very well. Quarterback Chazz Anderson completed 57 percent of his passes, but they didn't exactly go anywhere. Of the seven players who were targeted more than 10 times in 2011, only two averaged better than 4.9 adjusted yards per target, and one of those two was star running back Branden Oliver, a frequent target on passing downs.
In the meantime, however, they discovered an interesting identity on the ground. Anderson was able to engineer some decent passing downs success with his legs, but more importantly, Oliver exploded onto the scene. He gained 1,395 yards on the ground, 342 more through the air, and scored 13 touchdowns. Granted, part of his success was pure frequency -- included pass targets, Buffalo looked for him 30 times per game, and he was almost perfectly average in every category (4.6 yards per carry, a plus-0.5 Adj. POE); his backups, meanwhile, combined for just a hair over two carries per game. Still, durability is a skill, and there's no question that Oliver got better late in the season. He gained 124.7 rushing yards per game (4.9 per carry) in the first three games of 2011, 94.5 per game (3.8 per carry) in the middle six games, and 167.7 per game (6.2 per carry) in the final three. He was an absolute rock, and he will be running behind an experienced, improved line. One of the worst in the country in 2010, the Bulls ranked 51st in Adj. Line Yards and 46th in Adj. Sack Rate in 2011, and they return four starters and six players with starting experience (72 career starts). Line play will be a strength.
Still, Quinn is going to want to throw the ball a bit, and that's where the questions begin. It appears the quarterback race is between mobile senior Alex Zordich (who has lost the starter battle in each of the past two years) and three-star redshirt freshman Joe Licata, with incoming three-star freshman Collin Michael threatening to enter the race as a wildcard. Whoever wins will inherit a receiving corps that features an interesting downfield threat in 6'4 Alex Neutz (15.0 yards per catch, 58-percent catch rate), three-star sophomore Devon Hughes (a paltry 6.8 yards per catch on a 50-percent catch rate, though it bears mentioning that Oliver's freshman numbers were horrible, too) and junior Fred Lee. There is hope for an improved receiving corps, but there are no guarantees.
As expected, what was a strong defense in 2010 regressed in 2011, from 44th in Def. F/+ to 91st. They had one of the best linebackers in the country against the run; Khalil Mack recorded a whopping 20.5 tackles for loss, only 5.5 of which were sacks. He and the rest of a solid front seven swarmed to the ball-carrier and ranked a solid 52nd in Rushing Success Rate+. The problem was, when there was a breakdown, there was an incredible breakdown. The Bulls ranked 101st in Rushing PPP+ and 117th in Passing PPP+. The safeties were anything but safety valves, and were too frequent. The defense improved ever so slightly as the season progressed -- 30.8 Adj. Points per game allowed over the first seven games, 28.8 over the last five -- but they were evidently too inexperienced to do any serious damage to their given opponent.
The experience that was a flaw in 2011, however, should turn into a virtue in 2012. Mack returns to lead one of the MAC's best linebacking units, and while two of the top four linemen have departed, Colby Way (7.5 tackles for loss), Steven Means (3.5 tackles for loss, three passes broken up) and interesting sophomore Kristjan Sokoli (four tackles for loss in minimal playing time) are still viable.
In all, the front seven has shown it can be active, fast and aggressive, which could mean good things with new coordinator Tepper, who replaces William Inge. Tepper is a longtime linebackers guy -- not every defensive coach has written a book called Complete Linebacking, now have they? (there is a free sample at Amazon, and you should absolutely read it) -- and he should find the talent here to his liking.
The secondary, on the other hand, probably needs some work. Corners Cortney Lester and former walk-on Najja Johnson were allowed to be quite aggressive in 2011, and it often paid off -- they combined for three interceptions and 19 passes broken up -- but when they were beaten, there was nobody there to clean up the mess. Starting safety Josh Copeland is gone, but it is hard to get too worked up about that. Tepper will need to make something out of Lester, Johnson and safeties Okoye Houston and Isaac Baugh, otherwise any gains the front seven makes will just be relinquished by the end of a given drive.
In the most recent (still raw) F/+ projections, there are six MAC teams projected 89th or worse. Buffalo, one of the six, plays just two of the remaining five in 2012. Meanwhile, they play all six of the teams projected 77th or better. They have drawn the short end of the MAC straw this year, and when you toss in trips to Georgia and Connecticut, it is difficult to figure out where wins will come from this fall. Counting Morgan State as a win and Pitt as a loss, the other four home games are both winnable and losable. So if Buffalo splits the difference there and steals a road win somewhere, that would make them 4-8. We'll set the bar there.
Buffalo is experienced both on the field and in the press box, and they should expect to play quite a bit better in 2012 than they have in the last two, or even three, seasons. In players like Oliver and Mack, they have bona fide stars; plus, they have reasonably decent depth on both lines. But with this schedule, the wins may still lag a bit. If in 2012, or any year in the near future, the MAC East once again goes through some serious transition (certainly a possibility in 2012), and Buffalo can put together some strong momentum and turnovers luck, then they could scratch their way into the division title race. But it will likely take some external factors like that.