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1. Year 0 in the books
Lance Leipold could have remained at Wisconsin-Whitewater for the rest of his career, and nobody would have thought too hard about it. The engineer of six NCAA Division III championships and 109 wins in eight years was already a coaching legend of sorts, and he had only just turned 50. But bless him for getting curious.
Leipold headed 650 miles east to ply his trade at the FBS level, taking the reins of a program that had lost more games in 2014 than he had in eight seasons. (And the only reason Buffalo had lost only that many was because of two FCS opponents, a cancellation, and a late surge.)
This was by far my favorite hire of the 2014-15 coaching carousel.
Now, almost everything is different. Leipold just signed his first recruiting class with scholarship players. He does have six years of experience as a Big Ten assistant, but the last was 2003. This feels like a spectacular hire, but it could fail for any number of reasons. Still, if you have a chance to hire a guy with a 95 percent all-time win percentage, you should feel good about taking that chance.
From a pure curiosity standpoint, I love that former NDSU coach Craig Bohl and Lance Leipold are coaching in the FBS ranks now. I love that mid-major teams were able to attract impressive winners.
Like Bohl, Leipold was used to immaculate defenses, and like Bohl, he inherited some limited personnel. The Bulls ranked 124th in Def. S&P+ the year before his arrival, and while they did have a few productive players in 2014, those guys were all gone. Former head coach Jeff Quinn did leave him some experience on offense, but it was experience from a unit that ranked 108th in Off. S&P+.
This was a tailor-made Year 0 situation. So frequently when a coach takes on a new job, it takes him a year to get the pieces in place. He is teaching his style of football, moving guys around on the two-deep, and perhaps playing quite a few youngsters. The go-to examples of great coaches needing a year are obvious -- Lou Holtz went 0-11 his first season at South Carolina, George O'Leary went winless in his first year at UCF, etc. -- but it happens frequently.
With a relatively weak schedule featuring six teams that ranked 96th or worse in S&P+, you could, as I did, talk yourself into Buffalo threatening bowl eligibility. Still, any significant improvement was going to have to wait a little while.
Through this prism, what we saw was encouraging. The Bulls improved from 122nd to 96th in overall S&P+, and only a losing record in one-possession games prevented them from bowling. This wasn't a GOOD team, but you could see the ground work being laid even as Leipold adopted a pretty conservative style. The offense was far more based in efficiency than its 2014 counterpart, and while the defense was bend-don't-break to the core, it played great redzone defense, a prerequisite for that style.
Buffalo wasn't a great team in 2015, and thanks to pretty significant turnover on offense, it might only be able to improve so much in 2016. But the Bulls grew in their first year under Leipold, and he got the lay of the FBS land. So far, so good for UB.
2015 Schedule & Results
|Record: 5-7 | Adj. Record: 4-8 | Final F/+ Rk: 98 | Final S&P+ Rk: 96|
|Date||Opponent||Opp. F/+ Rk||Score||W-L||Percentile
|12-Sep||at Penn State||47||14-27||L||16%||4%||+14.7||+8.0|
|19-Sep||at Florida Atlantic||96||33-15||W||22%||19%||+25.5||+18.0|
|17-Oct||at Central Michigan||67||14-51||L||3%||0%||-30.6||-30.0|
|5-Nov||at Kent State||109||18-17||W||71%||99%||-1.3||-1.5|
|Points Per Game||26.7||82||27.6||72|
2. A late-season peek
Buffalo's season unfolded in three-week spurts. For the first three games of the season, results suggested that Leipold wouldn't need much time to get rolling. Buffalo handled Albany as it should, stayed close with Penn State, then went down to Boca Raton and beat FAU by 18. The win over FAU was misleading -- the Bulls were outgained by 200 yards (0.9 per play) but were plus-4 in turnovers and had three return scores -- but was exciting nonetheless.
The tables turned in each of the next two weeks, with UB losing the turnover battle and losing winnable battles against Nevada and BGSU, two eventual bowl teams. But after bottoming out against CMU, Buffalo gave an extended glimpse of what it could become.
- Average Percentile Performance (first 6 games): 28% (~top 90)
- Average Percentile Performance (last 6 games): 48% (~top 65)
Despite starting running back Anthone Taylor struggling through an injury, Buffalo rushed for 501 yards in wins over Ohio and Miami (Ohio) while holding the Bobcats and WarHawks to 5 yards per play and 41 points. And while the offense struggled against Kent State thanks in part to injuries to both starting offensive guards, the Bulls still dominated in field position and held on in a game only close because of a Kent return touchdown.
Progress slowed down the stretch, but because of strong components in this three-game span, the Bulls could say they were a better team over the second half of the season. Good and bad bounces fluctuated, but the components improved.
|FIVE FACTORS -- OFFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||41.9%||65||Succ. Rt. +||102.4||64|
|FIELD POSITION||Def. Avg. FP||29.7||66||Def. FP+||32.0||111|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.3||83||Redzone S&P+||103.3||60|
|Q1 Rk||78||1st Down Rk||81|
|Q2 Rk||105||2nd Down Rk||90|
|Q3 Rk||55||3rd Down Rk||57|
Note: players in bold below are 2016 returnees. Players in italics are questionable with injury/suspension.
|6'2, 217||Sr.||3 stars (5.6)||0.8621||27||54||283||2||1||50.0%||4||6.9%||4.3|
|Chris Merchant||6'2, 210||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8083||0||1||0||0||0||0.0%||0||0.0%||0.0|
|Tyree Jackson||6'5, 230||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8248|
|Tarek Yaeggi||6'3, 180||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Dominic Johnson||6'6, 205||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR|
3. A pass-first offense needs a quarterback
Andy Kotelnicki was Leipold's offensive coordinator in their last two years at UWW, and he was able to find some level of early success with their version of a pass-first offense. The Bulls didn't do anything particularly unique, operating at an average pace and spreading defenses out a normal amount.
Just about the only unique aspect of UB's offense was that it threw the ball a lot on standard downs -- 48 percent of the time, compared to the national average of 40 percent. This could have to do with the fact that the Bulls were simply better at throwing than running, or it could have to do with a pass-happy philosophy.
Regardless, having Joe Licata throwing to Ron Willoughby, Marcus McGill, and tight end Matt Weiser was a more efficient option than handing to Anthone Taylor and Jordan Johnson. Johnson brought decent explsoiveness to the table (and in a 220-pound package, no less), but while Taylor and Johnson split 30 carries per game, only about 11 of those carries gained even five yards.
Licata, Willoughby, and Weiser are all gone now. So is Taylor. The Buffalo offense could take on a bit of a new identity this time around, and a lot will depend on finding a new quarterback. Returning QBs threw exactly one pass last year (that one was thrown by sophomore Chris Merchant), and this spring the battle between Merchant, redshirt freshman Tyree Jackson, and presumptive favorite Grant Rohach, a graduate transfer from Iowa State, is ongoing. Rohach completed 137 of 245 passes for 1,491 yards in Ames in 2013-14.
Merchant was a three-star signee and boasts decent size, but even if Rohach wins the job in 2016, Jackson is particularly enticing. He's the biggest of the UB quarterbacks, and as a senior in high school he threw for 2,460 yards and rushed for 969. If efficiency remains a concern in the run game, Jackson's mobility could make him a more attractive option.
|Jordan Johnson||RB||6'0, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7661||172||811||12||4.7||5.2||35.5%||2||2|
|Johnathan Hawkins||RB||5'10, 205||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8404||15||53||0||3.5||2.9||26.7%||1||1|
|Gary Hosey||RB||5'11, 225||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8261|
|Emmanuel Reed||RB||5'8, 185||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7633|
|Kameron Pickett||RB||5'11, 215||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8248|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||Targets||Catches||Yards||Catch Rate||Target
|Marcus McGill||WR||6'1, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8119||77||50||581||64.9%||17.7%||7.5||63.6%||50.6%||1.38|
|Collin Lisa||WR||5'10, 180||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||44||31||325||70.5%||10.1%||7.4||61.4%||47.7%||1.38|
|Mason Schreck||TE||6'4, 250||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7715||33||21||209||63.6%||7.6%||6.3||66.7%||39.4%||1.46|
|Jacob Martinez||WR||6'0, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8300||21||15||153||71.4%||4.8%||7.3||52.4%||57.1%||1.25|
|Malcolm Robinson||WR||6'1, 205||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7300||15||6||69||40.0%||3.5%||4.6||53.3%||13.3%||3.07|
|Brandon Smiley||WR||6'1, 205||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7783||15||6||42||40.0%||3.5%||2.8||60.0%||20.0%||1.05|
|Jordan Johnson||RB||6'0, 220||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7661||12||9||69||75.0%||2.8%||5.8||50.0%||33.3%||1.54|
|Jamarl Eiland||WR||5'10, 195||Jr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7841|
|Kevin Rogers||TE||6'3, 240||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7200|
|Matt Seybert||TE||6'3, 225||RSFr.||NR||0.7917|
|Tyler Mabry||TE||6'2, 250||RSFr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7793|
|K.J. Osborn||WR||5'11, 195||RSFr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7852|
|Kamathi Holsey||WR||6'4, 215||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7844|
|Jordan Overton||WR||5'10, 180||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8147|
4. Logical ball distribution
There was nothing particularly unique about Buffalo's offense in 2015, but you don't have to be unique if you're sound and logical. With Kotelnicki pulling the strings, Buffalo did a good job of distributing the ball more to the players whose production merited more touches. Taylor was slightly more efficient than Johnson via run or catch (and fumbled less) and therefore averaged more touches per game. Willoughby averaged more yards per target than McGill, who averaged more than Collin Lisa, who averaged more than Jacob Martinez, etc.
It will be interesting, then, to see who emerges as the most reliable players in 2016, with so many leaders gone. McGill appears to have decent potential and size for a No. 1 receiver, and Lisa and Martinez were both decent possession guys. But if a newcomer -- be it three-star sophomore Jamarl Eiland, JUCO transfer Kamathi Holsey, three-star freshman Jordan Overton, or any of a number of interesting redshirt freshmen -- were to emerge as a reliable option, last year's distribution suggests that they would get the touches they deserve.
Now those targets just have to emerge.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||2015 Starts||Career Starts||Honors/Notes|
|John Kling||LT||12||23||2015 2nd All-MAC|
|James O'Hagan||C||6'2, 308||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7733||12||12|
|Brandon Manosalvas||LG||6'4, 310||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||10||12|
|Roubbens Joseph||RG||6'4, 310||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7200||4||4|
|Andy Fidler||LG||6'6, 300||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7819||2||2|
|Albert McCoy||LT||6'3, 300||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7100||0||0|
|Skylar Hartley||C||6'1, 305||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7494||0||0|
|Trey Bowman||OL||6'4, 290||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7889||0||0|
|Tyler O'Henly||RT||6'7, 315||Jr.||NR||NR||0||0|
|Christian Gonzalez||OL||6'2, 305||RSFr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7817|
|Evin Ksiezarczyk||OL||6'5, 305||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7783|
|Connor Morehart||OL||6'4, 315||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7667|
|David Goldsby||OL||6'5, 300||Jr.||NR||NR|
|Kayode Awosika||OL||6'5, 285||Fr.||3 stars (5.5)||0.7967|
5. Still a strength?
Line stats were a strength for Buffalo in 2015. The Bulls protected the quick-passing Licata for as long as he needed, and while the run game was inefficient, the line appeared to do its job in short-yardage situations.
Thanks to injuries, seven players got starting experience last year, and five return. But all-conference left tackle John Kling isn't one of them, and Leipold signed two JUCO transfers in February: junior David Goldsby and sophomore Connor Morehart. In a class that was otherwise not particularly JUCO-heavy, that could mean something. The new starting quarterback will be looking at new No. 1 and No. 2 receivers and will be protected by a shuffled line. That's at least a little bit scary.
|FIVE FACTORS -- DEFENSE|
|Raw Category||Rk||Opp. Adj. Category||Rk|
|EFFICIENCY||Succ. Rt.||43.4%||85||Succ. Rt. +||83.5||124|
|FIELD POSITION||Off. Avg. FP||29.3||83||Off. FP+||26.3||119|
|FINISHING DRIVES||Pts. Per Scoring Opportunity||4.0||32||Redzone S&P+||97.8||79|
|Q1 Rk||109||1st Down Rk||114|
|Q2 Rk||119||2nd Down Rk||65|
|Q3 Rk||56||3rd Down Rk||123|
6. No strength till the redzone
The game changes when the field shrinks. For Buffalo, this was very good news. The Bulls struggled to find any overall traction on defense, which had to drive Leipold and defensive coordinator Brian Borland crazy. Borland was UWW's DC from 2012-14, and his defenses were particularly productive under Leipold.
Luckily, the defense did eventually stiffen. The Bulls allowed only 4 points per scoring opportunity, 32nd in the country. The Bulls were good in short-yardage situations, too. This allowed them to figure out some stops despite pretty awful down-to-down stats.
Considering how unsuccessful this unit was in 2014, and considering how inexpeirence it was last fall, this isn't surprising. The question is how much the Bulls can expect to improve now that experience is no longer an issue. UB returns last year's top six linemen and six of seven defensive backs. There is turnover at linebacker (three of last year's top four are gone), but the return of 2014 starter Jarrett Franklin from injury means the Bulls still return two starters in a roundabout way.
Continuity can be very useful, especially in the back of the defense. Buffalo has far more of it this year than it did last year, and we'll see what that means. Maybe the Bulls can actually begin to stiffen before their 30 yard line or so.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Brandon Crawford||DE||6'2, 285||Sr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7785||12||26.5||3.8%||4.5||2.0||0||2||1||1|
|Chris Ford||DT||6'2, 307||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7444||12||22.0||3.2%||3.0||0.5||0||0||0||0|
|Max Perisse||NT||6'4, 285||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||12||20.0||2.9%||2.5||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Demone Harris||DE||6'4, 275||Jr.||NR||NR||12||17.0||2.4%||4.5||1.5||1||2||1||0|
|Justin Brandon||DT||6'0, 287||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533||12||11.0||1.6%||1.0||1.0||0||1||0||0|
|Charles Harris||DE||6'3, 250||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7100||11||10.5||1.5%||3.0||1.5||0||0||0||0|
|Gusty Schwartzmeier||DT||6'4, 280||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7383||11||7.0||1.0%||1.0||0.0||0||1||0||0|
|Randy Anyanwu||DE||6'2, 245||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7778||11||4.5||0.6%||1.5||1.5||0||0||1||0|
|Jake Khoury||NT||6'2, 280||So.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7719||6||2.0||0.3%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Duke Hwang||DT||6'0, 285||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7533||5||1.5||0.2%||1.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Corey Henderson||DE||6'4, 270||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8133|
|Myles Nicholas||DE||6'2, 250||So.||NR||0.7533|
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Brandon Berry||LB||6'0, 215||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8119||12||82.5||11.9%||11.5||1.0||1||2||1||0|
|LB||6'0, 220||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7000||11||39.0||6.7%||5.0||1.0||0||0||1||0|
|Ishmael Hargrove||LB||6'2, 215||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7200||10||9.5||1.4%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|C.J. Stancil||LB||5'11, 208||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7400||12||7.5||1.1%||0.0||0.0||0||0||1||0|
|Will White||LB||5'11, 215||So.||3 stars (5.5)||0.8295||2||1.5||0.2%||0.0||0.0||0||0||0||0|
|Caleb Wilson||LB||6'2, 235||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7644|
|Khalil Hodge||LB||6'2, 240||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7726|
7. A high bar at linebacker
While UB didn't have any steady contributor on the line, a lot of different guys saw action, and nine linemen return after recording at least one tackle for loss. This includes five sophomores. Simple year-to-year growth and another year of development under this staff could make the line demonstrably better. Short-yardage success aside, there's almost nowhere to go but up.
The linebacking corps was the only productive unit for Borland and Buffalo, but it was quite productive. UB's per-unit havoc rates were pretty instructive: The Bulls ranked 84th on the defensive line, 71st at defensive back ... and 14th at linebacker. Without the LBs, there was no disruption.
The Bulls must replace the 22.5 TFLs, 8.5 sacks, and 13 passes defensed that Nick Gilbo and Okezie Alozie provided. Still, they get Brandon Berry back for another year, and Jarrett Franklin's junior season should be productive.
JUCO linebacker Khalil Hodge appears to be manning the third starting spot this fall. If he's one-half as good as the last Buffalo linebacker named Khalil, all will be well.
|Rivals||247 Comp.||GP||Tackles||% of Team||TFL||Sacks||Int||PBU||FF||FR|
|Ryan Williamson||FS||6'0, 182||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||0.7844||12||65.5||9.4%||0||0||2||1||0||1|
|Boise Ross||CB||6'0, 185||Sr.||2 stars (5.4)||NR||12||41.0||5.9%||0||0||2||18||1||0|
|Andrews Dadeboe||SS||6'1, 205||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7900||10||30.5||4.4%||0||0||2||3||0||0|
|Cameron Lewis||CB||5'9, 185||So.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8033||12||27.0||3.9%||0||0||1||5||0||0|
|Brandon Stanback||SS||5'11, 190||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7833||9||16.0||2.3%||0||0||0||1||0||0|
|Brandon Williams||CB||5'10, 175||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7600||12||10.5||1.5%||0||0||0||0||1||0|
|Jordan Collier||S||5'11, 205||So.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7667||10||2.0||0.3%||1||0||0||0||0||0|
|William Rembert||FS||6'0, 195||Sr.||2 stars (5.2)||NR|
|Zach Nicholas||S||6'0, 194||Jr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7583|
|Jeremiah Dadeboe||CB||5'11, 192||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.8400|
|Cameron Skipworth||CB||5'9, 180||RSFr.||2 stars (5.2)||0.7433|
|Tim Roberts||S||6'2, 195||Jr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7593|
|O.J. O'Neal||S||6'2, 190||Jr.||2 stars (5.3)||NR|
|Tyrone Hill||DB||6'2, 192||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.8281|
|Roy Baker||CB||6'2, 175||Fr.||2 stars (5.4)||0.7859|
8. Active on the edges
I guess it's not completely fair to say that there was no disruption without the linebackers. While Buffalo's safeties were tasked mostly with making touchdown-saving tackles (combined tackles for loss from all defensive backs: 3.5), corners Marqus Baker and Boise Ross did get their hands on quite a few passes. Combined, they picked off two and broke up 30. Sticky pass defense was one of the major reasons why opponents struggled to turn scoring opportunities into points -- while only 30 percent of opponents' passes were thrown inside Buffalo's 40, 46 percent of UB's interceptions came from this sample of passes.
Baker is gone, which puts pressure on sophomores Cameron Lewis and Brandon Williams to step up. But the return of Ross, along with basically every safety, is encouraging. Lewis defensed six passes in limited opportunities, and if he's able to pull off a decent Baker impression, this secondary will, at the very least, be as productive as last year's. And if redshirt freshman Jeremiah Dadeboe or one of two JUCOs can make an early impression, that's even better.
|Adam Mitcheson||6'1, 190||So.||31-36||10-13||76.9%||3-6||50.0%|
|Jordan Johnson||KR||6'0, 220||Sr.||8||21.4||0|
|Collin Lisa||PR||5'10, 180||Jr.||8||3.8||0|
|Special Teams S&P+||118|
|Field Goal Efficiency||98|
|Punt Return Success Rate||58|
|Kick Return Success Rate||125|
|Punt Success Rate||67|
|Kickoff Success Rate||111|
9. Few strengths in special teams
Collin Lisa wasn't explosive at punt returner, but between small returns and fair catches, he was decent at preventing successful punts. Meanwhile, Adam Mitcheson hinted at a solid, strong leg by making three of six 40-plus field goals as a freshman.
That's the closest I can come to talking about special teams strengths. Mitcheson also missed five PATs, and in Tyler Grassman, UB loses both a decent punter and mediocre kickoffs guy. Ongoing efficiency issues could make for field position struggles if special teams doesn't come through, and it's hard to assume special teams will come through.
2016 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|1-Oct||at Boston College||50||-19.4||13%|
|22-Oct||at Northern Illinois||79||-14.5||20%|
|19-Nov||at Western Michigan||65||-17.2||16%|
|25-Nov||at Bowling Green||60||-18.1||15%|
|Projected wins: 4.8|
|Five-Year F/+ Rk||-24.2% (104)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||114 / 114|
|2015 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||0 / 2.6|
|2015 TO Luck/Game||-1.2|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||46% (18%, 73%)|
|2015 Second-order wins (difference)||5.1 (-0.1)|
10. A chance for a fast start
I don't see Buffalo bottoming out like Wyoming did in Bohl's second year, but it's hard to see reason for improvement. UB will be replacing the primary reasons for its pass efficiency, plus one-half of its two-headed running game and an all-conference left tackle. And on defense, where experience is significant, talent is unknown outside of maybe linebacker and cornerback.
Buffalo improved from 122nd to 96th in S&P+ in Leipold's first year, and projections suggest this season might be one of either slight regression or water-treading.
That said, the schedule could help. Even with a pessimistic S&P+ projection of 109th, the Bulls are still given a 47 percent chance of winning in six games, and four of those come in the first half of the year. If Buffalo is able to exceed that projection -- and since a lot of this projection deals with recruiting and production from the Quinn era, that wouldn't be the biggest surprise -- then something like a 4-2 or so isn't out of the question. And while the conference road slate is pretty brutal (the season ends with trips to WMU and BGSU), there will be opportunities for a fifth and sixth win.