The MAC seems to have its act together.
- Toledo and Ohio fielded pretty excellent teams — in Ohio’s case, maybe its best since the 1960s — in 2017.
- NIU rebounded nicely and could continue in 2018.
- Miami (Ohio), BGSU, and WMU have stockpiled talent.
- It took a mother lode of bad bounces to keep EMU from a second straight bowl last fall.
- CMU and Akron got good bounces and took advantage.
That’s a lot of teams looking at an upward trajectory. And I haven’t yet mentioned Buffalo.
I made no attempt to hide how intrigued I was when Division III legend Leipold took over at UB in 2015. I’ve always been curious about the shift from one level of the sport to another, and apparently Leipold was, too. Twenty-two of his 28 seasons of coaching experience had come at the D3 level, and while he was a demigod there — 109-6 at UW-Whitewater with six national titles in eight years — he left for perhaps a lot of the same reasons North Dakota State legend Craig Bohl left for Wyoming a year earlier. It was time to see what he could do.
The results have been mixed. He crafted a sort of “Steps 1-10: don’t beat yourself” identity, but he didn’t have enough play-makers to do much damage. Only three tight losses prevented them from becoming bowl eligible in his first year, but the offense fell apart with a QB change in 2016, and the Bulls went 2-10. For the first time since 2003, as an assistant on Frank Solich’s final Nebraska staff, he entered 2017 on a staff that felt genuine pressure to succeed.
Buffalo improved from two wins to six last fall, generating a plus-44 scoring margin and pulling off wins over 11-3 FAU and 9-4 Ohio. Once again, tight losses were costly — there were four, including a seven-OT loss to WMU — and while the Bulls were bowl-eligible, they just missed out on a bid.
Still, this was UB’s best team since the 2013 squad that went 8-5, and it wasn’t that far behind the 2008 MAC Championship team. UB improved from 127th to 75th in S&P+, by 39 spots in Def. S&P+ and 53 in Off. S&P+.
Best of all, it was young. The Bulls were led by a sophomore quarterback, a sophomore running back, sophomores and juniors in the receiving corps and offensive line, and a favorable enough mix of juniors and seniors on defense that there are now two to three senior leaders returning at each level.
Leipold brought in former UWW offensive coordinator Jim Zebrowski to help out another former UWW OC, Andy Kotelnicki, and it paid off.
Despite a mostly new receiving corps, and despite battling a knee injury and missing four games (of which Buffalo lost three by a combined 14 points), quarterback Tyree Jackson improved his completion rate from 53 percent to 60 and his yards per completion from 10.7 to 14.7 while averaging nearly seven yards per non-sack carry. He returns, as does star receiver Anthony Johnson (76 catches, 1,356 yards, 14 touchdowns).
We saw proof of concept for Leipold in Buffalo last year. The Bulls do need to figure out how to maneuver better and/or find some better bounces in close games (5-9 in one-possession games over three seasons), and they are in a better MAC now. But their upside was undeniable, especially with Jackson healthy, and they aren’t that many breaks from contention in the East.
If you want to compare and contrast, here’s a link to Buffalo’s 2016 offensive radar. The 2016 Bulls were pretty good at avoiding negative plays and creating third-and-manageables but boasted no big-play threats and weren’t good enough at converting third-and-manageables. Making sure you don’t move backwards is important, but you have to move forward, too.
Enter Johnson. The redshirt junior, an Iowa Western CC transfer and cousin of Jadeveon Clowney, announced his presence with an 11-catch performance in the season opener against Minnesota, then kicked into higher gear in MAC play. He had 195 receiving yards against WMU, 140 against NIU, and 150-plus in each of the final three games of the year, all wins.
Johnson was one of only 14 FBS players targeted with at least 125 passes in 2017, and he had by far the best marginal explosiveness (plus-0.8 points per successful play) of the 14. He was the James Washington of the mid-major level and at 6’2, 207, he is an X-receiver prototype.
(He looks bigger than 205, doesn’t he?)
It’s funny what adding a brilliant No. 1 receiver can do for your offense, huh? Johnson forced defenders to take notice and opened up options for some possession receivers.
Jackson loses a couple of those but returns junior K.J. Osborn, sophomore Antonio Nunn, and tight end Tyler Mabry (combined: 74 catches, 1,036 yards, six TDs) and adds Wisconsin graduate transfer George Rushing.
Jackson was Quinn’s parting gift to Leipold. The 6’7, 245-pound Muskegon (Mich.) product committed to Quinn and UB before the 2014 season, and Leipold was able to secure his signature the following February. He struggled as a redshirt freshman but blossomed with a combination of better weapons, increased maturity, and Zebrowski’s guidance. He picked his spots better in the run game, too, going from 8.8 non-sack carries per game to 4.2 but improving by nearly 1.7 yards per carry.
In Jackson’s absence, QB Drew Anderson fared well until he, too, got hurt, and freshman Kyle Vantrease struggled in frustrating losses to NIU (14-13) and Miami (24-14). Anderson, a senior, is a pretty exciting prospect in his own right, but Jackson is a potential difference-maker, especially with the connection that he and Johnson showed in the final three games.
Kotelnicki and Zebrowski, now co-coordinators, want a balanced threat in their offense, and while the passing game (38th in Passing S&P+) saw incredible progress, the run game was still lacking (123rd in Rushing S&P+). Experience should help. Backs Emmanuel Reed and Theo Anderson (combined: 4.2 yards per carry) were a sophomore and freshman, respectively, and 40 of 60 offensive line starts went to sophomores and juniors.
All-MAC center James O’Hagan returns, as does an enormous left-side combination of 315-pound tackle Evin Ksiezarczyk and 340-pound former Rutgers guard Jacquis Webb. Continuity in the run game isn’t a key predictor of improvement, but it can’t hurt, and any improvement will further open up the passing game.
Avoid getting gashed, then figure things out from there. That’s been the general, conservative approach for Leipold and defensive coordinator Brian Borland, one that fits harmoniously with the offense’s “don’t go backwards” philosophy. And in a conference that saw quite a few bend-don’t-break defenses in 2017, UB’s might have been the most effective.
The Bulls allowed just 24.8 points per game (41st in FBS) despite the 71-68, seven-OT loss to WMU (which was just 31-31 at the end of regulation); take out OT points, and UB’s average improves to 21.5.
Buffalo’s biggest strength was indeed big-play prevention — 1.7 gains per game of 30-plus yards (29th in FBS), plus a No. 15 ranking in IsoPPP (which measures the magnitude of the successful plays you allow) — but the Bulls showed some havoc potential on blitz downs. Three defenders had at least three sacks, and two return: linebacker Khalil Hodge and end Chuck Harris.
Hodge isn’t quite as impressive as the last Buffalo star named Khalil (that would be Khalil Mack), but he’s a keeper. He made 15 percent of UB’s tackles last year and 12 percent of the Bulls’ havoc plays. Now he just needs some more help. A bend-don’t-break philosophy can pay off if you have enough natural play-makers to defeat their man without taking tactical risks. UB was still a bit lacking in that regard.
The senior class has come along nicely, though. Two senior linemen (Harris and tackle Justin Brandon) recorded at least four tackles for loss last year, two senior linebackers (Hodge and Jordan Collier) recorded at least six, and four senior cornerbacks (Tatum Slack, Brandon Williams, Cameron Lewis, and Devon Russell) defensed at least three passes.
In a best-case scenario, there’s enough young upside to push these entrenched seniors. Leipold brought in two JUCO tackles (Atunaisa Vainikolo and DeShondrick Foxworth), three-star end and UMass transfer Taylor Riggins, and JUCO safety Joey Banks to bring extra physical maturity to the mix, and there are a couple of exciting three-star redshirt freshmen in linebacker Rick Squires and corner Aapri Washington.
The biggest question for 2018 comes at the safety position, though. For all of these exciting cornerbacks, losing stalwarts Ryan Williamson and Tim Roberts could be costly in terms of big-play prevention. The return of junior Dev Lamour from injury will help, but unless Banks is ready from day one, Borland might be forced to rely on a sophomore or two.
Offense and defense both took definitive steps forward in 2017. Special teams did not. UB ranked 123rd in Special Teams S&P+ — the Bulls’ third straight year in the 120s — and loses one of its stronger (less weak?) pieces in punter Kyle DeWeen.
Return man K.J. Osborn is decent, but kicker Adam Mitcheson missed three PATs and five field goals under 40 yards (he was just 2-for-6 over 40 yards, too). You think that could be costly for a team that loses more close games than it wins?
2018 Schedule & Projection Factors
|Date||Opponent||Proj. S&P+ Rk||Proj. Margin||Win Probability|
|6-Oct||at Central Michigan||116||3.9||59%|
|23-Nov||at Bowling Green||97||-1.6||46%|
|Projected S&P+ Rk||93|
|Proj. Off. / Def. Rk||77 / 105|
|Five-Year S&P+ Rk||-9.4 (111)|
|2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk||125 / 122|
|2017 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin*||1 / -0.8|
|2017 TO Luck/Game||+0.7|
|Returning Production (Off. / Def.)||74% (82%, 65%)|
|2017 Second-order wins (difference)||6.4 (-0.4)|
Per S&P+, 2017 saw Buffalo’s best defense since 2013 and its best offense since 2008. And most of key components of both units return. The run game still has room to grow, and the defense could use a couple more havoc guys, but it’s pretty clear that UB returns enough pieces from last year’s breakthrough to expect bigger things this fall.
The schedule will help. S&P+ projects UB a conservative 93rd (mainly because of the iffy recent history and recruiting that hasn’t featured many three-star guys). But even with that, the Bulls are still projected 7-5 with a win probability of 46 percent or higher in eight games and, perhaps as important, 25 percent or lower in just one.
I would be surprised if the Bulls rank much lower than they did last year, and that puts eight or nine wins on the table. That they play at Ohio and Bowling Green might preclude division title thoughts, but this should be Leipold’s best team, and while last year’s bowl-eligible squad couldn’t secure a postseason bid, going 8-4 or so should send them to their first bowl since 2013.