USA TODAY Sports' Paul Myerberg counts down to the start of the college football season team by team from No. 128 to No. 1.
Records fell like snowflakes. Buffalo's used to the latter; the records – of the positive variety, at least – led the Bulls into uncharted territory.
Eight regular-season wins, the program's best single-year output since joining the Football Bowl Subdivision in 1999. Six wins in Mid-American Conference play, a record as a member of the conference. Five wins at home, tying the school's single-season record.
The Bulls scored 394 points, the second-most in program history and the most during a 13-game season; in terms of a per-game average, last year's 30.3 points per game set a new high. The defense gave up only 317 points, the second-fewest of the Bulls' FBS existence.
At least 500 yards of offense in back-to-back games, an FBS-era first. A whopping 617 yards against Toledo, the most since 1999 and the second-most in program history, trailing only a 628-yard performance against Canisius in 1998. At least 30 points in eight consecutive games, a first. Thirty-six sacks, an FBS record, and 85 tackles for loss, an overall school record.
Then there's the seven-game winning streak, a stretch that encompassed half of September, all of October, one week in November, two special elections to Congress and a pair of gubernatorial races. Seven wins, or as many as Buffalo notched in its first five seasons in the FBS, or two more than Buffalo's total during its next three seasons in the FBS, or more than the Bulls' single-year winning total in every FBS season but one, back in 2008.
This is new ground, fresh as fallen snow, and the bar has been raised – for better or worse. The last time the Bulls broke through was in that 2008 season, which was followed by four long years back up the mountain. Now that Buffalo is back in the black, what can Jeff Quinn and his gang do for an encore?
LAST YEAR'S PREDICTION:
So how do the Bulls get to six wins? By harassing quarterbacks, forcing turnovers and punching back between the tackles on defense. Offensively, the Bulls need to be smooth and patient with Licata, balancing out his bouts with youthful inconsistency with a powerful running game. It's a simple formula that should yield solid results. The Bulls should expect six wins and bowl eligibility. Now that's a change.
In a nutshell: Predictably successful, as I put together two words rarely connected with Buffalo football. In hindsight, the eight wins was par for the course: Buffalo played only a handful of real contenders all season – Ohio State, Baylor, Bowling Green – but took care of business where it counted, utilizing equal doses of offense and defense in dispatching the second tier of the MAC. The most impressive win came against Ohio; the biggest win came against Connecticut, a 41-12 laugher that lifted UB to its seven-game winning streak. And then there's Khalil Mack, of course, the best linebacker in college football and the dealer of bad things to offenses in and out of the MAC. He's gone, sadly.
High point: The seven-game winning streak, for all the reasons listed above.
Low point: Losing to Bowling Green. A win against the Falcons in the regular-season finale would have given Buffalo the East Division crown.
Tidbit: Buffalo's 33-0 blanking of Western Michigan provided the program's third shutout since enlisting in the FBS, joining a 44-0 win against Ohio on Nov. 3, 2011, and a 31-0 win against Rhode Island on Sept. 2, 2010. You need to go back a ways to find the program's last road shutout – like, way back. Try Nov. 6, 1965, when the Bulls skunked Delaware 22-0.
Tidbit (punt returns edition): We're heading onto a dozen years since Buffalo's last punt return for a touchdown. The last time UB did so was against Lehigh on Aug. 29, 2002; that's a span of yeah, a dozen years, but also 145 games – the longest active streak in the FBS. Many unhappy returns, and the headlines write themselves.
ARBITRARY TOP FIVE LIST:
Bills quarterbacks post-Jim Kelly
1. Drew Bledsoe
2. Doug Flutie
3. Ryan Fitzpatrick
4. J.P. Losman
5. Trent Edwards
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
Offense: The Bulls are good where it counts: up front. The Bulls return all five starters from the second half of last fall, a group that jelled even after then-senior left tackle Jasen Carlson suffered a season-ending leg injury. There's your silver lining: Carlson's setback gave valuable playing time to junior John Kling, now a more seasoned option on the blind side. Barring a surprise – say, a decision to go elsewhere at left tackle – the Bulls will start Kling, senior left guard Andre Davis, senior center Trevor Sales, senior right tackle Jake Silas and one of junior Robert Blodgett and senior Dillon Guy at right guard. That competition, between Blodgett and Guy, will be one of the more intriguing storylines of fall camp. This is a good group – potentially a very good group – aided by a solid second tier, though Quinn and line coach Adam Shorter must make an effort to get this younger core snaps with the first-team offense to bridge the gap to next season.
I wouldn't worry about Joe Licata's offseason hip surgery – one that kept him out of spring drills – slowing the junior's development: Licata has all the physical gifts but needs to grasp the nuts-and-bolts approach to quarterbacking, so time away from the white lines, watching but not playing, may be as beneficial to his growth as any series of spring drills. In fact, his absence has a silver lining: Buffalo then had the chance to audition Tony Daniel in a starting role, and that experience may come in handy for the dual-threat junior. But this is Licata's team, his offense and his system, and once that completion percentage upticks the Bulls may have the best quarterback in the MAC. With running back Branden Oliver gone, Licata takes center stage – and he'll deliver.
But Oliver's departure does leave a void in the backfield. It's one UB will fill in part with junior Devin Campbell, who gained 502 yards on the ground as a freshman before spending last season in the slot. The Bulls won't match Oliver's production with a single option, but between Campbell, junior Anthone Taylor (399 yards) and sophomore Jordan Johnson, this backfield has the tools to match last season's overall rushing yardage. One can make the case that Taylor was more productive than Oliver on a per-carry basis last fall, albeit in a vastly smaller sample size. Campbell and Taylor will lead, but I like Johnson's potential impact as a short-yardage back. When healthy, fullback Boomer Brock – my goodness, what a name – is a de facto sixth offensive linemen.
Defense: Well, Mack's gone. How will Buffalo replace the best player in school history? As in the backfield, it'll take a team-wide approach – not to mention a pitch-perfect approach to fundamentals, tackling, coverage and general cohesiveness, the four assets that define any great defense, Mack or no. Though the front seven does lose a star, perhaps the Bulls can rediscover some production behind an experienced starting cast. One name to consider: Lee Skinner (79 tackles), a senior, takes over a leadership role at one of the two inside spots in coordinator Lou Tepper's 3-4 defense. He'll be joined inside by senior Jake Stockman (43 tackles), a three-game starter last fall, while outside duties should fall to junior Nick Gilbo and sophomores Jarrett Franklin and Brandon Crawford. Those sophomores hold the key: Franklin's a potential monster, judging by his limited on-field results last fall, but both must deliver vital production despite only a taste of game-day experience.
The linebacker corps should also feature senior Adam Redden (65 tackles, 12.5 for loss), a reigning third-team All-MAC pick last fall, who has the ability to shuffle between both safety and outside linebacker. Where is he most needed? Outside linebacker, if the sophomores can't handle the load. At safety, seeing that UB needs to replace three seniors from last year's two-deep. Redden will produce wherever he plays; I simply wonder if he's best fit on the outside, where his ability to harass plays in the backfield will be of additional importance without Mack drawing triple-teamed attention. Remember one thing: Buffalo signed three very impressive linebackers in February's signing class – the Mack effect, one might term it.
Let's say Redden plays on the edge – a move that makes sense, I'd say. That would leave Buffalo calling on senior Witney Sherry at free safety; Sherry moves back into a starting role after losing the job due to injury in 2012. UB could use Okezie Alozie (45 tackles) at strong safety, though that hinges on whether or not the junior can translate his speed in space – he's been primarily a linebacker – into adequate coverage skills. It's a bit better on the outside, where the Bulls return an all-conference lock in senior Cortney Lester (32 tackles, 3 interceptions) and two viable could-be starters in junior Marqus Baker and senior Dwellie Strigles.
The three-man front builds from the inside out: Kristjan Sokoli is back on the nose, but the Bulls do need to find a new pair of starters at end. One option is Dalton Barksdale, a 300-pound senior who could team with Sokoli to upgrade the Bulls' production against the run. But if Barksdale does earn a starting job – here's guessing he does – UB must be prepared to rotate quicker linemen into the mix in certain packages; it's likely that Barksdale would either step inside or move to the sideline on clear passing downs. So consider one end position by the sum of its parts: Barksdale, sophomore Max Perisse and likely even Crawford, who I see as a third-down weapon closer to the line of scrimmage. The starting lineup will have Sokoli in the middle, flanked by Barksdale and JUCO transfer Tedroy Lynch, Beau Bachtelle's backup a season ago.
Special teams: Campbell and sophomore wide receiver Boise Rossi give UB a return duo unmatched in this year's MAC. Every yard counts; Campbell in particular can give this offense a boost on special teams. The kicking game – Patrick Clarke at kicker, Tyler Grassman at punter – is anything but special, but in only one area does Buffalo truly struggle: kickoffs. See, neither Clarke nor Grassman can put the ball in the end zone with any regularity. Maybe that's not an issue with Mack in tow; it could be a problem without Mack, however.
POSITION(S) TO WATCH:
Wide receiver: Losing Alex Neutz is one thing – a bad thing – but losing Neutz and second fiddle Fred Lee robs Buffalo of the lion's share of last year's production in the passing game. Counting Oliver, lost to graduation, and Campbell, lost to the backfield, UB must replace 67.1% of last year's receptions and 70.7% of last year's receiving yards. Onward and upward go the Bulls, building around Rossi (13 receptions for 156 yards), senior Devon Hughes, junior Marcus McGill, junior Ron Willoughby, sophomore Malcolm Robinson, senior John Dunmore and redshirt freshmen Jamarl Eiland and Jacob Martinez. The Bulls have wide receivers, basically, if little in the way of reliable production. To make this work, UB needs to team Licata and tight ends Mason Schreck (17 for 147) and Matt Weiser – a really nice pair – with some help from this receiver corps, with particular emphasis on Rossi, Hughes, McGill and the two speedy freshmen. Three factors to consider: one, Buffalo has a quarterback, and a promising one at that; two, UB has the running game; and three, it'd be a real shame if this offense sputtered due a lack of options in the passing game.
GAME(S) TO WATCH:
Bowling Green: The schedule is far from intimidating. The one drawback, however, is that UB draws both Bowling Green and Ohio – the two favorites in the East Division – away from home; that essentially ends the Bulls' MAC title hopes, though there may be room for an eight-win finish if the team takes care of business. Here's the best way to look at it: Baylor's the only game Buffalo will definitely lose. The Falcons are still the class of the division, followed by the Bobcats; the Bulls are third, a step away from Ohio and a football field from BGSU.
SEASON BREAKDOWN & PREDICTION:
In a nutshell: We can't discuss Buffalo without first discussing this schedule, as kind a slate as you'll find in this year's FBS. There's only one clear loss: Baylor. There are two likely losses, in my opinion: Bowling Green, because the Falcons are the clear leader in the East, and Ohio, since the Bobcats come on the road – I'd come close to putting BGSU with Baylor in the clear-loss category, but Ohio could be a toss-up. Then there are the clear wins: Duquesne, Norfolk State, Miami (Ohio), Eastern Michigan and Massachusetts. That leaves the unknowns: Central Michigan, Akron and Kent State. No matter how you cut it – whether you think the Bulls struggle in the toss-up games – Buffalo is a bowl team.
But that is largely due to the schedule. UB is no longer dangerous on defense, for starters. The line is average. The secondary might be decidedly worse than average, should the pass rush not deliver. The Bulls' linebackers may be fine, but that's an issue: Buffalo was elite at the position a season ago. On offense, Licata's projected growth is tempered by three issues: one, the changing cast in the backfield; two, the dearth of any proven production at wide receiver; and three, the potential for trouble up front should one of the seniors miss an extended amount of time due to injury.
This is all a way of saying the following: Buffalo might win eight games but won't be an eight-win team – meaning the talent and overall skill level won't match the standings. This is not a particularly talented team nor a particularly impressive team, to be honest, and against a MAC West schedule – the Bulls miss Northern Illinois, Toledo and Ball State – would be hard-pressed to win six games. But I'm thinking it'll be at least six wins and as many as nine against this schedule.
Dream season: Buffalo ups the ante to 10-2, losing only to Baylor and Bowling Green.
Nightmare season: Winning four games with this schedule would be the equivalent of tripping on the dais as you walk to collect your college diploma.
Who's No. 78? This program is 4-12 after September during the past two seasons.
RANKING EVERY FBS TEAM FOR 2014