CFN Preview 2013 - Buffalo Bulls
Buffalo RB Branden Oliver
Buffalo RB Branden Oliver
Posted Jun 10, 2013 2013 Preview - Buffalo Bulls

Buffalo Bulls

Preview 2013

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By Pete Fiutak

Head coach: Jeff Quinn
4th year: 9-27
Returning Lettermen: 54
Off. 28, Def. 23, ST 3
Lettermen Lost: 17
Ten Best Buffalo Players
1. LB Khalil Mack, Sr.
2. RB Branden Oliver, Sr.
3. DE Colby Way, Sr.
4. WR Alex Neutz, Sr.
5. LB Lee Skinner, Jr.
6. CB Najja Johnson, Sr.
7. CB Cortney Lester, Jr.
8. OT Andre Davis, Jr.
9. QB Joe Licata, Soph.
10. WR Devon Hughes, Jr.
2013 Schedule
8/31 at Ohio State
9/7 at Baylor
9/14 Stony Brook
9/28 Connecticut
10/5 Eastern Michigan
10/12 at Western Michigan
10/19 UMass
10/26 at Kent State
11/5 Ohio
11/12 at Toledo
11/19 at Miami
11/29 Bowling Green
Buffalo has to do all the little things right to win, and this is the year those should come with a veteran squad returning helped by some of the MAC's best playmakers. Can the experience be enough to turn in a special year?

The precedent was set in the magical 2008 season with experience and talent all coming together on the way to a MAC title, and while this year's team might not have quite enough to win it all, but it should be able to come close to finally getting the second winning season since making the step up in the FBS world. To do that, fourth-year head coach and his staff have to come up with ways to win the close games.

The Bulls had one of the MAC's best defenses last season and running back Branden Oliver to work around, but it didn't translate into victories until late against some of the league's worst teams. However, along the way, UB lost to UConn by seven, Ohio by a touchdown and Toledo by five. Win two off those three, and it's a six-win season and the narrative for the 2013 season changes in a big way.

This might not be a Kent State-like sleeper, but there are more than enough pieces in place to think this could be a strong year with nine starters back on offense and eight on defense with Oliver, receiver Alex Neutz, linebacker Khalil Mack and end Colby Way three of the best players in the conference at their respective positions. The entire secondary returns including all of the backups, and Lee Skinner and Jake Stockman are two terrific linebackers who should shine around Mack.

The offense needs more firepower and has to be more consistent in the passing game, but Oliver is a special runner and the line should be terrific with three starters returning and the starting five solid. If there's a bit more scoring punch, a big improvement on special teams – a BIG improvement – and if the defense can rise up and play as well as it did last season, those close wins should come and UB might turn out to be an actual player in the MAC.

What to watch for on offense: How will the quarterback situation play out? The running game is set with Oliver capable of hitting 1,000 yards without breathing hard as long as he stays healthy, and the receiving corps is going to be a plus. Now the Bulls need a sure-thing quarterback to rely on with passer Joe Licata and runner Alex Zordich each back along with some extremely strong passing prospects waiting in the wings. Licata showed he could lead the team to wins late, but he has to make the offense more consistent. Zordich is a good veteran who knows what he's doing, but he got banged up last year allowing Licata to show what he can do. It's going to be a storyline no matter who's on the field.

What to watch for on defense: Can the defense do even more to take the ball away? The Bulls came up with one of the nation's best pass rushers finishing 15th in the nation in sacks and 33rd in tackles for loss, and the secondary was good stat-wise, but the corners did almost all the heavy lifting with Najja Johnson and Cortney Lester combining for nine of the 13 picks. Even with all the disruption and all the big plays, how many fumble recoveries did the D come up with? Three. The defense will need to carry the offense at times, and while it should come up with stops, it's going to be a fight to give the O a break with good field position off takeaways.

The team will be far better if … the special teams aren't awful. For a team that needs to win every close game, the special teams can't be a liability. Patrick Clarke and the placekicking wasn't bad, but he missed a few too many easy ones. Tyler Grassman averaged a mere 35.5 yards per punt, made worse by a miserable coverage team that gave up way too much. The return game was among the worst in the nation, the kickoff coverage couldn't stop anyone, and overall, the special teams turned out to be a huge problem.

The schedule: After catching a beating at Ohio State and Baylor to start out the year, the Bulls get a break with Stony Brook in the home opener followed up by a potentially interesting upset shot against Connecticut. Eastern Michigan is a must win to start the MAC season followed up by a road trip to Western Michigan and another winnable home game against UMass. And then comes the nastiest conference stretch on the slate with three road games in four weeks and the lone home game coming against Ohio. Closing out at home against Bowling Green won't be easy.

Best offensive player: Senior RB Branden Oliver. When he's right, he's a 100-yard rusher who can pinball and juke his way through any defense. It wasn't just MAC Ds that he ran through; he came up with 111 yards and a score on 30 carries against Georgia. A 1,395-yard, 13 touchdown back in 2011, he was banged up last year with an ankle injury and wasn't right after tweaking it late. There are other runners to help take the pressure off, but if he's 100%, he needs the ball in his hands 30 times.

Best defensive player: Senior LB Khalil Mack. We've tried telling you about the Florida native for a few years, and now get ready for the rest of America to catch on. The 6-3, 245-pound pass rusher has done it all for the defense with 227 career tackles with 56 tackles for loss, 20 sacks and 11 forced fumbles. Not just a pass rusher, he's good enough against the pass to get by and is a huge hitter against the run. He'll be a starter in the NFL next year at this time.

Key player to a successful season: Junior DL Kristjan Sokoli. With Wyatt Cahill gone on the nose and Steven Means needing to be replaced at one end in the 3-4, the line needs help to keep blockers off of Colby Way. Beau Bachtelle should step in for Means, while the versatile Sokoli needs to give it a shot on the inside and has to become a key playmaker up front. The run defense needs someone to hold firm at all three spots, and after coming up with 20 tackles, Sokoli should rise up and be a stopper.

The season will be a success if … the Bulls win six games. There's reason to shoot for even more with a decent schedule and a ton of returning talent and experience, but after so many bad years, getting up to six wins and in the mix for a bowl game would a huge step forward. It would be just a two game improvement, but for UB, that would mean everything for the program.

Key game: Oct. 26 at Kent State. If things go according to form, UB should lose to Ohio State and Baylor to start the year, will beat Stony Brook, lose to UConn, and beat Eastern Michigan before a battle with Western Michigan. There's a chance to be 4-3 going into the showdown against the defending East champion, and with Ohio and Toledo to follow, beating the Golden Flashes could be a must or else there could be an ugly stretch of losses.

2012 Fun Stats:
- Red Zone Scores: Opponents 38-of-47 (81%) – Buffalo 25-of-35 (71%)
- Fumbles: Buffalo 18 (lost 12) - Opponents 10 (lost 3)
- Fourth Down Conversions: Opponents 14-of-20 (70%) – Buffalo 10-of-23 (43%)
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