The Bulls played in just their second bowl last year, so the season has to count as a success. However, a 1-3 finish took the luster off their achievement somewhat. Buffalo opened the season with a competitive 40-20 loss to Ohio State and a nightmarish 70-13 loss to Baylor, then went on a 7-game winning streak that made them the darlings of the MAC East. Tough losses to Toledo and eventual champions Bowling Green knocked the Bulls out of contention, and the Bulls were outclassed by an only okay San Diego State squad. Head coach Jeff Quinn has done a solid job building up the Bulls, but he enters 2014 without a bunch of his senior stars. Can he navigate a relatively easy division and get Buffalo to consecutive bowls for the first time ever?
The offense relied heavily on the run, and in particular Branden Oliver, as the passing game, led by quarterback Joe Licata, was inconsistent at best. Oliver ran for 1535 yards and 15 TDs on a hefty 310 carries, and when he wasn’t clicking, more often than not, the offense went nowhere. In the 5 losses, Buffalo averaged just 77.6 yards per game on the ground, compared to 223.5 in their 8 wins. Anthone Taylor was a reliable backup with 399 yards and 3 scores on 82 carries. The offensive line did an okay job most of the season, but struggled down the stretch when left guard Jasen Carlson went down with injury. Carlson made the all-conference team despite missing the last 6 games. The receivers were a decent bunch, or at least the starters were. Alex Neutz has had a fine career, and finished last season with 61 receptions for 1024 yards and 12 TDs. He provided the big plays while Fred Lee (58-692-5) kept the chains moving. So, back to Licata. He had some decent games, mostly against struggling opposition, but he needs to improve to keep his job. In 2013 he passed for 2824 yards and 24 TDs, although he only threw 8 interceptions.
The good news is, Buffalo’s offense only loses 4 starters from last year’s incarnation. The bad news is, they were the top contributors. Carlson is gone at guard, Oliver at running back, and Neutz and Lee at receiver. Replacing these will be the key to the Bulls moving the ball in 2014. The offensive line looks to be in the best shape. The top guy is gone, but the unit returns 100 starts. Center Trevor Sales and right tackle Jake Silas should return at their positions, but the others are open to competition. Andre Davis played both left tackle and guard last season, taking over for Carlson when he went out. He could play either position next season, although guard may be more likely. That will mean John Kling will stay at left tackle after starting the last 6 games there. Right guard will be a battle between Dillon Guy and Robert Blodgett, both of whom started there in 2013. There are some good young prospects waiting in the wings, so don’t be surprised to see a new face or two. Oliver has been a good player for the Bulls, but they have some nice options. Taylor played well last season, while James Potts is decent when not injured. Devin Campbell played receiver last season, but he was the second leading rusher in 2012, and will get a long look. Receiver is the biggest concern going into 2014. Mason Schrek and Matt Weiser were decent at tight end, catching 32 passes combined, and should be in line for a heavier workload. Campbell (19-200-0) and Boise Ross (13-156-0) are the leading returning wideouts, but it would be nice if Devon Hughes, a former 3-star recruit, could finally reach his potential in his senior year. So back to Licata again. He needs to become more of a threat as a passer, something he failed to do with his stars last season. Tony Daniel has looked good in the backup role in camp, and a big fall may see him threaten Licata.
The defense was easily the strength of the team, beating opponents into submission with its attacking style. Of course, when the defense didn’t make the play, as games against Baylor and Toledo proved, it could get ugly in a hurry. Still, the defense mostly did its job, and that was thanks in no small part to the linebackers. One, Khalil Mack, you may have heard of. The soon-to-be top NFL draft pick has been a star here in Buffalo since his freshman year, and made 100 tackles, 19 for loss, 10.5 sacks, 3 interceptions (2 TDs), 7 PBUs, 6 QBHs and forced 5 fumbles. In other words, he’s a playmaker in every sense of the word, and he helped make the rest of the defense better. Adam Redden has played wide receiver and defensive back, but had a breakout this season opposite Mack, making 65 tackles, with 12.5 in the opponents backfield, despite missing 3 games with injury. To give all the credit to the linebackers wouldn’t be fair, as the other units played their roles well. Despite the job of the line being primarily to tie up blockers, ends Colby Way and Beau Bachtelle combined for 8.5 sacks, while nose tackle Kristjan Sokoli was no slouch in the middle. The secondary certainly benefited from 38 sacks, but still boasted a decent corner tandem in Najja Johnson and Cortney Lester, who combined for 15 passes defended and 6 interceptions. The safety pairing of Okoye Houston and Derek Brim were aggressive, and generally did a good job of keeping the play in front of them. Houston had an impressive 7 tackles for loss.
Like the offense, the defense is losing a bunch of stars, most notably Mack. The good news is, all 3 other starting linebackers return, even though none can really hold a candle to possibly the finest player in Buffalo history. Replacing him will be the key. Backups Jake Stockman (ILB) and Okezie Alozie both flashed some ability last season and will get a shot to replace Mack, while 3-star freshman recruits Gary Hosey and William White could push for playing time. The rest of the defense requires more rebuilding. Both defensive ends are gone, and Way in particular will be missed. Tedroy Lynch had 2.5 sacks as a reserve last season and should take one spot, but the other spot is up for grabs. The secondary loses Johnson and Houston, but should be okay at corner with Marqus Baker stepping into a starting role after playing well as a backup the last couple of seasons. Witney Sherry backed up Brim at free safety, but he’s more than capable of switching to strongside, and he has some experience.
Patrick Clarke was an okay kicker last season. He had a great leg, booting a couple from 50+, but he was inconsistent outside of 30 yards, hitting just 7 of 14. Punter Tyler Grassman doesn’t have a huge leg (40.0 gross), but he was accurate, dropping 26 punts inside the 20 with just 3 touchbacks. Campbell averaged 23.9 yards per kick return, and took one back for a score, but punt returning was a non-factor. The coverage units were solid, and the special teams blocked 4 kicks.
The special teams should be in good shape again next season with everyone of importance back. Granted, they could all stand to improve a little, but the unit is solid. Punt needs to improve though.
So, The Bulls are losing the majority of their playmakers from last season, but they aren’t devoid of talent either. The offense should be functional at least, but the defense has some big question marks. On the flip side, they have a ridiculously easy schedule that should almost ensure they return to a bowl game. With 2 FCS teams, Eastern Michigan and Army, along with a bunch of rebuilding MAC teams, the Bulls should make 7-5 at the very least. Of course, with 2 FCS teams, they’ll have to win at least 7 to go bowling. A few years ago, the Bulls would have struggled to navigate such a schedule, but they’ve built well under Quinn, and it would be a disappointment for them to slip back into MAC irrelevance.