TEAM: Buffalo Bulls
RECORD: 5-7 overall, 3-5 MAC (4th/East)
HEAD COACH: Lance Leipold (2nd year)
MAC MEDIA PRESEASON POLL RANK : 4th in East
Through nine 2015 regular season contests, the Buffalo Bulls seemed poised to qualify for a post-season bowl game. Three losses to close the season, however, dashed those hopes. It was one of three, three-game streaks for UB, which lost three midseason games before appearing to right the ship during a three-game win streak.
If there was one culprit to the three losses . . .
Buffalo’s offense, meanwhile, will face a few challenges, as well.
BIG PICTURE STAT OVERVIEW
Scoring offense: 6th (26.7 pgg)
Scoring defense: 6th (27.6 ppg)
Total offense: 8th (386.4 ypg)
Total defense: 7th (413.4 ypg)
Turnover margin: 9th (0.00) (20 lost/20 gained)
Some of the bigger questions for 2016 involve the offense, which lost quarterback Joe Licata and running back Anthone Taylor. Neither earned all-MAC honors, but both provided experience and productivity to the cause. Licata, currently trying to catch on with the Cincinnati Bengals, made 40 straight starts for UB and reigns as the all-time passing leader. Taylor contributed 829 yards on 186 carries.
Offhand, replacing the latter would seem to be a more seamless-transition for a program that has historically produced some solid runners. Sr. Jordan Johnson (6-0, 220) is back after racking up 811 rushing yards and a team-high 12 TDs. Getting Johnson some productive help will be a project. James O’Hagan leads a relatively experienced group up front, so there should be some decent holes.
Replacing Licata is another story. Sophomore Chris Merchant, formerly Canada’s top-rated QB, has been with the Bulls two year, but he has just one pass attempt to his credit in that span. Redshirt Freshman Tyree Jackson and Iowa State graduate transfer Grant Rohach (5 starts at ISU) are also vying for the starting job.
Senior Marcus McGill is a receiving threat, registering 50 catches for 581 yards, is a returning starter who could anchor the receiving corps. Juniors Collin Lisa and Jacob Martinez hope to fill some of the void from the departure of receivers Matt Weiser (63 catches, 625 yards, 3 TDs) and Ron Willoughby (61 catches, 806 yards, 6 TDs).
There is more experience on defense, where eight starters return. Senior linebacker Brandon Berry (All-MAC Second Team) was second among UB defenders in total tackles (104) last year. Among the bunch were 11.5 TFL. Transfer Khalil Hodge (City College of San Francisco) is a 240-pounder who could well prove to be a tackling machine in the middle, while Jarrett Franklin should be back after missing 2015 with an injury.
Seniors Brandon Crawford and Max Perisse are part of an experienced front, but the front two levels need to improve on stopping the run. Buffalo ranked 10th in rushing defense (186.1 ypg) in 2015.
The Bulls were fifth in pass defense (227.3 ypg) and bring back three starters – junior safeties Ryan Williamson and Andrews Dadeboe, as well as senior cornerback Boise Reed. His 20 passes defended was a school record and good for fifth nationally.
Placekicker Adam Mitcheson is back after hitting 13 of 19 field goals (68.4%) with a long of 46. With Tyler Grassman gone, several players will compete for punting duties. Including kick and cover teams, Leipold offered, “Another area that is going to help us is special teams.”
It’s reasonable to think things might go a little smoother in Leipold’s second season as head coach. An experienced defense should be better, but what about that offense? Can the Bulls get production out of Licata’s replacement at quarterback?
The early schedule is favorable, but UB ends with a couple toughies (Western Michigan and Bowling Green) on the road. If the Bulls hope to reach a bowl game this time around, it might behoove them to take care of business through the early and middle portion of the schedule.
“We had a chance to bowl eligibility (last year) … and let it slip away,” Leipold said “We just need to find a way to get over that hump.”