After finally emerging as a team worth taking seriously in the MAC, the Buffalo Bulls watched three of their best players in school history – Khalil Mack, Brandon Oliver and Alex Neutz – leave this offseason via graduation.
While the transition process is certainly going to be a painful one, the Bulls and head coach Jeff Quinn are still in a position to put up a fight for the MAC East crown this season.
With that in mind, here’s a look at the offensive, defensive and schedule outlooks for Buffalo heading into the season.
It’s not going to be an easy task on offense trying to replace the production and reliability of Oliver, who is now testing his abilities with the San Diego Chargers. Fortunately for the Bulls, there are enough capable weapons to fill the void with a committee approach. Anthone Taylor is the top candidate to take the starting job, but should see some snaps go to Devin Campbell and Jordan Johnson.
If the running game can’t get going early, though, Buffalo will be forced to lean on quarterback Joe Licata, who is coming off a strong 2013 season during which he threw for 2,824 yards and 24 touchdowns. He’s definitely a capable signal caller, but will have a tough time if the fate of the offense is heaped onto his shoulders.
What’s also working against Licata is the lack of experienced receivers. Following the departure of Neutz, the Bulls are left with Devon Hughes and Boise Ross to fill the void. They both offer some solid talent, but are basically unknowns at this point. Expect tight end Matt Weiser to pitch in as a receiving threat as well.
Buffalo’s strength heading into 2014 is the offensive line, which returns all five starters, including impressive guard Andre Davis.
Even though the offense appears at a disadvantage this season, the Bulls’ defense is where the real question marks lie.
Buffalo must replace both of their starting defensive ends, which means they’ll be forced to rely upon players such as Dalton Barksdale and Tedroy Lynch to replace the production on the edge. They return nose tackle Kristjan Sokoli, but there’s little chemistry amonst the defensive line heading into the 2014 campaign.
After the departure of Mack, the Bulls are also left without a true playmaker on defense. Seniors Lee Skinner, Adam Redden and Jake Stockman will look at form a solid linebacking trio, but none of them offer the same instincts or playmaking ability as Mack. However, Redden flashed some exciting ability as an outside linebacker/safety hybrid last season, which could bode well for the Bulls in 2014.
The secondary is led by Cortney Lester, the only returning starter. Others such as Marqus Baker and Witney Sherry will be expected to step up, but one wild card could be Ishmael Hargrove. The incoming freshman is an outstanding athlete who could steal one of the starting safety spots due to his aggressiveness and athleticism.
Despite their shortcomings talent-wise, the Bulls are set up for success this season from a schedule standpoint. Apart from an early-season showdown with National Title contender Baylor, Buffalo faces a handful of winnable games from the get-go.
They start off with four home games in five weeks, including showdowns with Duquesne, Norfolk State and Miami (OH) – all games they should win. Then they dive into MAC play, which will provide a significant challenge, but not an impossible one.
They’ll set the tone for the 2014 season with an away game against Bowling Green, who are expected to take home the MAC East title. If they can upset the Falcons, though, they finish the season with six winnable games – four of which are against teams they defeated in 2013. The other two games are against teams they didn’t play last year. The season comes to an end against Massachusetts, a recent FCS transfer that has managed an awful 2-22 record since making the switch.
Buffalo is certainly at a disadvantage after losing so many impact players this offseason, but a favorable schedule will offer them every opportunity to contend for the MAC crown again in 2014.