NCAA Football Preview - Buffalo Bulls

2013 SEASON IN REVIEW: The Buffalo Bulls relied heavily on several playmakers to lift them up in the Mid-American Conference. The team finished with an 8-5 overall record in 2013, including a 6-2 mark in the MAC East Division, which was good for second in the standings behind Bowling Green.

The Bulls were led by standout linebacker Khalil Mack, who was the eventual fifth-overall draft selection by the Oakland Raiders in May's NFL Draft. As a unit, Buffalo's defense recorded 38 sacks and 891 tackles on the season, with 15 defensive interceptions. Offensively, Buffalo put plenty of weight on the shoulders of tailback Branden Oliver, who carried the ball a whopping 310 times for 1,604 yards and 15 touchdowns. He was also effective in the passing game, hauling in 25 catches for 173 yards and a score.

The Bulls won five straight games early in the 2013 season, with non- conference victories coming against Stony Brook (five overtimes) and UConn. The team's two non-conference losses were against No. 2 Ohio State and No. 23 Baylor.

Buffalo went to the Idaho Potato Bowl to take on San Diego State, but was dropped by the Aztecs, 49-24. Head Coach Jeff Quinn returns for his fifth season as Buffalo's head coach for the 2014 campaign.


OFFENSE: Two of Buffalo's workhorse offensive players won't be returning for the 2014 season, and that includes the tailback Oliver. Oliver received over 300 touches coming out of the backfield last season, providing a spark for quarterback Joe Licata, who was able to keep defenses honest with the run game.

Licata will be back under center for Buffalo. The junior threw for 2,824 yards and 24 touchdown passes in the Bulls' impressive second-place run. But he also had a couple of strong weapons to which he could throw in 2013, and both are gone as the new season approaches. Receivers Alex Neutz and Fred Lee, who combined for 17 touchdown receptions, have moved on. Now sophomore Boise Ross, who received one start last season and caught just 13 passes, is in line for a hefty workload. The same goes for junior Marcus McGill and senior Devon Hughes.

Licata is a skilled player under center, so he'll make the most of his weapons. He'll have the services of a pair of running backs to work with as well. Redshirt freshman Jordan Johnson and sophomore Anthone Taylor will battle for the starting backfield job. Taylor scored three times on rushing attempts in 2013, while Johnson missed the entire 2013 campaign after suffering an injury in preseason camp.

Seven players on Buffalo's offense started at least one game last season, including a veteran offensive line made up of four returning starters.

DEFENSE: Obviously the biggest missing factor this season is Mack. One of the nation's top linebackers last year, Mack led the Bulls with 100 tackles and 10.5 sacks. He rounded out his stat line well with seven pass breakups, three interceptions and six quarterback hurries.

"There's certainly a lot to build on," coach Jeff Quinn said. "You can't say enough about that senior class last year. (The new class) has something to build on, and now it becomes their opportunity. People didn't know that senior class four years ago when they were freshmen, and now these guys have an opportunity to step up and fill their role."

The defense won't be the same without him and his leadership. But his absence also provides an opportunity for others to step up and fill his role. The second- and third-leading tacklers on the Bulls squad are back in 2014 in linebackers Lee Skinner and Adam Redden - two seniors. Redden had a season somewhat similar to Mack's with eight tackles for loss, two pass breakups and 4.5 sacks. He and Skinner, who registered 79 tackles and four quarterback hurries, will be the anchors Buffalo needs following the departure of Mack.

Only one defensive starter returns in the backfield for the Bulls in Cortney Lester. The other three spots will be filled likely by senior safeties Okezie Alozie and Witney Sherry. Junior Marqus Baker is the favorite to win the empty cornerback slot.

Nose tackle Kristjan Sokoli played in 12 games in 2013, but only made one start. He's the veteran of the defensive line group, which should feature two other seniors that played in 11 games a season ago. The defense will try to better the 24.4 ppg it allowed to opponents in 2013.

SPECIAL TEAMS: Senior place kicker Patrick Clarke and junior punter Tyler Grassman are both returning to the squad this season on special teams. Clarke converted 13 of his 20 field goal attempts last season with a long of 51 yards, while Grassman sent 71 punts flying for a 40-yard average. He downed 26 punts inside an opponents' 20-yard line, and topped out with a 64-yard long.

OUTLOOK: This is certainly a Buffalo squad that will be hurting a bit from some of the top-end talent it lost after the 2013 campaign. But with the loss of skill in the player turnover, several others that remain have taken strides to better their game.

The offense won't be the same without Oliver and Licata's top two receiving targets. But at the base of every good offense is a capable quarterback, and that's exactly what Licata is. Will Buffalo average over 30 ppg again? Probably not, but it won't be a stagnant offense by any means.

"I learned that our football team loves to compete," Quinn said. "If you can get guys to come out here and have a passion for the game, everything else will fall in place. Results don't matter at that point, because you know you're going to gain those situations because you've got a bunch of hungry, impactful guys."

Defensively, Mack is a singularly huge loss. But with Skinner and Redden taking leaps forward following the 2013 season, it could be more of a group effort to limit opposing offenses, rather than Buffalo relying on one standout to get the job done.

Buffalo plays seven home games in 2014, and only one of those games features an FBS opponent that had a winning record in 2013. Despite the fact that Buffalo lost a MAC-most 24 lettermen after last season, the Bulls should still once again be in contention for a bowl game.