Philadelphia, PA – 2012 SEASON IN REVIEW: Jeff Quinn's third season at the helm of the Buffalo program got off to a slower start than he probably wished for, but a strong finish to the season gave the Bulls' fans plenty of reason to be optimistic for the future.
Buffalo began its season with just one win, over FCS opponent Morgan State (56-34) through its first eight games. It suffered some embarrassing defeats to Georgia (45-23), Kent State (23-7), Northern Illinois (45-3) and Pittsburgh (20-6) during that span. Joe Licata gave the Bulls a late season spark when he took over the starting quarterback job, leading them to three consecutive victories over Miami-Ohio (27-24), Western Michigan (29-24) and Massachusetts (29-19). Buffalo experienced its first loss with Licata under center in its regular-season finale when it was downed, 21-7, by Bowling Green.
Part of the reason for Buffalo's struggles in 2012 was bad luck with injuries. The injuries may end up being a blessing in disguise as it gave players who wouldn't have seen the field otherwise some valuable experience that will benefit the team in 2013.
Quinn is 9-27 overall in three seasons at Buffalo. The Bulls are 6-18 in conference play under him, but they have increased their total of MAC wins in each of the past three years.
OFFENSE: Although Licata won 75 percent of the games he appeared in last season as a freshman and was named the starter at the end of spring drills, senior quarterback Alex Zordich could see some time under center as well as he provides duel-threat capabilities. Zordich tallied 1,254 passing yards and 501 rushing yards before having his 2012 cut short by an injury. Licata was much more effective as a passer, averaging 260.1 yards per contest, but also faced less formidable secondaries.
"We're a step ahead of where we were last year," said Licata. "Getting some experience really helped this year and going forward. I am just trying to be the guy out here, be steady and do all I can. We do really have all the talent and skills on the offensive side of the ball. We just have to put it together."
The Bulls also have two solid options at tailback. Senior Branden Oliver will get the brunt of the carries as long as he remains healthy. He enters the season just over 600 yards away from becoming the leading rusher in school history. Sophomore halfback Devin Campbell did a great job of stepping up last season when Oliver went down with an injury. He will be used as a complementary piece for now, but that role is sure to expand as he gains more of Quinn's trust.
Buffalo also has back its key weapon in the passing attack, 2012 First-Team All-MAC selection Alex Neutz (1,105 yards, 65 catches). He was responsible for 42.4 percent of the team's receiving yards and made 11 of the Bulls' 17 touchdown receptions as well.
The left side of the offensive line remains intact with tackle Andre Davis (6-4, 308), guard Jasen Carlson (6-2, 307) and center Trevor Sales (6-2, 318) all returning to their starting spots. The junior tandem of Dillon Guy (6-4, 318) and Jake Silas (6-7, 320) should give the right side an intimidating look at the very least.
DEFENSE: While the team finished four games below the .500 mark last season, Buffalo's defense was one of the best in the MAC, especially for the second half of the schedule. The Bulls were 37th among FBS programs in total defense (363.7 yards per game) and 15th in sacks. They held their opposition to 25 points or less in their final six games.
Eight starters will be back from last season's group, but senior defensive end Colby Way is the only one back up front. As Beau Bachtelle and Kristjan Sokoli settle into their expanded roles on the defensive line, Buffalo will be anchored by its two-time all-conference selection Khalil Mack. The senior linebacker comes into the season as the owner of the school record for career tackles for loss (54), to go along with an impressive amount of total tackles (227), sacks (18) and forced fumbles (11).
Mack has good company in the second level as Buffalo also returns Lee Skinner (89 tackles) and Jake Stockman (58 tackles), who finished second and fifth on the team, respectively, in total stops last season.
The Bulls were the second most effective team against the pass in the league last season, holding their foes to just 208.3 yards per game. All four starters from the defensive backfield are back to try to build upon their impressive 2012. Najja Johnson and Cortney Lester are both playmakers at cornerback. They recorded a combined nine interceptions last season.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Sophomore punter Tyler Grassman showed he can be reliable as a rookie, downing 19 punts inside the 20-yard line. He could become a real asset in the field positional battle if his leg power continues to develop. Junior kicker Patrick Clarke also returns to his starting position on special teams. He connected on 11-of-15 field goal tries and all but one his 29 extra point attempts in 2012.
Buffalo has plenty of room to improve its return game. Junior wideout Cordero Dixon was the leading punt returner despite netting just 3.1 yards per attempt while none of the several Bulls who fielded kickoffs did anything spectacular either.
OUTLOOK: Buffalo's goal of returning to the postseason for the first time since 2008 is achievable. The Bulls could even make an appearance in the MAC Championship game if they are able to put everything together.
"I think we have more guys providing leadership both on and off the field. I really like where we are with our senior class," Quinn said. "There is a lot more continuity and consistency. Everyone knows their role. They are being very responsible with how they go about their business. There is one thing in common all great teams and all great players have and that is that they are never satisfied. We are not satisfied at this point. We need to be out there ready to play."
Quinn's team will hope to shock the nation early on in 2013 as it visits Ohio State and Baylor for its first two contests. The Bulls will then return to upstate New York to host Stony Brook, UConn and Eastern Michigan for their MAC opener. They will also face Western Michigan, UMass, Kent State, Ohio, Toledo, Miami-Ohio and Bowling Green as part of their league schedule.
This is the best overall team Quinn has had since he joined the program prior to the 2010 campaign. Licata may be the best underclassman at his position in the conference, but he will have to out-duel a pair of accomplished seniors in Ohio's Tyler Tettleton and Northern Illinois's Jordan Lynch if he hopes to earn all-conference accolades and take the Bulls to Detroit.