Photo courtesy of Buffalo Athletics
By Lucas Gulotta, Associate College Football Editor
PHILADELPHIA, Pa. (Sports Network) - 2011 SEASON IN REVIEW: Buffalo ended the 2011 season with an unimpressive 3-9 record but was actually an improved team by the end of the year.
Coach Jeff Quinn began his second year in charge of the program with a road loss at Pittsburgh (35-16) before the Bulls returned home to down Stony Brook (35-7). Buffalo then suffered three losses in a row to Ball State (28-25), Connecticut (17-3), and Tennessee (41-10). The losing skid ended with a much needed victory over Ohio University (38-37), but it was short-lived as a four- game losing streak would soon follow. The Bulls were dominated by Temple (34-0) but took Northern Illinois to the wire (31-30). Buffalo was dealt road losses by MAC rivals Miami-Ohio (41-13) and Eastern Michigan (30-17) before its four- game slide ended with an unexpected rout of Akron (51-10) at UB Stadium. The Bulls' season came to a close when they were defeated at home by Bowling Green (42-28).
The three wins actually marked a one-game improvement from Quinn's 2010 team. The Bulls have a long way to go, but they showed they are heading in the right direction.
OFFENSE: The starting quarterback position was up for grabs between Jerry Davis and Alex Zordich due to Chazz Anderson's graduation. Although Davis had more experience, Zordich impressed the coaching staff enough with his running ability to be named the starter. Zordich started as a true freshman and showed great promise before an injury ended his season.
Alex Neutz (641 yards, 43 catches, four TD) was the second leading receiver last season as a sophomore and will be the first option in the passing attack this year. He provides a big play threat that will play a factor in any close game. Cordero Dixon and Fred Lee should benefit from all of the attention Neutz commands.
Branden Oliver was 14th in the NCAA in rushing yards per game (116.25) due to his rare combination of speed and strength. The 5-8 feature back set school records in rushing yards (1,395) and carries (306) last season as a sophomore.
The offensive line which set the tone up front for Oliver's record-breaking season, returns four of five starters. Despite the strong campaign by its running back, Buffalo averaged just 22.9 points per game.
DEFENSE: The Bulls have yet to establish consistency on the defensive side of the ball. Buffalo allowed more than 30 points in seven of its last eight games and really had trouble stopping the run. The line is the weakest component of the defense, but new defensive coordinator Lou Tepper brings 45 years of total coaching experience to help alleviate the issues.
The linebackers are the anchor of the defense. First-team All-MAC selection Khalil Mack (20.5 TFL) is one of the most aggressive players in the nation. Sophomore Lee Skinner will line up alongside Mack after an impressive freshman campaign (80 tackles). Safety Isaac Baugh will provide leadership for a secondary that will look to improve its ability to force turnovers and improve tackling.
SPECIAL TEAMS: Patrick Clarke returns as the team's placekicker after connecting on all six of his field goal attempts and all 10 of his extra point tries as a freshman. Clarke could also serve as the team's punter if the coaching staff determines incoming freshman Tyler Grassman is not ready yet. The return game could use some improvement as well after averaging less than 20 yards on kick returns and just above five yards on punt returns.
OUTLOOK: Slowly but surely the Bulls are creeping closer and closer to their second winning season as a member of the FBS. Quinn, who is 5-19 in two seasons at Buffalo, could really use the job security that comes along with a successful year.
"Everybody knows we've got to work way harder than last year to get where we want to be," said Mack. "We have the experience, we have a lot of people returning on both sides of the ball."
Buffalo will be a huge underdog in its opener against Georgia in Athens, but should fair better when it hosts Morgan State and Kent State at UB Stadium in its second and third outings. The Bulls have a three-game road trip which features a winnable non-conference matchup with the Huskies at Connecticut and MAC battles with Ohio University and Northern Illinois. Five of UB's final six games, including its non-conference finale versus Pittsburgh, are at home.
The Bulls will need Zordich or Davis to be productive enough to prevent opposing defenses from focusing primarily on Oliver. The defense allowed too many big plays last season. Oliver and Mack are both the best at their positions in the conference. That strong leadership will push UB to improve, but not to the point where it will be contending for the MAC Championship.