Everyone -- we've made it. College football makes it's much-anticipated return to Western New York on Friday as UB hosts lower-division Albany in their season opener.
After falling just short of a bowl bid last season, year number two in Lance Leipold experience opens with high hopes for revival. The question is: are the pieces there this season, or does the rebuild need another surge of recruits?
Here are three reasons the Bulls could be bowl bound in 2016:
1. A true quarterback battle yields two viable options
There are generally two types of quarterback battles at the collegiate level: those between teams with no real quarterback, or a youth-versus-experience battle. UB is the latter camp, and it gives the program both a 'right now' option and a 'QB of the future.'
How far that future is away...is hard to say.
On Friday, Iowa State transfer Grant Rohach will start under center against the Great Danes, but Leipold says you'll also see plenty of redshirt freshman Tyree Jackson.
Rohach was a former starter for the Big 12 Cyclones -- but the bulk of his play came three seasons ago, and he hasn't played in a game since 2014. He showed promise while in Ames, Iowa, after getting the starting role. In seven games, he threw for more than 1,200 yards, and brought the Cylcones down from a 24-point deficit in a 331 yard, four touchdown performance in a 2OT win over West Virginia.
That win was the biggest comeback in Iowa State history.
Yet, the next spring, Rohach lost a quarterback battle to the same QB he took the job from the year before. The result: just one appearance in the last two season.
His freshmen counterpart is a big presence on the field...literally. Jackson stands 6'7, and is listed at 245 pounds. At Mona Shores High School in Norton Shores, Michigan, Jackson threw for more than 4,400 yards and 50 touchdowns in his junior and senior seasons. He added another 1,000 yards and 13 touchdowns on the ground.
Jackson is clearly the team's future, and has a year under his belt learning Leopold's pass-heavy offense.
Rohach's start Friday night doesn't assure him of keeping the role even into UB's second game: The Bulls have an extra week off before heading to Nevada on September 17th. Starting the season against an FCS opponent in Albany does give the Bulls a low-pressure look at both quarterbacks in a live game.
Both could very well lead the team -- and on paper both could do it well.
2. An experienced offensive line could spark the dormant running game
Anyone that watched UB last year probably doesn't need to be reminded of the Bulls struggles rushing the football. The Bulls ranked 104th in FBS in rushing yards per game. You could argue that was the result of the Bulls leaning on the passing game -- but it's a bit of a chicken and egg situation: did they lean on the passing game because they couldn't run, or did they not run because they wanted to pass.
While the offense has lost starting quarterback Joe Licata and leading rusher Anthone Taylor, Buffalo returns experience on the front four who whichever QB wins out, and more importantly for Jordan Johnson to run behind. The junior racked up 811 yards last season, averaging 4.7 yards per carry. He was a force in the red zone, netting 12 touchdowns. With a larger load this year, Johnson could become an top-tier rusher in the MAC.
The big question is -- will UB want to run? Leipold is known for his passing attack, and the Bulls passes far more on standard downs last season than the national average.
3. The road to six wins runs through Amherst
If you want to get into a Bowl Game -- you have to win your home games, and the Bulls might just have the the right schedule to do it. Non-conference foes Albany and Army should provide two wins, and Buffalo hosts Kent State, Ball State, and Miami (OH) at home -- all three of whom went 2-6 in conference play a year ago.
The question is: can UB turn all five into W's, and where does the sixth win come from? Nevada and Boston College are tough road non-conference opponents, and the Bulls get Western Michigan and Northern Illinois -- both 6-2 in the MAC last year, and both on the road out of the West. It could come down to a two week stretch: October 27th at home versus Akron, and November 3rd at Ohio.
If they take care of business at home -- the Bulls essentially have four opportunities to pull off a single road win to get bowl eligible.
So what could stand in UB's way? There's one big question mark:
The Bulls are young and inexperienced, especially on the offensive end
A couple of number are concerning: UB has 42 new players on the roster this season, making them the fourth most inexperienced team in FBS, according to Phil Steele. While the Bulls do return 13 starters, only five are on offense --- including losses at quarterback, running back, and wideout.
The youth is good news in the near term -- Leipold is growing the team for the future, and could be a MAC title contender in just a few years. But this year, there's a big learning curve for half of the roster, and given how strong the top of the MAC has been in recent years, there's not a lot of room for inconsistency if UB wants to go bowling.
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