The University at Buffalo football team returns to MACtion tonight after an offseason of fits and starts, hoping to regain the wave of momentum UB rode out of the Bahamas and into 2020.
In winning six of seven to end last year — including the program’s first bowl game victory — UB solidified its status as a consistent winner under coach Lance Leipold. The Bulls were dominant down the stretch, outscoring opponents by more than three touchdowns per game in the second half of the season. A few special teams miscues prevented them from winning their final eight. They set records on both sides of the ball to finish 8-5, weathering graduation and transfer losses following their 10-4 run in 2018, and set a new standard for sustained success in the program with 24 wins over the past three seasons.
Bringing back more than two-thirds of the starting lineup and nearly 100 percent of the offensive production from last season, the Bulls began the process of building on that success with the start of spring practice in late February, earlier than ever before.
The coronavirus pandemic disrupted college football’s spring and summer practice schedules while jeopardizing any chance to play before the end of the year, particularly in the Mid-American Conference, which in July became the first FBS conference to postpone its fall season only to reverse its decision last month after every other league committed to playing in the fall.
“It’s been a rollercoaster,” said running back Jaret Patterson, a preseason All-America candidate. “But for us, the guys, we’ve adapted to all the changes that the coaches expect us to do.”
Kicking off a six-game MAC schedule with the potential for a conference title game and another bowl invitation, UB opens at Northern Illinois (7 p.m., ESPN2) in a rematch of the 2018 MAC title game and the Bulls' only regular season game against a West division foe. Continuing with nationally-televised weeknight games through the first three weeks, the UB Stadium opener against defending MAC champion Miami will be Tuesday night. Fans won’t be allowed to attend, but the first two games will both be shown at the Transit Drive-In in Lockport, with distanced tailgating starting two hours before game time.
Prediction markets are bullish on UB, favored by media polling and Athlon Sports magazine to win the MAC, while a coaches poll picked the Bulls for second place in the East division behind Miami.
The Bulls are energized by the opportunity to salvage a promising season and enjoy what Leipold has termed “a glimmer of normalcy,”
“It feels different,” left tackle Kayode Awosika said. “The energy, the excitement, it’s honestly boosted. It’s more intense. It’s more harping on little details to make sure everything is right. It’s more going out there daily because we’ve been begging literally to get the chance to play and now we’ve got it and we’re not about to go out there and not compete 100%, not prepare the way we’re supposed to prepare.”
Leipold has declined to name a starting quarterback in advance of the opener, but sources said junior Kyle Vantrease will continue in the position he finished last season. The Bulls flourished in the final eight games Vantrease started following a season-ending injury to West Seneca native Matt Myers. Vantrease’s efficient, turnover-averse style complements the Bulls' strong running game and defense.
UB’s rushing attack averaged more than 250 yards per game last season and returns a pair of 1,000-yard rushers in Patterson and Kevin Marks. Patterson set single-season school records running for 1,799 yards and scoring 19 touchdowns. His next rushing touchdown will match Niagara Falls native James Starks’ career record (34) and Patterson is 188 yards away from 3,000 for his career.
Patterson is on the national watch lists for both the Maxwell and Doak Walker Awards. He is one of eight UB players on awards watch lists: Marks (Doak Walker Award), Awosika (Outland Trophy), DE Taylor Riggins (Bednarik Award, Bronko Nagurski Trophy), S Tyrone Hill (Jim Thorpe Award), DE Malcolm Koone (Bronco Nagurski Trophy), C Mike Novitsky (Rimington Trophy), and DE Max Michel (Wuerffel Trophy).