Tomorrow the Bowl Season opens up and Buffalo will kick off in Idaho seeking the University's first ever bowl win. The Bulls will be taking on San Diego State University, who were the runners up in the "West" Division of the Mountain West Conference. While on the field these teams have a lot in common, as programs they could not be more different.
Nobody on the UB roster has played in a bowl before. Buffalo's last and only bowl game came in 2008. That season Turner Gill and his Bulls won the MAC Championship and took on UConn in the International Bowl. Since then the closest UB has come to a Bowl game was 2009 when the Bulls dropped many close conference games to finish 5-7.
San Diego State experienced a renaissance under Brady Hoke. After two years Hoke was taken away by Michigan but his former defensive coordinator Rocky Long has continued the success. This year's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl will be the fourth straight postseason game for the Aztecs. Long has piled up an impressive .632 winning percentage in his three years as the Aztecs coach, last season winning the Mountain West Conference.
The program building in San Diego has been complete. The Aztecs get major contributions from many juniors and sophomores and they make good use of Junior College transfers. Despite Junior Adam Muema's decision to declare for the NFL draft this season the Aztecs are not worried about their backfield, or their quarterback, or even their receivers going into next season.
For San Diego State this bowl game is as much a culmination of 2013 as it is a dress rehearsal for 2014.
Buffalo has had a less symmetric building process under Jeff Quinn. The Bulls stat book for 2013 is heavily weighted towards seniors who won't be there to try and help UB put together a winning season next year. While star quarterback Joe Licata will be around for two more years, he will captain an offense losing the best pure running back the school has ever had and one of it' greatest receivers of all time.
On the other side of the ball Buffalo will be losing cover corner Najja Johnson, defensive end Colby Way, and of course Khalil Mack.
Mack has been turning heads for four years but it was his standout performance against Ohio State to open the season that really got the ball rolling. UB's All American linebacker brought home the Jack Lambert Award, the Mid American Conference's Defensive Player of the Year award, and an arm full of first and second team All American awards.
He is projected to be drafted as high as fourth by ESPN analyst Mel Kiper.
So for UB this is a curtain call game. Most of the teams stars will be donning the Blue and White for the very last time. The Bulls next season will be a rebuilding year with Joe Licata and his entire offensive line trying to carry the team.
This Year's Teams
Both defenses are described as 3-3-5 units but in truth Buffalo's hybrid seldom has a 3-3-5 look. It's a 3-4 base which two hybrid linebackers who can play up on the line or back in the secondary.
Khalil Mack moves around quite a bit playing many times right up on the line as a pseudo 4th lineman. At the same time Adam Redden, a converted defensive back, is able to be the "Drop Linebacker" which is a key role in Lou Tepper's defense. Redden is able to drop in coverage and does a decent job blitzing.
San Diego State's defense uses a more traditional 3-3-5 defense. They use the formation in an attempt to confuse opposing offenses with multiple different blitz pressures and a lot of zone coverage.
Offensively the teams are more similar. Both squads have efficient heady pocket passers who depend on a solid running game to set up the pass. Neither Quarterback plays the role of gunslinger as both are better used as game managers.
Joe Licata will need the line to set up Branden Oliver who is UB's workhorse back. At 5'8" the 205 pound Oliver packs a whallop and gets stronger as games go on. UB has other good backs but they are only used to give Oliver a little rest from time to time. "BO" is a fast for his stature and has a good burst coming out of a cut.
In a similar way Quinn Kaehler He has proved to be an accurate passer who makes good use of the tools he has around him. Like Licata, Kaehler needs a running game but he get's his work from two Running Backs. Junior Adam Muema is their power back and their main weapon on the ground. This will be Muema's last game for SDSU as he announced this week he is declaring for the NFL Draft.
The Game at Hand
The game itself is going to come down to a contest to Buffalo's offensive line versus San Diego State's defensive front.
As good as Khalil Mack and the Buffalo defense can be they can't win this game on their own. Unless the UB offense manages to move the ball on the ground it's hard to see the Bulls competing in this game. The power running game of UB both gives UB field position advantages and helps UB not get beaten in the time of possession game.
The big challenge for Buffalo will be getting out to a good start, as first quarter offensive touchdowns have been hard to come by for Jeff Quinn's team. The formula for winning has been wearing down the other team but when the other team has a powerful running game of their own UB has struggled to win the endurance battle.
San Diego State similarly needs the running game. They need to get consistent play from their offensive line, something they have struggled to do this season. Stopping Khalil Mack is not really an option so the Aztecs might try to take advantage of the Lambert Trophy winners aggressiveness by using misdirection in the running game. Or the Aztecs might try to run to the other side of the defense.
The Aztecs have been unable to pull away in close games and it is something that cost them the Mountain West Conference West division. They have played 4 overtime games (going 3-1) and played four more games where the final spread was less than one score (also going 3-1). Their only "Big" win was a 26-16 decision at New Mexico State back in Week Four. (And really, how big is a win over NMSU?)
They know how to win close games but Buffalo has enough firepower on both sides of the ball to make the Aztec pay if they get up but let the Bulls hang around. SDSU needs to take advantage of Buffalo's weak first quarters to try and force the Bull to rely on the passing game.
Kickoff is Tomorrow at 5:30 PM Eastern. The game will be broadcast on ESPN.