There is no shame in the Bulls losing 20-14 before 18,052 at UB Stadium yesterday. And, this is not a bash-the-Bulls column either. Let's face it, the last two weeks have been very tough on the University at Buffalo athletic community. The bye week certainly helped interim coach Alex Wood get a handle on things, but playing a game was the best tonic for the players, the coaches, the athletic director and the fans who are ardent supporters of the Buffalo football---and athletics---programs.
The next five years will be crucial to the Buffalo football program and that is not an earth shattering opinion. The athletic director is Danny White and like or hate, he has to bring in somebody who can elevate the program. Nobody knows that more than Danny White. And, truth-to-told, Buffalo may never be more than a middling Division 1-A program. I hope all that support Buffalo athletics and follow Bull Run know this. Some programs are poised for success, while others will never get there. There are countless examples of this in the 129 Division 1-A programs and for that matter, the 133 1-AA programs.
Take Temple. The Owls have been a Division I program for a long time and for most of that time, they've been bad. They never win, they never go to a big bowl game and they never draw many fans to the stadiums that they play in. They're an afterthought in Philadelphia, in fact, most consider 1-AA Villanova the better program and Ivy League Penn has won league titles nine times in retiring coach's Al Bagnoli's 23 year tenure more noteworthy, too. The Owls went from independent, to being in the Big East, to getting kicked out of the Big East, to the MAC, to being brought back to the Big East. Now, they toil in the two year old American Athletic Conference a league that nobody really knows how good it is. Expect Temple to stay stuck in the mud.
Take Boise State. The Broncos were a top 1-AA program and decided to see what they could do at the 1-A level. They've done well. Their win against Oklahoma in the Fiesta Bowl---an Oklahoma team that featured Adrian Peterson---is an all-timer, and they followed that up by beating Texas Christian in the Fiesta Bowl a few years later. They will play anybody and they are at the point where the Power 5 schools really don't want to play them. They lost two successful coaches in Dan Hawkins and Chris Peterson, yet they're 6-2 in 2014 and starting to figure things out again.
Take Appalachian State: In 2007, they shocked the football world by beating Michigan at the Big House as a then 1-AA football power. That was during their run of three year straight Division1-AA titles (2005-2007). I remember distinctly listening to ESPN Radio that night. The conversation was an easy one. The topic: does this win at Michigan make anybody at ASU think of moving to the 1-A level? I'm not sure who from ASU was being interviewed that night, but he said, "no," He cited the money it would cost with regards to upgrades, finding a conference and the fact that Boone, NC was in the middle of nowhere and a tough place to get to. Well, it's 2014 and the Mountaineers are indeed a 1-A program playing in the Sun Belt Conference. It's way too early to tell, but ASU is 2-5 with one of those win against 1-AA Campbell, a Pioneer League member that doesn't give out athletic scholarships.
Take Georgia Southern. Like Appy State, the Eagles were a 1-AA power with six titles. They too, decided to join the Sun Belt Conference and right now, they seem to be a program on the move. They dominated North Carolina State in their opener but lost 24-23; they hung tough with Georgia Tech, a team that is 6-2 and lost 42-38. They play in the hotbed that is the southeast, a place where people are moving to, a place that is dripping with high school talent. When the SEC and all the major conferences expand to 16 teams, I can see Georgia Southern getting into the SEC. When you stop laughing realize that not all teams are going to be top notch. Every conference needs a Kansas, a Duke (not so much anymore, but for years), a Northwestern and a Vanderbilt. Those schools benefit from losing because of the aura that the conference brings. Yesterday, Georgia Southern throttled Georgia State at the Georgia Dome. Over 10,000 fans made the trip from Statesboro to Atlanta, turning a road game into a home one. Don't think the SEC wasn't monitoring the action.
Take Villanova. When the old Big East conference was on life support, overtures were made to the Cats to see if they might be interested in moving to 1-A and being a member of the Big East Conference. The Cats were already a basketball member and their 1985 title in an epic Final Four helped cement the Big East as a basketball force to be reckoned with. The school gave it some thought but ultimately and wisely decided to stay in the CAA and 1-AA for football.
Take North Dakota State. They've won three 1-AA titles in a row and I'm sure the Mountain West would love to have them, but for now, the Bison are staying put in 1-AA. To be fair, North Dakota would be a tough place to mine for 1-A talent but the state's economy is taking off due to the oil and fracking boom with some school districts seeing a growth of 300 students per year. Stay tuned please.
Take Charlotte. They started a program just a few years ago and after two years in 1-AA, they are headed to 1-A and Conference USA next year. They will play their home games in the Carolina Panthers stadium and they are banking on getting off to a good start and tapping in to the football frenzy that is prevalent on Tobacco Road and the southeast. But, how good can they be? How long will it take? Will the fans accept Conference USA football to go along with NFL football and how patient will they be?
We could go on and on. For every Boise State, there is a Connecticut and Massachusetts. Former 1-AA members who decided to elevate and go for it. No school shows you the importance of football more than Connecticut. They are a basketball power with four national titles since 1999. On that fact alone, they should be in a Power 5 conference. But, the football Huskies, despite a BCS Fiesta Bowl appearance have been struggling and because football drives the bus, the Huskies play in the AAC instead of the ACC or the Big 12. West Virginia has never been great in basketball but because they've had success on the gridiron, they sit in the Big 12 and Connecticut does not.
Massachusetts is full of 1-AA talent and the Minutemen won a 1-AA title and had many successful years. They moved to 1-A and the MAC, have no home stadium and are just starting to become competitive this season. Unfortunately, for them, they need to find a new conference as they are getting booted from the MAC after the 2015 campaign. The likely landing spot is the American Athletic Conference for all sports but they play basketball in the Atlantic 10, a very good, multiple bid league. But, as we know, football drives that bus and the Minutemen may have to think football first at the expense of the better basketball league.
Buffalo seems to be stuck in football purgatory. They are at the 1-A level, but they play in perhaps the 10th (out of 10) rated conference in the county and they don't dominate in it. They need to find a new coach, a great coach who can make Buffalo a MAC powerhouse. And, that doesn't guarantee anything either. They could dominate the MAC and in ten years, still be in the MAC. They could flounder in the MAC like Rutgers floundered in the Big East and wind up in the Big Ten. The bottom line is uncertainty.
The MAC is the only league where you can't find games on any network on a Saturday. Yesterday, I watched games from the Sun Belt, Conference USA, American, even the CAA yet couldn't find any MAC games. The American Sports Network, which is carried on Albany's CW network had a CAA game, a Sun Belt and then a Conference USA game. I know that the MAC has a Tuesday-Wednesday package with ESPN which trumps the Sun Belt deal with American Sports Network, but come on, Saturday is college football day. Being on ESPN 3 isn't enough; make a Saturday deal with somebody.
Most of us believe that Buffalo has ambitions. We're not sure exactly how big they are, but at 3-4 they dismissed their head football coach. They will never get an Urban Meyer or a Lane Kiffin to coach at Buffalo. Kiffin makes three or four times the money as a defensive coordinator at Alabama then he would as head coach of a MAC school. At Buffalo, you're looking for a diamond in the rough who you hope turns into the next Chris Peterson, a brand builder who makes the brand so big that it can sustain itself when the diamond leaves for another school.
Buffalo should look to Utah as its blueprint. The Utes played in the WAC and the Mountain West. They hired Urban Meyer away from Bowling Green. He led them to an undefeated season and Fiesta Bowl win with Alex Smith as his quarterback and then left for Florida and the SEC. The brand was built. Kyle Whittingham stepped in and beat Alabama in the Sugar Bowl and eventually Utah was accepted into Pac 12.
The Bulls are doing okay. They're 3-5 and aside from Baylor, they've been competitive in every game they've played. They're not a patsy, yet they're not at the class of the MAC either. They have four games left and they could very well win all four to finish 7-5. They could lose all four, too or be somewhere in between.
Not every school is going to be successful in college football despite what the athletic directors, administrators, boosters and fans think. There will always be Temples and Tulanes in college football, in fact, there are more of them than there are Alabamas and Ohio States.
Buffalo is one of many programs trying to find themselves. They're no different than most people. For some, it's very easy to find oneself, for others very hard.
Good luck Buffalo!