Summer Vacation: The Buffalo Bulls And A Socialist Utopia

The mid-majors have been relegated to the weekends now that the SBN previews have started, but we press forward nonetheless.  Today, we move to MAC Team No. 2.  Confused? Don't miss the definitions and footnotes at the bottom. And as always, if you hate numbers, just skip to the words.

Amid the extreme oligarchy known as top-division college football, we have ourselves a little, socialist utopia.  It's called the Mid-American Conference.  In the MAC, everybody has similar budgets, everybody fights it out for Tuesday night kickoffs on ESPN, and everybody has a chance to win.  Ten of the conference's current 13 members have made a conference title game appearance since 2000, and an 11th (Temple) has come awfully close in the last two seasons.  Miami (Ohio) went from 1-11 to a MAC title in one year, and really, that wasn't the most impressive out-of-nowhere conference title run in recent memory.

From 1999 (when they first appeared at the FBS level despite only one winning season in the last 12 at the FCS level) through 2006 (Turner Gill's first year), the Buffalo Bulls went 12-79, 8-56 in the MAC.  Hell, they went 0-4 versus FCS teams in that span.  They were a poster child for the "Don't go up to the FBS level just to go up to the FBS level" argument.

Then, they went 5-7 in 2007.  Then, they won the MAC in 2008.  Two years later, they were back to 2-10, operating with one of the worst FBS offenses in recent memory.  They put together an intriguing base of talent, particularly on offense (quarterback Drew Willy, running back James Starks, receiver Naaman Roosevelt), lost those players, lost their coach, and shuffled back to the back of the bread line.

It is incredibly difficult to sustain success in the MAC, a league known for evenly-matched coaches, relatively even funding and facilities, and the penchant for losing successful coaches to the BCS big leagues.  Succeeding beyond a single coach's tenure, or even a single bunch of talent, is difficult.  Ask even Central Michigan, who lost Dan Lefevour and company and dropped from winning three of four MAC titles to going 3-9 in 2010.  The good news is, you can rise to the top of the pile quickly here; the bad news is, you can fall back to the bottom just as quickly.

So what will it take for Buffalo to move up in the pecking order again?  Quite a bit, it seems.

2010 Schedule & Results*

Record: 2-10 | Adj. Record: 2-10 | Final F/+ Rk**: 111
Date Opponent Score W-L Adj. Score Adj. W-L
2-Sep Rhode Island
31-0 W 18.4 - 21.3 L
11-Sep at Baylor 6-34 L 10.2 - 30.1 L
18-Sep Central Florida 10-24 L 24.9 - 17.4 W
25-Sep at Connecticut 21-45 L 19.7 - 38.9 L
2-Oct at Bowling Green 28-26 W 20.4 - 16.1 W
16-Oct at Northern Illinois 14-45 L 16.4 - 28.0 L
23-Oct Temple 0-42 L 6.1 - 34.9 L
30-Oct Miami (Ohio)
9-21 L 13.5 - 23.9 L
4-Nov at Ohio 17-34 L 16.8 - 31.6 L
12-Nov Ball State 3-20 L 6.2 - 32.0 L
20-Nov Eastern Michigan 17-21 L 12.2 - 33.6 L
26-Nov at Akron 14-22 L 16.1 - 34.3 L
Category Offense Rk Defense Rk
Points Per Game 14.2 120 27.8 67
Adj. Points Per Game 15.1 119 28.5 66

In 2010, the Auburn Tigers averaged 45.3 Adj. Points per game.  That is more than Buffalo managed against Temple (71st in Def. F/+), Ball State (111th), Eastern Michigan (120th) and Akron (103rd) combined.  That is ... not good.  Buffalo scored above the national average of 27 real points just twice all year -- once against Rhode Island (FCS) and once against Bowling Green (94th).  This while running a fast-paced, spread offense under new head coach (and former Brian Kelly assistant) Jeff Quinn.

Buffalo's offensive struggles masked the fact that they had potentially their best defense ever.  The Bulls have improved on that side of the ball in each of the last five years, but after losing a potential star quarterback to transfer when Turner Gill left for Kansas, the offense just had nothing.  No quarterback, no running back ... when injuries began to take their toll, the offense went from bad to, well, worst.  It was not a fun season to be hanging out at UB Stadium ... at least, not if you enjoy things like "yards," "points," and "wins" for the home team.

The good news is, this level of horrid offense is relatively unsustainable.  Most of the teams that have had the worst single-season offenses recently have seen their units improve by a decent amount the next year, even if "a decent amount" of improvement still results in a pretty bad offense.  Improvement is improvement.

Offense***

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 119 119 119
RUSHING 120 118 120 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 110 114 106 104
Standard Downs 120 120 120 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 107 96 115 68
Redzone 114 116 109
Q1 Rk 120 1st Down Rk 120
Q2 Rk 118 2nd Down Rk 118
Q3 Rk 114 3rd Down Rk 117
Q4 Rk 118

Buffalo's offensive footprint in 2010 was one of a team with no confidence whatsoever.  They passed a decent amount on standard downs, but they grew quite conservative on passing downs, fearing the repercussions of taking chances in the passing game.  (This actually resulted in a relative strength; their success rates on passing downs were actually not bad only bad, not terrible.  And when draw plays or scrambles on passing downs are your best weapon, you're in trouble.)  They ran less than almost anybody in the red zone, fearing the zero-yard gains that would accompany rushing attempts.  They altered the script depending on score and field position and lost any chance of developing an identity in the process.  Not that a clear identity would have helped...

So.  Where does Buffalo go from here?  Jeff Quinn was Brian Kelly's go-to guy for quite a while, serving as Kelly's offensive coordinator at Grand Valley State, Central Michigan and Cincinnati before finally taking the leap to the head coaching ranks.  He certainly has a solid offensive mind, and he's been on a college football sideline or in a press box for almost 25 years.  The guy can coach (though obviously his head coaching bona fides are less than certain just yet).  But will he have any talent to work with this season?

Any improvement in 2011 has to start with the country's worst run game.  Branden Oliver was Buffalo's "leading" rusher in 2010, posting 298 yards (2.9 per carry) and a fourth-worst-in-the-country minus-15.0 Adj. POE.  His long run of the season was a 19-yarder that was almost surely an accident.  His primary counterparts in the backfield were Jeffvon Gill (273 yards, 4.3 per carry, and a comparatively robust minus-5.9 Adj. POE) and injury-prone Ike Nduka (235 yards, 3.5 per carry, minus-10.6 Adj. POE).  Combined touchdowns runs: one.  One!

Even accounting for a shaky offensive line, this bunch just didn't get the job done.  Oliver and Gill are back, and for Buffalo fans' sake, here's to hoping that redshirt freshman James Potts (a three-star signee who chose Buffalo despite offers from Vanderbilt, Louisville, Indiana and others) is ready to break into the rotation.  Not surprisingly, the run game was a focus this spring, with these three and speedy walk-on Brandon Murie all sharing time in the spotlight.  The offensive line returns four starters, including seniors Josh Violanti (great name for an OL) and Matt Ostrowski, who missed much of last season with a broken leg.  At the very least, this can't hurt.

Other tidbits:

  • When you have the worst offense in the country, the struggle goes beyond the running backs.  Potential star quarterback Zach Maynard, who posted a nice passing line in 2009 (2,694 yards, 58% completion rate, 18 TD, 15 INT), transferred to California when Turner Gill left.  (Now he's apparently going to start for the Golden Bears in 2011, proving, if nothing else, that he'd have lapped everybody in the QB competition at Buffalo these past two seasons.)  With Maynard gone, a couple of not-ready-for-prime-time players got the QB snaps.  Jerry Davis (1,753 yards, 5.9 per pass, 48% completion, 16 TD, 16 INT; 324 rushing yards, minus-12.5 Adj. POE) saw a majority of the action; while he didn't acquit himself particularly well, he still probably outperformed Alex Zordich (428 yards, 4.6 per pass, 42% completion, 1 TD, 6 INT; 265 rushing yards, +2.8 Adj. POE).  Zordich was more effective on the ground, but ... 4.6 yards per pass?  Really?

    For what it's worth, both QBs were productive, if inefficient, in the spring game.  They went a combined 15-for-29 passing for 322 yards, three touchdowns and two picks (both by Zordich).  We can draw very little from spring game stats, but it is evident that there was quite a bit of aggressive, downfield passing going on (low completion rate, high yards per completion), which is interesting.
  • The wide receiver unit could be a relative strength.  Four targets received 76 percent of all targets last year, and they all return.  The most interesting of the four are Alex Neutz (414 yards, 15.9 per catch, 7.7 per target, 48% catch rate, 4 TD as a redshirt freshman) and 6'5 senior Marcus Rivers (690 yards, 13.8 per catch, 6.2 per target, 45% catch rate, 5 TD), who had a great spring.  They are solid downfield threats, but even downfield, lower-percentage guys need to see catch rates over 50% to be effective.  Another year with the quarterbacks at hand cannot be a bad thing, at least.

Defense

Category S&P+ Rk Success
Rt. Rk
PPP+ Rk
OVERALL 81 84 85
RUSHING 59 78 49 Adj. Line Yards:
PASSING 105 83 109 76
Standard Downs 68 78 63 Adj. Sack Rate:
Passing Downs 100 96 101 94
Redzone 84 102 63
Q1 Rk 78 1st Down Rk 57
Q2 Rk 91 2nd Down Rk 86
Q3 Rk 94 3rd Down Rk 99
Q4 Rk 48

Here's some more fun with Footprints.  Buffalo's rush defense was downright solid in 2010, ranking among the nation's upper half overall and in terms of PPP+.  But teams ran all the time on Buffalo, particularly on standard downs.  The reason why, of course, is obvious -- Buffalo lost eight of ten games by double digits, six by at least 17 points.  Opponents don't have to pass when they're up double digits and your offense is awful.

It's a shame, really, that Buffalo's D didn't get more of a chance to prove what it could do.  This wasn't a great unit overall, but they ranked second in the MAC with a +0.0% Def. F/+.  They were efficient on standard downs, they went after the ball, and they utilized an unpredictable 3-4 set in an area of the country where that is not necessarily common.  They let opponents off the hook on passing downs a bit too much, but ... the defense was not the reason they were losing games.

The bad news is, while the offense returns just about everybody, the defense has to replace some key pieces, which could offset any gains the offense almost inevitably makes.  Four-time All-MAC defensive back Davonte Shannon (92.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, 4 INT in his first year after moving from corner to safety) departs, as do All-MAC strong safety Domonic Cook (48.0 tackles, 3.5 TFL/sacks, 6 INT, 3 FF, 2 FR, 6 PBU, a serious play-maker) and cornerback -- and now Dallas Cowboy -- Josh Thomas (44.0 tackles, 5.5 TFL/sacks, 1 INT, 8 PBU).  Throw in cornerback Sherrod Lott's departure, and you're looking at an entirely new starting secondary.  Granted, the pass defense was far from spectacular last year, but look at those tackler and play-maker stats, and you realize that these players were likely a key facet to Buffalo's ability to stop the run as well.  Outside linebacker Josh Copeland has moved to strong safety this spring and looked pretty good; he bulked up to 215 to play OLB last year, so we'll see if he drops a bit of that this summer.  And it's anybody's guess who ends up in the other starting slots.  Cincinnati transfer Romel Dismuke, maybe?

Other tidbits:

  • If the secondary can avoid collapse, the front seven looks solid despite some losses.  Gone are ILBs Justin Winters and Raphael Akonbundu, who combined for 116.0 tackles and 6.5 TFL/sacks, but OLB Khalil Mack (54.0 tackles, 14.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 10 PBU as a redshirt freshman) returns, as does ILB Scott Pettigrew (41.0 tackles, 3.0 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 3 FR in 2010), who missed last season with injury.  The linebackers should be decent, and the combination of end Steven Means (35.5 tackles, 8.5 TFL/sacks, 2 FF, 2 FR) and tackle Richie Smith (17.5 tackles, 2.5 TFL/sacks, a team-leading six tackles in the spring game) is intriguing despite the loss of tackle Anel Montanez (28.0 tackles, 6.0 TFL/sacks).
  • Who knows if he can play, but incoming freshman end Wonderful Terrific Monds bears mentioning because ... well, because his name is Wonderful Terrific Monds.

 

Buffalo's 2010 Season Set to Music

How about a little "Two Points For Honesty" from Guster, because a) Guster is awesome, and b) two points of any kind would have been lovely last season.

Fun Stat Nerd Tidbit

We'll be predictable with this one...

Worst Offenses According to Off. F/+ (2005-10)
1. 2009 New Mexico State (-25.3%)
2. 2008 Central Florida (-21.7%)
3. 2010 Buffalo (-19.9%)
4. 2008 San Jose State (-19.7%)
5. 2009 Washington State (-19.2%)
6. 2009 Army (-18.9%)
7. 2008 Army (-18.6%)
8. 2008 Washington State (-17.4%)
9. 2010 New Mexico (-16.9%)
10. 2007 Army (-16.8%)

Other MAC Teams
13. 2007 Temple (-15.5%)
16. 2009 Kent Stae (-14.9%)
19. 2010 Akron (-14.6%)
24. 2007 Miami-Ohio (-13.4%)
25. 2010 Kent State (-13.3%)

Summary and Projection Factors

Below is a small handful of projection and change factors most pertinent to the Football Outsiders' preseason projections you will find in this summer's Football Outsiders Almanac 2011.

Four-Year F/+ Rk 96
Five-Year Recruiting Rk 120
TO Margin/Adj. TO Margin**** -8 / -7
Approx. Ret. Starters (Off. / Def.) 11 (8, 3)
Yds/Pt Margin***** +8.8

Further reinforcing the "cannot possibly be worse" meme, Buffalo had by far the worst YPP margin in the country last year (only Memphis and Colorado State were above +7.5), and that will almost certainly not be the case again in 2011.  If the yards and points match up a little more cleanly for the Bulls this fall, they will improve almost by default.  Of course, after losing eight games by double digits, marginal improvement will only take the Bulls so far.

Perhaps the worst news here is just that the base of talent is, to say the least, lacking (Gill was good at making the most of what he had, but he didn't even remotely upgrade recruiting other than landing diamonds in the rough like Roosevelt and Starks).  Buffalo has ranked below even the service academies in recruiting these past few years, and while they have developed talent rather effectively -- they have produced more NFL players than most of the lowest-ranked recruiting teams -- it still means a constant uphill battle.  There are some interesting pieces here -- Rivers and Neutz at receiver, Mack and Pettigrew at linebacker -- but the odds are stacked against Buffalo in 2011.  This is the MAC, so their time will probably come again soon enough, but ... probably not this fall.

 

 

---

* For more on the 'Adj. Score' and 'Adj. Record' measures below, feel free to read this Football Outsiders column. Adj. Score is a look at how a team would have performed in a given week if playing a perfectly average team, with a somewhat average number of breaks and turnovers. The idea for the measure is simple: what if everybody in the country played exactly the same opponent every single week? Who would have done the best? It is an attempt to look at offensive and defensive consistency without getting sidetracked by easy or difficult schedules. And yes, with adjusted score you can allow a negative number of points, which is strangely satisfying.

** F/+ rankings are the official rankings for the college portion of Football Outsiders. They combine my own S&P+ rankings (based on play-by-play data) with Brian Fremeau's drives-based FEI rankings.

*** What is S&P+? Think of it as an OPS (the "On-Base Plus Slugging" baseball measure) for football. The 'S' stands for success rates, a common Football Outsiders efficiency measure that basically serves as on-base percentage. The 'P' stands for PPP+, an explosiveness measure that stands for EqPts Per Play. The "+" means it has been adjusted for the level of opponent, obviously a key to any good measure in college football. S&P+ is measured for all non-garbage time plays in a given college football game. Plays are counted within the following criteria: when the score is within 28 points in the first quarter, within 24 points in the second quarter, within 21 points in the third quarter, and within 16 points (i.e. two possession) in the fourth quarter.  For more about this measure, visit the main S&P+ page at Football Outsiders.

**** Adj. TO Margin is what a team's turnover margin would have been if they had recovered exactly 50 percent of all the fumbles that occurred in their games. If there is a huge difference between TO Margin and Adj. TO Margin (in other words, if fumbles and unlucky bounces were the main source of a good/bad TO margin), that suggests that a team's luck was particularly good or bad and might even out the next season.

***** Phil Steele has long tracked Yards Per Point as a means of looking at teams that were a little too efficient or inefficient the previous season. A positive Yds/Pt Margin means a team's offense was less efficient than opponents' offenses, and to the extent that luck was involved, their luck might even out the next year.

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