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IS BUFFALO THE COLLEGE FOOTBALL KING OF NEW YORK?
Plus: Let's scout UB's four non-conference opponents.
Image from ubbulls.com
The preseason is a fine time to make meaningless comparisons, so here’s a little thought exercise: what school currently has the top college football program in New York?
It’s odd that a state of 20 million people only has three FBS programs (Army, Buffalo, and Syracuse), fewer than, say, the Raleigh-Durham area. We’ll work with what we have.
RANKING THE FBS PROGRAMS IN NEW YORK STATE
Army Black Knights
2020 record: 9-3
Most recent postseason appearance: 2020 Liberty Bowl, 24-21 L vs. WVU
Image from armynavygame.com
From 1991 through 2015, Army posted three winning seasons. Over the past five years, head coach Jeff Monken’s team has four, including a top-20 finish in the 2018 AP Top 25. The Black Knights went to four bowl games, won three and, perhaps most importantly, beat Navy in four of their last five showdowns over this stretch.
How does this season look? “Army will be a New Year’s Six bowl threat,” proclaims Fansided’s Dante Pryor.
College Football News’ Pete Fiutak lowers the bar to a slightly-more-reasonable eight:
(Monken’s) formula is set. Quick guys in the backfield to go along with sledgehammer fullbacks behind big linemen who can move. That’s the offense, run, repeat. The other side’s job (is) to simply get off the field and not give up a whole ton of big plays.
The road ahead is not easy. Army’s 2021 schedule includes a visit from Wake Forest and road trips to #15 Wisconsin, 2020 MAC champ Ball State, and high-powered Liberty.
“Home” games against Air Force and Navy in Arlington, Texas and East Rutherford, New Jersey, respectively, as part of the annual Commander-in-Chief’s Trophy series, don’t make life any easier for the Knights.
ESPN’s Football Power Index, based on a team’s expected point differential against an average opponent on a neutral field, gives Army a preseason score of -5.9, or 93rd in FBS. The Black Knights’ projected win total sits between 5.2 and 6.8 games.
The media respects Monken’s men more than the computers, apparently. The Black Knights are 43rd in the latest AP Top 25.
KING STATUS: No one wants to deal with the fierce triple option. Army’s five-year run of winning seasons and bowl victories, along with a major increase in national respect, makes the Cadets the most dangerous—and, dare we say, glamorous?—team in the Empire State.
2020 record: 6-1, #25 AP Top 25
Most recent postseason appearance: 2020 Camellia Bowl, 17-10 W vs. Marshall
Image from ubbulls.com
Buffalo’s offseason turmoil killed its argument as the state champ. The Bulls lost 12 of 22 starters and a nice chunk of its depth when the triple threat of graduation, the NFL Draft, and former head coach Lance Leipold’s exit for Kansas temporarily spun this solid program into chaos.
And yet, for the first time since the 1960s, UB can claim a winning culture. Buffalo returns a 1,000-yard rusher, its starting QB, two 1st Team All-MAC defensive leaders, and 15 three-star recruits in a class that, despite being ranked eighth in the MAC and 100th in the country, is actually an improvement over 2020.
New head coach Maurice Linguist has no experience but is well-regarded as a consummate recruiter. He’s already pried a three-star defensive lineman away from Texas A&M.
“We added 27 new players since the start of June, 16 or 17 players that were already signed, and then we added 10 or 11 guys through graduate transfer who are JUCO,” The Buffalo News’ Rachel Lenzi quoted Linguist as saying. “Every team has a one-year life span. You’re (always) looking at guys that are exiting your roster and how you could replace them.”
ESPN’s FPI gives UB a -1.3 score, good for 71st in FBS and second in the MAC. Maybe Linguist’s new style of coaching and recruiting mitigates Buffalo’s talent drain. We’ll find out soon.
KING STATUS: The Bulls must prove success transcends transition. Given Army’s slightly-longer run and the questions surrounding UB’s program, Buffalo remains a step below the Knights.
2020 record: 1-10
Most recent postseason appearance: 2018 Camping World Bowl, 17-15 W vs. WVU
Image from syracuse.com
Casting aside a surprising 10-win 2018 season that included a victory over West Virginia in the Camping World Bowl, the past 17 years of Syracuse football effectively erased the once-proud program’s school’s national relevance.
The Orange are 6-17 since that 2018 campaign. There’s hope this season, perhaps, in Mississippi State QB transfer Garrett Shrader; a little intrigue along the offensive and defensive lines; and decent talent at the offensive skill positions and the defensive secondary.
If everything breaks right, the ‘Cuse might just...win six games? That’s the high end of the projections.
Most of the more optimistic experts have that number at five, and the ACC’s preseason media poll plopped Head Coach Dino Babers’ bunch into the conference cellar. ESPN’s FPI has the Orange at 99th nationally with a -8.1 score.
KING STATUS: Is this the best the New York has to offer? No. After a 1-10 season in 2020, even a relatively major leap to four or five wins may still cost Babers his job.
THE LITTLE PRINCES: FCS FOOTBALL IN NEW YORK STATE
Image from ualbany.com
They’re not in the FBS, but that doesn’t mean they are irrelevant (except maybe LIU). New York’s FCS schools have an interesting mix of history and talent, even if most will continue to feel serious growing pains this fall—the second campaign of the year for these teams, who played truncated schedules in the spring after the 2020 season was postponed by COVID.
Albany went 1-3 this spring before canceling its final two Colonial Athletic Association. No matter! The Great Danes, winners of nine games in 2019, are ranked #22 in FCS and bring back QB Jeff Undercuffler (41 touchdowns in 2019, pictured above) and former HERO Sports FCS All-America Second Team RB Karl Mofor. Tough games against Syracuse and perennial FCS power North Dakota State await in September.
The 1932 national champions lost its only two games of the spring season before canceling its third. While the Raiders do have four players on the preseason All-Patriot League team, the young men from Hamilton are picked to finish dead last this season.
The Lions have posted five winning seasons since 1971, and the 2021 unit was picked to finish next-to-last in the Ivy League. Senior WR Mike Roussos was named a 3rd Team Stats Perform Preseason All-American as a punt returner, the school reports. It’s his third consecutive preseason All-America selection.
The one team picked to finish below Columbia in the Ivy League! Cornell has won four of the last five Empire State Bowl games—its annual season-ending showdown with Columbia, a rivalry dating back to 1889—so the Big Red does have that going for them.
The Rams were picked to finish second in the Patriot League’s preseason coaches poll, falling eight points behind Holy Cross while earning three of their own first-place votes. Seven members of the Rams offense are on the Preseason All-League team, including senior QB Tim DeMorat. The Bronx bruisers finished their truncated 2020 season with a 2-1 record, averaging over 31 points per game.
Long Island University
The Sharks had a good thing going in Division 2 football. As recently as 2018, LIU won 10 games and finished #22 nationally. The school’s fortunes changed after making the leap to the FCS in 2019, suffering through a 0-10 inaugural campaign while losing eight games by double-digit margins. The good news: Long Island won two games this spring, and was picked to finish ahead of Wagner in the Northeast Conference preseason poll. Defensive lineman Joe Amalfitano made the preseason all-conference team.
Do you know Marist has a football team? I’m not sure Marist does—the school’s own website barely acknowledges its existence. The Red Foxes went 4-7 in 2019 and its 2020 season was canceled. Marist was picked to finish ninth this season in the preseason Pioneer Football League poll. Honestly, that’s about all the internet has to say about this team.
The Seawolves won just one game in the shortened Colonial Athletic Association spring season, but that victory came at the expense of archrival Albany. Stony Brook has a pair of behemoths on offense—OL Kyle Nunez and TE Anthony Del Negro are All-CAA picks, and Nunez is a Preseason FCS All-American. Prior to the spring season, The College Sports Journal’s Jamie Williams wrote:
(Head Coach) Chuck Priore will always have a tough defense for opposing offenses to play against. Tyquel Fields has shown flashes in his time as a starter. If the senior signal caller gets production from young receivers, the Sea Wolves could challenge in the (CAA) North (Division).
The one team on this list that has a direct connection to the 2021 UB Bulls—Buffalo will open its season against Wagner, a small, private liberal arts college of just over 2,000 students located in Staten Island. From 1957 through 2014, a 57-year span that saw the school move from Division III (1983 champions!) to Division 1-AA (now the FCS) in 1992, the Seahawks posted a cumulative 341-234-8 record. Well, it’s not 1957 anymore—the wheels fell off the program under head coach Jason Houghtaling beginning in 2014, and Wagner is now firmly rooted in the Northeast Conference cellar. Will fortunes change under new coach Tom Masella? The team went 0-2 this spring, so early returns are grim.
SCOUTING SEPTEMBER: BUFFALO’S NON-CONFERENCE SCHEDULE
The slate is fresh! Let’s see what Buffalo will face in these first, heady days of the 2021 season.
Image from wagnerathletics.com
Home opener. Thursday, Sept. 2 at 7 p.m., ESPN3.
Not much is expected from Wagner football, collectively. Individually, LB Titus Leo (pictured above) may be a legit NFL prospect.
Senior linebacker Titus Leo of the Wagner College Football team is part of the Watch List for the Stats Perform FCS Buck Buchanan Award, which is presented annually to the national defensive player of the year in college football's Division I subdivision (FCS).
The reigning Northeast Conference (NEC) Player of the Year and Preseason All-NEC selection was a finalist for the award following the 2021 spring season and starts the fall on the prestigious watch list, which features 35 defenders from college football's Division I subdivision.
...Despite the shortened spring season, Leo wreaked havoc in opposing backfields, combining for 15 total tackles and two sacks in two games.
Another reason for (limited) optimism: despite the 1-11 record in 2019, the team lost four games by four or fewer points.
The Seahawks currently roster nine(!) QBs, including junior Ryan Yost and Georgia Southern transfer Jaalon Wagner, and 23 WRs(!), so get ready for the most insane passing attack of all time. Senior RB Dmytri McKenzie led the team with 280 rushing yards in 2019. He’s back. And, of course, there’s Titus Leo on defense.
Honestly, the Bulls should win this game by 50 points.
Image from huskers.com
At Memorial Stadium, Lincoln. Saturday, Sept. 11 at 3:30 p.m., Big Ten Network.
Some believe Nebraska can double its 2020 win total in 2021. That’s still only six wins, and probably contingent on a win over Buffalo.
Crossing fingers for a MAC win feels a little gross for a program with more national championships (four) than losing seasons (two) from 1961 to 2016. They haven’t had a winning season since.
Adrian Martinez, a QB better known for his rushing prowess, is back for what seems like his 12th season (it’s his fourth). Backfield and receiver depth has improved. The offensive line boasts Cameron Jurgens, a maddeningly inconsistent NFL prospect, at center. His fellow linemen were underwhelming last year, but they’re all back, and there’s something to be said for continuity.
The Cornhuskers ranked 69th in rushing defense last season, allowing nearly 170 yards a game. Nebraska also managed just 13 sacks in 2020.
Regardless, this is Big Ten talent, right? ESPN’s FPI has the Huskers at +5 and 42nd in the country. The Huskers have exactly one loss to a MAC squad in school history: Northern Illinois in 2017.
But again, this is not the old Nebraska. The Scott Frost Huskers were among the most penalized teams in the nation last season, and posted one of the worst turnover margins. They beat Penn State and Purdue, but Penn State and Purdue were down in 2020. They held on by the skin of their teeth to beat Rutgers. Rutgers! They were destroyed by Illinois. Illinois!
Nebraska has a brutal schedule that includes Oklahoma, Ohio State, Wisconsin, and Iowa, all ranked in the AP Top 25. That six-win threshold demands victories over perceived weaker programs like Fordham, Buffalo, Michigan State, the Illini, and the Boilermakers.
Assuming the Huskers beat Illinois, which, despite being a seven-point favorite, isn’t certainly not written in stone, Buffalo will head into this game as double-digit underdog. Take the points.
Image from goccusports.com
UB Stadium. Saturday, Sept. 18 vs. Coastal Carolina, 12 p.m., ESPN2/ESPNU.
You can talk yourself into a win over Nebraska as easily as you could see Buffalo getting absolutely boat-raced by the Chanticleers.
Coastal Carolina enters the season in the AP Top 25 with 11 All-Sun Belt preseason selections. The team is expected to bring back all but three starters from last season’s 11-1 squad that “pulled off upsets over programs like Zach Wilson–led BYU and (finished) ranked No. 14 in the final AP poll—in just their fourth year in the FBS ranks,” SI.com’s Madeline Coleman wrote.
Coastal’s toughest 2021 challenges are considered conference foes Appalachian State and Arkansas State—the Chanticleers miss Sun Belt West rival #23 Louisiana this year. Buffalo’s not on the list.
Coincidentally, Coastal will play Lance Leipold and several former Bulls when Kansas plays on the so-called surf turf at Benton Stadium in Conway, South Carolina a week before facing UB.
ESPN’s FPI has the Chanticleers at +2.2 and 57th nationally, so if you do think UB can knock off Nebraska, you gotta have a little faith for this game, too.
Image from odusports.com
S.B. Ballard Stadium. Saturday, Sept. 25 at Old Dominion, 6 p.m., TV TBD.
Old Dominion won 10 games as recently as 2016, a campaign capped by a 24-20 win over Eastern Michigan in the Bahamas Bowl.
The Monarchs, however, have only won 10 games since. The team did not play in 2020.
This game will be special for Bulls’ senior RB Kevin Marks, the seventh-leading rusher in UB history and a Norfolk, Virginia native. The conditions will be set for a happy homecoming—in 2019, ODU ranked 118th in FBS in total defense and109th in both rushing defense and first downs allowed.
Has that defense improved during the lost 2020 season? Well, no.
“What was going to be a quick fix positive going into last year is yet another question mark going into fall camp,” writes CFN’s Pete Fiutak. “The defense was supposed to get back almost all of the top tacklers won’t have that luxury, and the front line got gutted by the transfer portal.”
That sounds familiar. The Bulls should run all over the Monarchs, barring some sort of bad injury luck or traffic mishap en route to Virginia. Which, on I-95, is totally possible.