ATHENS, Ga. - Six years ago the University at Buffalo played second-ranked Auburn on the road and trailed by just 10 at the half and by 14 late into the third quarter. The Tigers pulled away to a 38-7 victory in the end, but most considered the game a solid showing for the Bulls since they were able to hang in contention for as long as they did.
The measuring stick will be the same today when UB opens the 2012 season with a visit to Sanford Stadium, home of the sixth-ranked Georgia Bulldogs.
While a few UB players talked upset during the week, there's no overstating the immensity of the task at hand. Georgia's the defending SEC East Division champ, returns the vast majority of a defense that ranked among the nation's best last year and has a potential Heisman Trophy finalist in junior quarterback Aaron Murray. He threw a school-record 35 touchdown passes last year.
What's more, Georgia went 30-1 in non-conference home games during Mark Richt's first 11 years as coach. And the Bulls didn't win so much as a single game on the road last year. The oddsmakers put it all together and installed Georgia as a 38-point favorite.
The Bulls know what they're up against as they set foot in SEC country for the second straight season and the third time in seven. But the players insist this is a more cohesive, talented and experienced group than a year ago, when the speed disparity was telling in a 41-10 loss to a Tennessee team that proceeded to go 1-7 in the SEC.
"Last year I didn't feel as strong as I feel now about this team," said senior defensive end Steven Means (Grover Cleveland). "I feel this year we're all playing for each other. I don't think there's anybody playing for individual causes, individual goals. Everybody's out there for the same purpose, which is a victory."
How strongly does Means feel about the Bulls?
"I really believe we can go down there and beat those guys," he said. "Like [defensive end] Colby Way always says, they're faceless opponents. I don't care about the ranking. We're just going to go out there are play as hard as we can for 60 minutes. And if it happens to go over 60 minutes we'll keep playing until the game's over."
Buffalo's biggest challenge will be keeping the 'Dogs honest with the pass. Georgia is sure to stack the box and overwhelm Branden Oliver's blockers with numbers unless UB's aerial attack shows better than it did during training camp. The burden falls partly on junior quarterback Alex Zordich, who's making his fifth collegiate start, and partly on a receiving corps that had few shining moments during training camp against the first-team defense. Just a few timely pass connections could be enough to give the Bulls an even-up chance at creating space for Oliver, who ran for a school-record 1,395 yards as a sophomore.
"We need to run the ball," Bulls coach Jeff Quinn said. "That's our identity. And we need to continue to grow and develop as an offense, and to be able to do that is going to benefit our defense and maybe be able to give us some downfield plays [in the passing game]."
Oliver's looked even better in camp than a year ago, and he's itching to see how the Bulls compete against one of the country's elite teams.
"I got more confidence in my teammates and myself," he said. "Last year was like kind of a real start for me, because my freshman year I didn't do so well. But this year I got way more confidence and we got guys behind me who can do the same thing that I can."
Oliver grew up in Miami. He appreciates the tradition and culture that fuels college football in the south. At the same time he views this game as one of 12 on the schedule.
"It means the same thing Morgan State would mean to me," Oliver said. "I don't put a team on a pedestal. We fear no one. We're just going to go in there like it's any other game and play hard."
Moving the chains with some consistency would keep the UB defense fresh, a necessity given the explosiveness of the Bulldogs offense and the humid Georgia heat. Murray has two senior receivers in Tavarres King and Marlon Brown capable of big plays.
"We're not talking 10-15 yard plays downfield, we're saying 40- and 50-yard plays and that's going to be a challenge for our kids to be able to put some pressure on him," Quinn said.
"We will get pressure," Means said. "You're going to see that on Saturday."