To look at the University at Buffalo football schedule is to wonder: Where is the respite?
Where’s that game that offers the Bulls opportunity to establish some footing? It wasn’t three weeks ago at Connecticut of the Big East, or two weeks ago at Mid-American Conference East Division favorite Ohio. It certainly wasn’t last week at MAC West favorite Northern Illinois, which has one of the nation’s longest home winning streaks.
As for this Saturday against Pittsburgh at UB Stadium, one never knows. The Panthers did lose to FCS Youngstown State. But Pitt is also a Big East team in a BCS automatic qualifier conference, and they did pull away from the Bulls for a 35-16 victory in last year’s season opener. And they’ve won all three games in the series. And the UB program owns one win against a BCS opponent, over Rutgers way back in 2002.
And after Pitt? In comes Toledo, co-favorite with Northern Illinois in the MAC West.
“The scheduling gods were not in our corner,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said this week.
That was Quinn’s lone acknowledgment that UB’s 2012 slate represents more than a bit of a grind. Otherwise, he echoed the ancient rallying cry that to be the best you have to beat the best. Trouble is, the Bulls have had one winning season since becoming a FBS program in 1999.
The MAC bears partial responsibility for the hand the Bulls have been dealt. UB’s three cross-division opponents are the teams that finished 1-2-3 in the West last year. East rival Akron, winless in conference last year, was dropped from their schedule. By way of contrast, 2011 MAC finalist Ohio plays everybody in the East, including Akron, with crossovers against Eastern Michigan and Ball State, which tied for fourth in the West last year. Even had UB won at Ohio (a 38-31 defeat) the disparity in scheduling reduced the likelihood of the Bulls winning the division despite the tiebreaker advantage.
The MAC crossover scheduling, set year-by-year without any discernible rotation, this season heightened the challenge of an overall schedule for which UB also bears some responsibility. The season opener at Georgia resulted in a $1 million payday and exposed UB players to the college game at its highest level but afforded little chance at victory. The non-conference games against UConn and Pitt amount to scheduling up and exchanging home-and-home games without financial recompense. The fourth non-conference game, against FCS Morgan State, represented a drop in class and the result reflected as much: UB, 56-34.
An earnest look at the schedule puts UB’s 1-5 start in perspective. They’re 0-3 in conference against teams a combined 18-2 overall. Three of their non-conference games are steps to the next level or beyond.
“Those are formidable opponents, no doubt,” Quinn said. “When you look at our non-league schedule and you look at the league right now, the MAC, the teams that we’ve played. The best team in the West, Northern, they’re one point away from being undefeated. OU’s undefeated. And Kent’s having a heck of a run early on being 5-1. We haven’t lost to anybody that hasn’t had a real solid season so far.
“But again, and you know me, I’m not going to make excuses. Never. We’ve got to prepare week in and week out. Are there some challenges to playing one of the top schedules? Absolutely. But I’m up for a good challenge and I know our players are.”
Next year’s non-conference schedule was set before the arrival of the current athletic administration headed by AD Danny White. The Bulls play at Ohio State, currently ranked seventh in the national coaches poll, and at Baylor. Pitt’s off the schedule but UConn remains. The fourth non-conference opponent is FCS Stony Brook, which is visiting UB Stadium for the second time in three years.
Given UB’s struggles to establish any kind of winning tradition, the non-conference scheduling could be construed as ambitious, as added weight the program needn’t strive to bear. The hefty check that comes with playing at a Georgia or Ohio State helps fuel the athletic budget. But is it necessary or desirable to schedule up beyond the one big payoff?
“There’s something to be said for developing a winning culture,” White said. “There’s no question about it in terms of our fan base, building confidence in our program and our players building confidence in our program and with themselves as athletes. That’s certainly not lost upon me or Jeff as we analyze it.
“What I’m working to do now is to develop a [future scheduling] formula that we can live by. I don’t want to be knee-jerk from year-to-year, maybe take this deal with this school and this deal with this school and treat it in a hodgepodge type of way. I want to have a more strategic approach where we have a specific formula that we feel is going to make sense for us and we stick with it over the course of a five-, 10-year period.”
As for the MAC crossover schedule, White made inquiries and is satisfied the games were set in an upstanding manner.
“We certainly got a tough hand but that happens,” White said. “I’ve had conversations with the conference office and I feel confident there is an effective system in place and we would have had a much more definitive future set up and rotation with a 14-member league. With Temple leaving, that kind of messed up the math. But that is a priority with every school in the league. We all want a more predictable rotation so we know what’s coming in the future.”
In the meantime, Quinn and the Bulls continue to forge ahead, looking for that season-defining victory that could prove a launching pad.
“The way I spin it, and you have to as a head football coach, is you want to be the best, you got to play against the best,’’ Quinn said. “That’s the way we’re going to continue to conduct ourselves and the way we have to think. We have to get ready to play everybody. It’s good for us to see those kind of football teams, too, because you can learn a lot from seeing good, quality competition.”