Weeks of rumors and speculation finally ceded to fact late Sunday afternoon. The University at Buffalo is bowl-bound. Pass the butter and the sour cream.
An eight-win season, matching the school’s best since entering the Mid-American Conference in 1999, gained UB an invitation to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl and a Dec. 21 date with 7-5 San Diego State of the Mountain West Conference. The 5:30 (EST) start on the famed blue turf at Bronco Stadium will be televised on ESPN.
“We’re excited,” UB Athletic Director Danny White said. “Famous Idaho Potato Bowl, they do a great job with their bowl experience. I had the opportunity to be a part of it when I worked at Fresno State years back. Kevin McDonald is an awesome bowl director and the community really rallies behind it.”
UB appeared a bowl lock after an 8-4 season but in the end there were no guarantees. Seventy-nine teams gained the requisite six wins for bowl eligibility and there were only 70 spots available. The MAC had only three guaranteed spots, two going to division winners Bowling Green and Northern Illinois and the third to 10-win Ball State.
As it turned out, the MAC secured five bids, with Ohio joining UB in the postseason. Surprisingly, Toledo, a seven-win team that beat both UB and league champion Bowling Green, was left on the sidelines.
“I was very confident that our body of work that this team displayed all throughout the year was going to be recognized by our commissioner and the MAC office,” UB coach Jeff Quinn said. “Certainly it was more anticipation. I was excited to hear the news and when it came I was a little bit relieved.”
“We’re very fortunate to have the opportunity to go bowling,” White said.
UB came into this season with the declared goal of winning the MAC championship and securing a bowl bid. The title hopes were extinguished with a 24-7 Black Friday loss to Bowling Green. But the bowl quest has been fulfilled and gives the Bulls a chance to write a new ending.
“We didn’t get the MAC championship, but we got one more game to continue our season,” said senior running back Branden Oliver, who broke his own school single-season rushing record this season. “We’re going to give it all we got this last game.”
“To help lead this team to a bowl game, it’s pretty special,” said sophomore quarterback Joe Licata. “It’s something you get recruited, and you want to do that, you want to be able to go to a bowl game and we were able to accomplish that this year.
“It’s great for this program. To be able to take the field with those seniors one more time, it’s going to be a special experience for us.”
The added game positions linebacker Khalil Mack, the MAC Defensive Player of the Year, to take sole possession of a second NCAA Football Bowl Subdivision career record. Mack already has set the career mark with 16 forced fumbles and ended the regular season with 75 tackles for loss, tying him with Western Michigan’s Jason Babin for the mark Babin set in 2003.
“That’s going to be an opportunity that I got to take advantage of,” Mack said. “Got one game to do it,” to get at least half a tackle for loss. “That’ll be a challenge but at the end of the day I’m looking forward to the challenge.”
When measured in dollars and cents, an appearance in the Potato Bowl provides no great reward for UB athletics. The feeling at UB, and at most programs across the country, is that other forms of payback justify whatever loss might be incurred.
“Through the conference our goal is to break even,” White said. “It’s not a financial windfall. It’s more of an exposure win, a program-building win. We get 15 days of practice. It’s important to give these kids a great experience to reward them for a successful season. And then national television.”
The additional practice time was a benefit Turner Gill cited after coaching UB to the 2008 MAC title and a spot in the International Bowl. UB graduates 11 senior starters, and the extra practice time affords Quinn and his staff the chance to get a jump on 2014.
“An opportunity to get more time, more reps, to learn the system of offense and doing it first-hand on the field,” Quinn said. “Those things are invaluable. Those things are what I look for in the bowl development season.”
In an odd way, UB’s season has come full circle. Bulls defensive coordinator Lou Tepper lamented before the opener at Ohio State that San Diego State was the Buckeyes’ Week Two opponent. Tepper figured Ohio State would spend more time preparing for UB’s defense since San Diego State plays the same 3-3-5 scheme. And now two of only a small handful of teams employing that defense will meet up in Boise.
“Defensively they’re very good,” Licata said. “They do a lot of what our defense does. It’s a challenge but at the same time I think it’s an added advantage because we see it every day.”
The Aztecs own victories over bowl-bound Boise State and San Jose State and fell in overtime to Fresno State on Oct. 26 when the Bulldogs were ranked 15th in the AP Poll. They have a balanced offense (467 rushes vs. 433 passes) that features 1,000-yard runner Adam Muema and 1,000-yard receiver Ezell Ruffin.
UB will practice in Buffalo this week and arrive in Boise on Dec. 17.
MAC teams are 2-2 in their first four appearances in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Last year Utah State scored a 41-15 victory over Toledo.