DETROIT – When University at Buffalo head coach Jeff Quinn took over in 2010, he wanted to take it to heights it never reached before.
Granted it may have taken longer than Quinn would’ve liked but after suffering three consecutive losing seasons, UB made a huge leap in 2013, finishing with an 8-5 overall record and a 6-2 mark for second place in the Mid-American Conference East Division. The eight regular season wins were the most since UB moved to the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) in 1999, and the six conference victories were another school record.
On top of that, UB rattled off a seven-game winning streak – longest in team history – that included a 41-12 trouncing of Connecticut for its second-ever win over a BCS team. UB capped the year by playing in just its second bowl game, a 49-24 loss to San Diego State in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl.
But that’s in the past. Soon enough UB will find out if it has what it takes to record back-to-back winning seasons for the first time since 1983-1984 when it competed in Division III.
Yet Quinn, who is entering his fifth season at the helm, is adamant that last year was merely a stepping stone and his team can top last season’s accomplishments.
“There is no question we have the individuals. Last year’s team learned how to win on and off the field, and this year’s team saw that first-hand,” Quinn said at the league’s annual football media day at Ford Field on Wednesday. “The majority of kids we have coming back who are going to line up for us this fall all had a part in accomplishing that.
“We’re not moving backward. We’re moving forward.”
The 2014 MAC preseason poll thinks otherwise. UB is predicted to finish fourth in the East Division, as voted by the league’s media members, ahead of Kent State, Miami and UMass. Bowling Green is predicted to win the East followed by Akron and Ohio.
Bowling Green is also selected to win the Marathon MAC Football Championship over Toledo, which is predicted to finish first in the West Division.
UB returns seven starters on offense (including all five offensive lineman), six starters on defense and all three specialists – senior kicker Patrick Clarke, junior punter Tyler Grassman and sophomore long snapper Corbin Grassman.
Several core players from last year have departed, though, leaving big question marks and even bigger shoes to fill. Junior quarterback Joe Licata will enter the season without two of his best offensive weapons – running back Branden Oliver (UB’s all-time leading rusher) and wide receiver Alex Neutz (UB’s record holder for career touchdown receptions).
“It’s going to be different. Those guys were my safety blankets last year,” said Licata, who was one of eight MAC players named to the Allstate AFCA Good Works Team for charitable involvement and community service.
“We’re not going to have one receiver who is going to be able to replace what Alex did, and we’re not going to have one running back who will be able to replace what (Branden) did,” Licata said. “But we’re going to have to find different guys who are able to replace that production.”
And Licata believes his team has the pieces in place to fill the void left behind by Oliver and Neutz.
“We got a lot of playmakers on the offensive side of the ball. I’m not worried about it honestly,” Licata said. “We have a lot of guys who can step in. We have four or five receivers who are really solid and are going to be able to make plays for us. … It may take two or three receivers to replace what Alex can do and that’s fine as long as we’re getting that same productivity.”
For the running back position, Quinn said he will use a group by committee to see who steps up and pointed out three guys in the running – juniors Anthone Taylor and Devin Campbell and sophomore Jordan Johnson.
On defense, UB will be without its anchor and arguably one of its best defensive players ever in Khalil Mack, who was named last year’s MAC Defensive Player of the Year before being selected fifth overall by the Oakland Raiders in the 2014 NFL Draft.
“I have a lot of confidence in our front seven. I think with us being able to tackle, shed blocks and pursue the football as a group, we can replace Mack’s productivity and what he brought to the defense,” senior defensive lineman Kristjan Sokoli said. “We have a lot of confidence in our back guys like (Witney) Sherry, (Cortney) Lester and Marqus (Baker) being able to cover guys and help us out.
“As a whole we can replace him, but with one player, no. He’s a generational player and you don’t just replace a guy like that.”
Despite the lingering questions, Quinn believes his team has the depth, the leadership, the coaching, the winning mentality and the type of system in place to turn heads and make a trip to Ford Field for the MAC title game on Dec. 5.
“If we can stay healthy, take great care of the ball and take it away, and play well on special teams, we have a chance to do some great things this year,” Quinn said.