In a way, Buffalo and UMass are pretty similar.
Buffalo linebacker Khalil Mack is arguably the best player in the Mid-American Conference.
Both are large, old public universities out in the western – and oftentimes forgotten – regions of their respective states. They have long histories of being overlooked in favor of wealthier, private institutions. In a random twist, both schools are located in a small town named Amherst.
In athletics, Buffalo and UMass have suffered from the same institutional failure: Despite a huge alumni base and a giant student population, they took way too long to upgrade their football programs.
The Bulls pulled the trigger in 1999, about 100 years after the program's inception, and has trudged through some tough times. Buffalo's upgrade was met with disastrous coaching moves, and the product on the field was flat-out embarrassing.
Since upgrading its program, Buffalo has gone 43-117.
While the record is … bad, there have been some bright moments. The university finally made a decent hire in Turner Gill, a first-time head coach who cut his teeth with Nebraska. Gill led the Bulls to the 2008 MAC Championship and knocked off Ball State, which was ranked No. 15 in the nation at the time.
Of course, as it goes in college football, Gill hit the road to debatably greener pastures at the University of Kansas. He was promptly fired after only two seasons and five wins.
Buffalo has been clawing its way back to that level for the past few years. It brought in Jeff Quinn, another first-time coach, to do the job and decided to be patient as he put his fingerprints on the program. Things have progressed mechanically in the win column: 2010 (2-10), 2011 (3-9) and 2012 (4-8).
This is supposed to be Buffalo's year, and so far the Bulls have been impressive with a 4-2 record. Their two losses came against the Baylor buzz-saw and Ohio State.
When previewing a college football team, the easiest place to start is at quarterback or running back. Usually one of the glamor boys is the reason for a team's success.
However, that's not the case with the Bulls.
In Buffalo, linebacker Khalil Mack is the heartbeat.
Mack came to Buffalo from Fort Pierce, Fla., a tough beach town known to locals as “Port Fierce.” He was a relatively unheralded recruit, but after redshirting a year, Mack immediately made an impact for the Buffalo defense. Since leaving home and heading north, Mack has added nearly 30 pounds of muscle and is a no-doubter NFL draft pick.
He is the best defensive player in school history and heading into his senior campaign already held school records for tackles for loss and forced fumbles. In six games, he has 41 tackles, five sacks, an interception and a forced fumble. Even Ohio State, which knew it had to focus on Mack, couldn't keep the senior out of the backfield.
Northern Illinois' Jordan Lynch puts up impressive numbers, but Mack is the best player in the conference.
The scary thing: He isn't alone on defense. Between Mack, fellow linebacker Lee Skinner, and defensive backs Okoye Houston and Adam Redden, Buffalo's defense is a force to be reckoned with. Since its sub-par performance against Stony Brook, the Bulls have not allowed more than 14 points in a game.
On offense, Buffalo has a good situation with running backs Branden Oliver and Anthone Taylor. While Oliver is the marquee back, both can get the job done and eat up tough yardage. Oliver already has more than 500 yards, and when healthy is easily a top three back in the conference.
Barring injury, he will break Buffalo's career rushing record.
Joe Licata is the most decorated quarterback in Western New York history and was the New York State Player of Year back in 2010. He showed up on campus with built-in legend points: Despite holding an offer from Syracuse, Licata decided to go to college at Buffalo, which is in the town right next to where he grew up.
So far Licata has had an impressive sophomore campaign with more than 1,000 yards and 11 touchdowns. His favorite receiver is Alex Neutz, a 6-foot-3 kid also from the area.
Buffalo is in the midst of one of those perfect-storm seasons. It has Florida talent paired with local legends and seems to be rallying behind Quinn. If the Bulls can harness this momentum, they can make some noise in the MAC and do something it hasn't done since the Gill era.
Win it all.