Saturday, Aug. 31
Noon ET, ESPN2
Ohio Stadium; Columbus, Ohio
Head coach: Jeff Quinn
2012 record: 4-8 (3-5, tied for fourth, MAC East)
Series mark: First meeting
School location: Buffalo, N.Y.
Enrollment: 28,849 (19,334 undergraduates)
Colors: Blue and White
Stadium: UB Stadium; Capacity: 29,013
Buffalo Bulls football has progressed slowly but steadily under the tutelage of head coach Jeff Quinn. After posting a 2-10 mark during Quinn’s first season in Buffalo, the team, now laden with veterans, has made a one-game improvement each year.
Now, the Bulls are targeting making the big leap toward postseason bowl eligibility as one of several lofty goals for 2013, Quinn said.
“We’ve got a team with a nucleus of returning veterans,” Quinn told BSB. “You know, guys that have been starters for at least two years, three years. They’ve been around me. They’ve been around our coaching staff and they know the expectations and they understand the accountability of what we expect and, really, the standard we set forth in our program.
“After surviving three years and going into year four, we feel we’ve got a team that, for our league and the competition we face in the Mid-American Conference, can get to that MAC Championship Game.”
Playing OSU at the Horseshoe could be the biggest stage Buffalo’s players enjoy all season, but Quinn said he expects professionalism and discipline from his players come kickoff on Aug. 31.
A player that will likely have to produce big at the Horseshoe in order to pull the upset off is senior Khalil Mack, a potential first-round NFL draft prospect who fills a hybrid outside linebacker role. Mack is the NCAA’s active career leader in tackles for loss with 56 and led Buffalo with a team-high 94 tackles in 2012 despite missing a game.
Mack is also coming off back-to-back first team All-MAC selections in 2011 and 2012 and a Sports Illustrated honorable mention All-American selection after his performance last season.
“He’s a real solid player,” Quinn said of Mack. “He’s a passionate football player.”
Mack said he likes to think of himself as just one piece of what could be a competitive Bulls team. He said that he and his teammates will focus on their strengths in preparation for the game against one of America’s best in OSU.
“It’s all about Buffalo. When we come together as a team, it doesn’t matter who we face,” Mack said. “So, that’s what I’ve been letting everybody know. If we come together as one unit, one team, we don’t have to worry about too much. Let the wins be wins and let the losses be losses, but you’ve got to be a tight team at the end of the day.”
Need To Know
1. In an interview with BSB, Quinn said he loves recruiting the state of Ohio, and that’s certainly reflected in the team’s roster, which boasts 13 Ohioans and two from Ohio State’s own backyard. Bulls sophomore punter Tyler Grassman, a Gahanna Lincoln product, is from Columbus while junior tight end Colten Caldwell of Dublin Coffman High School is from Dublin, Ohio. In addition, Youngstown, Ohio, native Alex Zordich, the team's backup QB, is the brother of former Penn State running back Michael Zordich.
2. Buffalo is 0-4 all-time vs. Big Ten teams, losing to Minnesota in 2002, Iowa in 2003, Wisconsin in 2006 and Penn State in 2007.
3. After battling through an injury-plagued season in 2012, Oliver looks to regain the form from his sophomore season when he rushed for a school single-season record 1,395 yards. Playing in just seven games last season, the Miami, FL native still led the Bulls in rushing with 821 yards - averaging 117.3 yards per game and 5.5 yards per carry.
4. Four Buffalo players are on preseason watch lists. LB Khalil Mack is on the list for the Bednarik Award, Nagurski Trophy, Butkus Award and Lombardi Award, while Branden Oliver is on the Doak Walker and Maxwell Award lists. Wideout Alex Neutz is on the Biletnikoff list and cornerback Najja Johnson is on the Thorpe list.
5. Buffalo defensive coordinator Lou Tepper coached Illinois from 1991-96, posting a 25-31-2 record, 17-21-2 conference mark and 1-2 bowl record (the one win was the 1994 Liberty Bowl). He was on the opposing sideline for Eddie George's 314-yard game in 1995.
Player To Watch
Against the odds, Buffalo Bulls senior outside linebacker Khalil Mack isn’t stressing about his team’s season-opening game against No. 2-ranked Ohio State.
Mack, named the No. 19 player in an NFL.com “Talented Top 50” list in a nod to his first-round NFL draft potential, said he couldn’t be happier for the Aug. 31 showdown against the Buckeyes at Ohio Stadium.
Some players in Mack’s position might apply additional pressure for what would likely be the biggest stage they’d play on in their senior season, but Mack said he plans to relish in the spotlight Ohio Stadium will provide.
The NCAA’s active career leader in tackles for loss (56), a back-to-back first team All-Mid-American Conference selection and a Sports Illustrated honorable mention All-American, Mack said he loves the big stadiums and the big crowds. The Horseshoe will be only his most recent trip to such a venue, and it doesn’t intimidate him.
“I don’t see (the Ohio State) game as any different,” Mack said. “I go out and give my all every game and every snap. I mean, every game is important to me. I take all the opportunities I can to display my skills and do whatever it takes to help my team win.”
In 2011, Mack traveled with the Bulls to play Pittsburgh at Heinz Field and Tennessee at Neyland Stadium. Mack gathered five tackles (two for loss), a sack, a forced fumble and a pass breakup against Pitt while totaling four tackles against the Volunteers.
Mack missed the Bulls’ 2012 opener against Georgia in Athens but recalls the Tennessee game fondly despite his team’s 41-10 loss.
“That was a big stage and I liked the crowd that was there,” Mack said. “There’s big games like that — those non-conference games where you get to see those big crowds — where you want to go out there and you’re looking forward to it. You look forward to the competition and that’s something I always appreciated.”
Mack’s Bulls also traveled to Waco, Texas, for a game against Baylor during the 2010 season, but the biggest stage of all is looming in his near future as a visit to the Horseshoe beckons.
NFL scouts will likely scrutinize his performance against OSU after the season concludes — that’s the only part of the visit to Columbus that Mack isn’t focusing on.
Mack said his draft stock comes second to helping the Bulls leave the Horseshoe with a victory.
“For me, personally, it’s always been a thing that I wanted to be a potential first (round) pick, but my goal this year is to win,” Mack said. “It’s about my team. I can’t really bring (the draft) into this. I’ve got to take it practice by practice and game by game, and focus on this great team we’re going to have this year.”
So, while Mack might not bring a heightened awareness of how playing at OSU impacts his draft stock, Quinn said his player surely won’t be lacking for passion when he hits the turf against the Buckeyes.
“He’s a passionate football player. The one thing I will say is he’s very passionate about football,” Quinn said. “He loves it and he lives it, and that’s why he’s not caught up on all the other stuff. He knows all that other stuff is coming down the road. (He’s) been blessed with a lot of skill and a lot of ability. You can’t become a champion and you can’t become a first-round draft pick unless you are all the things that we talk about. Here are the expectations and you’ve got to hold yourself accountable and others accountable, and he does that.”
Stats To Know
QB Alex Zordich, 106 of 208 passing for 1,254 yards, nine touchdown seven interceptions; Joe Licata, 86 of 163 passing for 1,045 yards, seven touchdowns and three interceptions.
RB Branden Oliver, 128 carries, 821 yards, five touchdowns
WR Alex Nuetz, 65 catches for 1,015 receiving yards, 11 touchdowns
DL Colby Way, 58 tackles, 10.5 TFL, seven sacks, one interception, one forced fumble
LB Khalil Mack, 94 tackles, 21 TFL, eight sacks, four forced fumbles
FS Derek Brim, 47 tackles, two TFL