With the first half of a critical season behind it, the University at Buffalo has a record of 3-4 and reasons for both hope and trepidation entering a stretch of five consecutive conference games, beginning with tonight's ESPNU contest at Ohio.
The game will define not just this team but also possibly the direction in which the UB program is heading. The Bulls need three more victories to become eligible for their first bowl game in 50 years, but this season has never been about limiting their aspirations. They want the Mid-American Conference championship outright.
For that to happen, the Bulls (1-2 MAC) have to defeat Ohio (2-6, 1-3), a team whose record is misleading. They gave then No. 1-ranked Ohio State all it could handle Sept. 6 before losing, 26-14, and lost to Northwestern on the road two weeks later, 16-8.
"They did a great job against Ohio State and we watched some of that game before our game [at Pittsburgh] in the hotel," said senior receiver Ernest Jackson. "We have to prepare like they are any other great team."
In their last game at Temple, the Bobcats held a 10-0 lead entering the fourth quarter, but allowed the Owls to sneak away with a 14-10 victory. The Bobcats' defense allowed just 143 yards of total offense, but a late fumble was too much to overcome.
"In some ways, it's been a difficult season for us because we've been in so many close games that have come down to the end," said Ohio coach Frank Solich, the former Nebraska coach who led the Cornhuskers to the BCS national championship game in 2002. "We were only a play or two away from making it work in a lot of football games."
A win over Temple would have placed Ohio in a first-place tie in the MAC's East Division, but it's been a woulda, coulda, shoulda kind of year for the Bobcats. Ohio's six losses are by an average margin of 8.1 points.
"There's not much you can say and in some point and time you have to turn that corner," Solich said. "We've got to start making it work. We can't change anything that's happened in the past, all we can do is be prepared to play our best football."
Continuing a constant theme throughout the season, the MAC East Division race is too close to call and everyone is still in play. UB, two-point underdogs for tonight's game, is in sole possession of third place while Ohio is in a four-way tie for fourth with Bowling Green, Kent State, and Miami (Ohio).
"This is a balanced conference," Solich said. "I don't think you have teams in the bottom half of the conference who don't have a chance to step on the field and beat the teams that are in the upper half of the conference. You have to get ready to play every week and that's what makes it such a fun conference to be a part of."
Including tonight's game (7 p.m., ESPNU, Radio 1230 AM), three of the Bobcats' four remaining games are at home.
"Their record doesn't speak to how good this team really is and how well they've played," said UB coach Turner Gill, an assistant under Solich at Nebraska from 1998-2003. "Unfortunately, they haven't been able to finish some things there at the end."
But visits to Peden Stadium have been unpleasant experiences recently for the Bulls. UB has been outscored, 76-7, on its last two trips there, including a 42-7 loss two years ago in Gill's first season.
"The key for us is continuing to execute well," Gill said. "If we do that, I think we can take care of things."