DETROIT – Lance Leipold found himself in an unusual position Wednesday: Underdog.
Leipold’s University at Buffalo football team was picked for fifth out of seven teams in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference in preseason media poll. UB went 5-6 last season and faces major rebuilding on a defense that gave up 31.5 points a game last season.
The low expectations are a first for Leipold in his head-coaching career. At Division III Wisconsin-Whitewater, he faced national-championship-or-bust prospects every season. He went 109-6 and won six national titles in eight years.
“I embrace that,” Leipold said of the underdog role during MAC Media Day at Ford Field. “We’re focused on getting better. Sometimes expectations are unrealistic. Now we get back to the reality of building this team to be its best and building a program. That’s one of the things that attracted me here.”
“I think many times preseason rankings are based partially on what was done the year before and partially on what is returning on paper,” Leipold said. “Obviously that’s why we play on Saturdays. Whether we were picked higher or lower, you still have to go out and earn everything you get.”
On the positive side for Leipold is the fact UB returns most of an offense that scored 32.3 ppg last season. UB senior quarterback Joe Licata said Wednesday he is cleared for full participation in preseason training camp in the wake of his rehabilitation from offseason hip surgery.
UB starts camp Aug. 10 and opens its season at home Sept. 5 against Albany.
“I’ll be participating in everything at camp from the start,” Licata said. “I’ll be 100 percent for Game One. I’ll trust the trainers. If they want to pull me out of some things on a given day at practice they can, but that would be just precautionary. I’m healed.”
Licata had hip surgery in January 2014 but revealed after last season a repaired torn labrum in the hip was re-aggravated and he never felt 100 percent. He had another surgery on the same hip on Jan. 6, and he went through a six-month rehabilitation.
“I’m feeling better than I was last year going into camp,” Licata said.
The Williamsville South product said he has been throwing without restrictions for about the past two months.
“Really throwing, taking drop-backs and throwing, that was around June 1 when I really started to push it,” Licata said. “I’ve been throwing with the guys. We’ve been out there throwing 7 on 7 and I’ve been making every throw. As far as running, I had to ease into cutting. It was a long process. I just started cutting a month and a half, two months ago.”
Licata looks noticeably trimmer. He played last season at 227. He said he’s down to 210 pounds. The weight drop was to help his mobility and because UB’s new coaching staff wanted him at a lighter weight.
Licata thinks UB is being underrated.
“Since I’ve been here we really haven’t been given that much consideration preseason, so it’s nothing new to me,” he said. “Is it fueling? Yes, I guess a little bit. ... I think from what I’ve seen in practice with coach Leipold and the energy he brings, his approach fits our personnel really well. So I think we’re poised to make a good run. If everyone stays healthy and if everyone’s all in, we should be all right.”
Toledo, which went 9-4 last season, is picked as the favorite to win the MAC, followed closely by Western Michigan and five-time defending champion Northern Illinois. Bowling Green, two-time defending champion in the East Division, is picked as the favorite to win a third straight first-place finish.
The poll results:
EAST: 1. Bowling Green. T2. Ohio. T2. Akron. 4. UMass. 5. Buffalo. 6. Miami. 7. Kent State.
WEST: 1. Toledo. 2. Western Michigan. 3. Northern Illinois. 4. Ball State. 5. Central Michigan. 6. Eastern Michigan.