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Bulls must survive run through early gauntlet

To look at the opening month of the University at Buffalo football schedule could be to wonder: What are they thinking?

Within the first five games, the Bulls will play Pittsburgh and Connecticut of the Big East, Tennessee of the Southeastern Conference and travel to Indiana for their Mid-American Conference opener at Ball State. It's a grueling, ambitious stretch that offers the potential for great reward but seemingly portends doom.

Remember, the Bulls went 2-10 last season and lost their last seven. Head coach Jeff Quinn's no-huddle spread offense, an approach meant to electrify, never plugged in. The Bulls scored no more than two TDs in any of their last seven and and went deep into training camp this summer before naming Cincinnati transfer Chazz Anderson, a fifth-year senior, as their starting quarterback.

The opening stretch of games, which includes a relative respite of a visit from Stony Brook, would be daunting under the best of circumstances.

"The schedule is what it is," Quinn said.

The Bulls won't be the only MAC team challenged early. Most of their conference brethren embark on similar missions of daring. Kent State plays Alabama and Kansas State. Ball State faces South Florida, Oklahoma and Indiana. Western Michigan has Michigan, Illinois and UConn.

"These are tougher games because No. 1, you have to look for the personnel, and No. 2, schematics," Quinn said. "Are there any weaknesses to their defensive personnel, offensive personnel? And typically you don't find them very often when you're playing against a Big East or SEC team."

Ditto the Big 12 and the Big Ten.

Stealing a game from one of the Big Boys, teams in conferences with automatic BCS bids, would be a leap toward the six wins mandated for bowl eligibility. Otherwise, the non-conference slate has no bearing on the greater goal: A MAC championship and its attendant automatic bowl berth.

Is it possible for UB to upswing so dramatically in Quinn's second year as coach? There is precedent. Miami captured the conference title last season following a one-win campaign in 2010.

Quinn acknowledged his team's shortcomings in overhauling his offensive coaching staff. New to the scene are offensive coordinator Alex Wood, quarterbacks coach Don Patterson and running backs coach Matt Simon, all former head coaches, all extensively experienced.

"From a team standpoint, we're older," said senior slot receiver Terrell Jackson. "We got a
year under our belt. We understand coach Quinn a lot more. Coach Wood, coach Patterson, coach Simon, those guys are great. I've never been around a coaching staff as great as this ever. So I'm blessed and I'm honored to be able to be with these coaches with so much experience."

Here's how the Bulls shape up heading into the Sept. 3 opener at Pitt:

> Strengths

The defensive front seven brings a wealth of experience and the linebacking corps could be among the league's best. Junior left end Steven Means (Grover Cleveland) and whirlwind left outside linebacker Khalil Mack, a sophomore, are ranked among the MAC's top 30 players by CollegeFootballNews. If teams shy from UB's left, look for right outside linebacker Jaleel Verser, a junior, to make a name for himself. He missed five games last year because of injury.

On the offensive side, the receiving corps is deep, talented and the cover story for this section. Running backs Branden Oliver, a sophomore, and Jeffvon Gill, a junior, offer a dynamic 1-2 punch. The 5-foot-8, 200-pound Oliver is built like the Incredible Hulk with a breathtaking extra gear in the open field. Both should benefit if the Bulls follow through on their designs to do more running between the tackles instead of trying to string out defenses, an ineffective approach last year.

Slot receiver Jackson was the all-MAC punt returner last year and will handle kicks and punts again.

> Unknowns

Anderson played three years under Quinn as a backup at Cincinnati. He knows the spread and its reads. He'll be a good game manager at quarterback, but his accuracy has been less than pinpoint during camp. We'll see if he can take full advantage of his receivers.

We'll also see if he has the time. The offensive line was ravaged by injury early last year, which factored into its oft-overwhelmed showings. Centers Jasen Carlson and Josh Violanti have missed most or all of camp, necessitating the move of Graham Whinery to center for now. Quinn says the line's at least eight deep. What's clear is that it will benefit from the new north-south running philosophy and a desire to establish the running game instead of making it a distinct second to the pass.

Senior punter Pete Fardon has worked hard to add place-kicking to his repertoire. His next field goal attempt against competition will be his first.

> Concerns

Last year's entire starting secondary graduated. We could see a redshirt freshman (Cortney Lester) at one corner, a sophomore (Najja Johnson) at the other and a converted linebacker (Josh Copeland) at one of the safeties.

"When you got all these young puppies in there you don't know what they're going to do," said cornerbacks coach Ernest Jones. "They do make mistakes but they're technical mistakes, things we can clean up real fast. But in regards to understanding our system, what it is we want them to do, play Cover 1 or Cover 2 ... or zone blitz, they got that, so that's a good thing."

> Outlook

The Bulls were picked to finish sixth in the East in the preseason media poll. Then again, no one thought much of Miami last year and the RedHawks ascended to the crown.

"It adds motivation," Quinn said. "If you're a competitor, that doesn't sit well, what transpired last year. Our kids were embarrassed, they were disappointed, and so call it what you may -- a chip on the shoulder. ... because nobody felt good in those 12 games that happened a year ago."

The schedule holds promise in that three of five East Division games are at UB Stadium -- as well as a difficult crossover tilt against Northern Illinois. Look for a five- to seven-win season with season-ending home games against Akron and Bowling Green likely determining bowl eligibility.