The University at Buffalo football team is taking a measured approach as it prepares for one of the most important games in program history.
The Bulls face Northern Illinois at 7 p.m. Friday at Detroit's Ford Field for the Mid-American Conference championship.
It's the Bulls' first MAC championship appearance in 10 years. Yet fourth-year coach Lance Leipold is aiming for a certain level of normality as his team prepares for the biggest stage it has seen.
"What we're trying to do, outside of maybe some time adjustments, we're trying to stay in our routine the best we can," said Leipold. "That's the nice thing about having a championship game that comes right after the end of the regular season. You're trying to just keep it as normal as possible."
While Leipold coached Wisconsin-Whitewater to six Division III national titles in eight years, most of his players don't have championship-game experience at the college level. UB's George Rushing, a wide receiver and a graduate transfer, was on Wisconsin's roster when it played in Big Ten championship games in 2014, 2015 and 2017.
Otherwise, the bulk of the Bulls are learning as the season goes on about what it takes to pursue a championship.
The Bulls (10-2, 7-1 MAC) already have faced pressure situations in their 12-game regular-season schedule, including the last two weeks. The Bulls needed to win either Nov. 14 at Ohio or last Friday at Bowling Green to secure the MAC East Division title. They lost to Ohio but clinched a berth in the conference championship game by routing the Falcons.
"There's things that this team goes through, and there's things and experiences they should embrace and kind of soak in a little bit," said Leipold, who will earn a $25,000 bonus if UB wins Friday. "Hopefully, we'll have a chance to do that when we get our walk-through practice time. Once the ball kicks off, it's going to be another game. And we ask them, like we always do, it's pretty boring, but do your job and do it the way you've been coached to do it. If we try to make it more than that, then we run into problems."
Unlike the Bulls, Northern Illinois (7-5, 6-2) is a perennial MAC contender. Since 2005, the Huskies have won three MAC championships and have appeared in eight MAC title games, including a 34-14 loss to Bowling Green in 2015 and a 51-17 win against the Falcons in 2014.
Northern Illinois clinched the MAC West title with two games to go in its regular season on Nov. 13 when Ball State defeated Western Michigan, 42-41, in overtime in Muncie, Ind. That gave Western Michigan its third MAC loss.
The Huskies will lean on their experience and their consistency as they prepare for the MAC title game.
"We probably have 10 guys that played in that game in 2015, and the fifth-year guys here were on the team that won the championship in (2014)," NIU coach Rod Carey said. "There is familiarity on our team, and you rely on those guys to talk about what it's like there, even though the majority of our team hasn't been there.
"This is my sixth time in eight years in being in this game, so scheduling, and knowing how to do that, there's some familiarity with how to navigate this week. It's an advantage, but it's only an advantage in the week. It's not going to play into the game. When you get into the game, it's the players and them going out and executing the game plan that they've learned, studied and prepared for."