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Minnesota Football vs. Buffalo - Week 1 Preview

In the season’s first opponent preview, we take a look at whether the Gophers’ Week 1 opponent is elite (or not elite) on either side of the football.

NCAA Football: Buffalo at Nevada Lance Iversen-USA TODAY Sports

Tomorrow night is the night! Gopher football returns to TCF Bank Stadium in a Thursday night matchup with the Buffalo Bulls.

Are the Bulls elite? Not so much. Grab your oar and let’s take a closer look.

Offense: Not Elite.

In 2016, Buffalo ranked 126th in overall offense, 104th in rushing offense, and 123rd in passing offense, per S&P+. In addition to averaging a meager 16.5 points per game, the Bulls’ offense mustered more than 24 points in just one game all last season. Head coach Lance Leipold didn’t send offensive coordinator Andy Kotelnicki packing, but instead shifted him from quarterbacks coach to running backs coach and brought in former Mitch Leidner mentor Jim Zebrowski to work with the signal callers.

Sophomore quarterback Tyree Jackson returns after coming off bench as a redshirt freshman in the season opener to replace ineffective Iowa State transfer Grant Rohach. Jackson started nine consecutive games before missing the final two of the season due to injury. He finished the season 165-for-311 (53.1%) with 1,772 passing yards, nine touchdowns, and nine interceptions, to go along with 399 rushing yards on 99 attempts and 5 rushing touchdowns.

The Bulls replace last year’s thousand-yard rusher with junior running back Johnathan Hawkins, who was third on the team in 2016 with 74 attempts, 338 rushing yards, and one touchdown. Jackson and Hawkins will be operating behind an offensive line that returns four starters, with 6’6’’, 344-lb. Rutgers transfer Jacquis Webb (credit to him for escaping the clutches of Chris Ash) filling in the open spot at left tackle.

Last season’s top three leading receivers are gone, including tight end Mason Schreck, who led the team with 59 receptions, 651 receiving yards, and four touchdowns. Senior wide receivers Kamathi Holsey and Jamarl Eiland are the lone returnees with at least 10 receptions a year ago. Sophomore tight end Tyler Mabry (nine receptions for 95 yards last season) will step in for the NFL-bound Schreck, and with how much the Bulls like to utilize the tight end in the passing game, expect him to be a key contributor.

The Bulls’ success on offense this season will hinge on the development of Jackson at quarterback. At 6’7’’, 245 lbs., Jackson has the physical tools to succeed, both as a passer and as a runner. He’ll even have the benefit of a strong offensive line, but the lack of proven players at wide receiver is a concern for Buffalo. Holsey and Eiland together combined for a 40 percent catch rate last season, so don’t be surprised if the passing game struggles to find a rhythm.

Defense: Not Elite.

To say that Buffalo struggled to defend the run in 2016 would be an understatement. Their opponents ran the ball 70 percent of the time on standard downs and 45 percent of the time on passing downs — and with good reason.

The Bulls’ defensive line allowed 253 rushing yards per game last season — a school record — despite having an experienced unit that now loses five defensive lineman, including two starters. Depth in the trenches will be razor thin, especially early in the season, so Buffalo will lean on senior defensive tackle Chris Ford (30 tackles, one sack, two tackles for loss) and senior defensive end Demone Harris (30 tackles, 3 sacks, one tackle for loss).

The good news for Buffalo is that all three starting linebackers return, including last season’s leading tackler Khalil Hodge (123 tackles, one sack, six tackles for loss). Senior linebacker Ishmael Hargrove was second on the team with 103 tackles, 2.5 sacks, and three tackles for loss. The entire two-deep at linebacker is back from last season, so this represents the Bulls’ most experienced position on defense.

The Bulls should see improvement in the secondary with a plethora of returnees, including three starters. Safety Ryan Williamson is a name to remember. He collected 74 tackles, two tackles for loss, three pass breakups, and one interception last season. Junior Cameron Lewis, with 60 tackles and seven pass breakups in 2016, will be their most experienced cornerback. Buffalo ranked 89th in passing defense last season according to S&P+, which could have been considered a relative “strength” compared to the abysmal rushing defense.

The bottom line: The Bulls need to be able to stop the run to have any kind of success on defense. I’m skeptical that they can make a substantial improvement from last year, although the experienced linebacker corps works in their favor. Defensive coordinator Brian Borland had some serious success at the Division III level before arriving at Buffalo, but whether he can translate that to the FBS level remains to be seen.

Prediction: Minnesota 34, Buffalo 14. I don’t expect the Gophers to be firing on all cylinders on offense, what with two quarterbacks under center — sophomore Demry Croft and senior Conor Rhoda -- and this being the first game under new offensive coordinator Kirk Ciarrocca. But I think Minnesota’s rushing attack should be able to take advantage of a weak Buffalo defensive front, allowing Rodney Smith and Shannon Brooks to run wild and alleviate some of the pressure on the quarterbacks. I don’t think the Bulls have quite enough firepower to test the Gophers’ thin secondary, but they’ll be able to put at least a few points on the board.