Akron's final game in the Rubber Bowl also will be one of its most important.
The Zips will duel the upstart Buffalo Bulls for first place in the MAC East. The winner ascends to 4-2 in the division and earns a tiebreaker over the loser.
Buffalo isn't just a punch line anymore. The 5-4 Bulls boast three of the MAC's best skill players. Senior quarterback Drew Willy has taken more lumps over his career than a Whack-a-Mole game, but he has developed into one of the nation's most efficient passers. He is third in the MAC in passing yards and has built a 17-4 touchdown-to-interception ratio.
Running back James Starks leads the conference in rushing yards. Also consider that his backup Brandon Thermilus has carried about nine times per game. Starks is capable of breaking off a 50- or 70-yard dash. As a power back, Thermilus is dangerous in goal line situations.
At receiver, Naaman Roosevelt is about as good as it gets. The 6-foot junior is second in the MAC with 93 receiving yards per game. Ernest Jackson, a 6-2 senior, is a solid second option. He caught two touchdowns against Missouri and accumulated 134 yards against Army.
On defense, the Bulls (like the Zips) have stayed afloat by forcing an unusual amount of turnovers. Linebacker Justin Winters and defensive back Josh Thomas have combined to force six fumbles. Winters is also sixth in the MAC in tackles. As a rule, however, the Bulls are not disruptive in the offensive backfield. They have only made eight sacks and 39 tackles for loss.
In essence, you can be moving the ball on Buffalo and scoring, particularly through the air, but the Bulls will poke the football out of your receiver's hands, score quickly, and make you wonder, "What just happened?" (It's a lot like Ric Flair, who would get the tar kicked out of him for 15 minutes, slap on the Figure Four and walk out with the title belt. Whoooo!)
For the detractors who don't believe in Buffalo, understand that the Bulls have passed every test so far. They have beaten all of the subpar teams (UTEP, Temple, Ohio, Miami and Army). They have played tough against the good teams on their schedule (Pitt, Western Michigan, Central Michigan and Missouri). The test on Thursday, however, is whether Buffalo can pull out a win it needs it most.