If Akron or Buffalo plays in the MAC Championship, their Oct. 17 matchup likely will have made an impact.
The Bulls are coming off the program's best season by far -- and that was before shocking Ball State to win the conference championship. After almost leaving for Auburn, coach Turner Gill returns with almost everyone except his excellent quarterback, Drew Willy.
2008 recap: Who can forget one of the most devastating home losses in Akron history? The Bulls closed the Rubber Bowl gates with a 43-40 quadruple-overtime win due to a misfired handoff between Chris Jacquemain and Dennis Kennedy. Before that game, both teams were 5-4. The Bulls won two of their last three to earn a trip to the MAC Championship (and Akron lost its last two). Buffalo's offense relied on three key components: Willy, workhorse running back James Starks and one of the nation's best route runners in receiver Naaman Roosevelt. ... The most stunning statistic was a plus-20 turnover margin (which was third in the nation). The defense recovered the most fumbles in the nation with 25. Aside from recovering an extraordinary amount of fumbles, the Bulls' defense was nothing special. It gave up a lot of rushing yards and the most first downs of any MAC team.
What they lost: Willy is a huge loss. He was a big reason why Buffalo's turnover margin was so wide. Willy threw 25 touchdowns and only six interceptions. An inexperienced offensive line will protect the new quarterback. Gill must replace three linemen, including an All-MAC guard. The defensive line lost three starters, including Mike Thompson, who led the Bulls in tackles for loss.
2009 outlook: It might seem like Buffalo is stacked for 2009, but you cannot overestimate the impact of losing six starters along both lines and a franchise quarterback. Athletic sophomore Zack Maynard is the favorite to win this August's three-man quarterback competition. ... Buffalo's safeties are the best in the conference. Mike Newton is a hard-hitting playmaker. Davante Shannon is only a junior, but he has already earned First-Team All-MAC honors twice. ... The main questions are: Can Buffalo protect an inexperienced quarterback? Will that quarterback follow Willy's lead in protecting the ball? Can Buffalo stop the run?
How the Bulls will test the Zips: Roosevelt will have a huge game. Bet on it. He had 111 receiving yards last season against Akron, and that was when the Zips had a more experienced secondary. Starks also smoked the Zips last year (151 rushing yards, 90 receiving yards, and three TDs). Keeping these two out of the endzone will be difficult. ... Of all the matchups this year, Buffalo might give Akron's receivers the hardest time. The Zips will have to rely on the ground game more often than what is comfortable.
How the Zips will test the Bulls: Akron's front seven can create chaos in Buffalo's backfield. A new quarterback will probably fall prey to interceptions and fumbles because of the defensive pressure. On offense, a healthy Alex Allen should have no trouble prancing for 100 yards.
Way-too-early prediction: There are two great unknowns: How will Buffalo's quarterback progress? And can Akron pressure him? That's why I believe this close game will come down to turnovers. The tiebreaker is Roosevelt, who scares the living daylights out of me. Akron 27, Buffalo 28