The State of the Program Entering I-A
With little football pedigree to draw upon, the Buffalo Bulls had seen their football team suspended in 1970 after the student body voted to stop funding the sport. Returning to Division III in 1977, the team remained a non-scholarship afterthought for the next decade and a half.
The Bulls rose to the I-AA ranks in 1993, after a 4-6 campaign in the lower ranks, and head coach Jim Ward could only lead Buffalo to one victory in their maiden campaign. The following year, the Bulls would improve to 3-8, but it wouldn’t be enough to save Ward’s job.
After a 3-8 repeat in 1995, Craig Cirbus coached the Bulls to an 8-3 record in 1996. It would be the school’s only winning record for the next dozen years, as Cirbus led Buffalo to 2-9 and 4-7 seasons ahead of their move to the I-A ranks. Other than one aberrant season in 1996, nothing in the previous decade of competition would indicate Buffalo as a viable I-A competitor.
But the Mid-American Conference was waiting, offering an immediate conference home in the I-A ranks as the league’s 13th team. Though they may not have been ready to take the leap, Buffalo was nevertheless eager for the notoriety it hoped would come at the next level of the sport.
The First Season
Nothing went right for the Bulls as they entered their first season of I-A play in the MAC. Opening their conference schedule immediately, they hosted Akron at UB Stadium. They would fall 17-10… and it would be the closest they would come to a MAC victory in their first season.
The indignity continued the following weekend, when they traveled to Storrs only to get shut out 23-0 by I-AA UConn. A slew of conference defeats followed in quick succession — 45-6 to the Ohio Bobcats to end September, double-digit home losses to Northern Illinois and Central Michigan at the beginning of October, and a 45-17 beatdown at Western Michigan on the 16th.
Returning home on October 23, Buffalo had the misfortune of taking on the undefeated Thundering Herd. A former I-AA powerhouse, Marshall was in the third season of its four-year run of dominance in the MAC and threatening the BCS with each passing week. The Herd made light work of the Bulls, silencing the sparse home crowd early in the 59-3 blowout.
A trip to Kent State on the penultimate day of October resulted in a 41-20 defeat. The Bulls could only muster 13 points in home defeat to I-AA Hofstra on the first Saturday of November. A trip to Charlottesville the next weekend proved the gulf between the ACC charter member and the MAC neophyte as Virginia knocked off the Bulls 50-21. And the winless season was capped with a 43-0 shutout on the road against Miami of Ohio to end the year 0-8 in the MAC and 0-11 overall.
How Have They Fared Since?
The only good thing that can really be said for entering your I-A existence with an utter failure of a first season is that it never truly can get worse. The Bulls’ losing streak continued into the 2000 season, as Syracuse, Rutgers and UConn extended it to 14 games. Buffalo finally got its first win at the I-A level on September 23 with a 20-17 win at home over Bowling Green. They would defeat Kent State by the same score on November 4, ending their sophomore campaign at 2-9.
Progress would be arrested as the Bulls finished 3-8 in 2001 under new head coach Jim Hofher, and the Bulls would finish 1-11 in his next two campaigns. By 2005, after going 2-9 and 1-10 in his final two seasons, Hofher was out in favor of former Nebraska quarterback and Green Bay Packers assistant coach Turner Gill.
Gill would lead the Bulls to their greatest era in the team’s history. The growing pains led to a 2-10 season in 2006, but by 2007 the team finished 5-7 to pull within one win of bowl eligibility. The foundation would be set for unprecedented success in 2008.
Opening the campaign with a 42-17 win over UTEP, Buffalo would lose to bowl-bound Pittsburgh and Missouri out of conference and split their first two MAC games against Temple and Central Michigan to get out of September at 2-3. After losing to Western Michigan 34-28 on October 11, though, the Bulls would start a five-game winning streak against Army the next weekend to get to seven wins and bowl eligibility.
Though they would lose to Kent State on the final weekend of the regular season, a down year in the MAC East sent Buffalo to the MAC championship game as the division’s representative. There they ended the last-gasp BCS dreams of undefeated Ball State, winning the conference crown in a 42-24 upset, to claim a berth in the International Bowl against UConn. Though they would lose 38-20 to the Huskies, the Bulls had finally tasted the postseason.
They would fail to build on it, going 5-7 in 2009. Then Turner Gill left for the Kansas job, leaving the place of his finest hour as a coach to take on the no-win challenge in Lawrence. Taking over in Buffalo would be Cincinnati offensive coordinator Jeff Quinn, who had been left to pick up the pieces after Brian Kelly had left the undefeated Bearcats before they played Florida in the 2010 Sugar Bowl. Now Quinn would be called upon again to clean up the dejection of Gill’s departure. But the challenge would be fierce, and, plummeting back to the cellar of the MAC, the Bulls would manage to go only 2-10 in Quinn’s first season.
The coach’s building project continues, as Buffalo has improved by one win in each of his past two seasons. But 3-9 and 4-8 records will not keep Quinn employed forever, and the Bulls are hoping for another 2008-like surge. As Gill’s charges proved that season, it is possible for a SUNY school to find success at the I-A level of college football. But in an increasingly competitive MAC, the Bulls will likely continue to battle merely to maintain mediocrity.