Frank Solich has Ohio positioned for its fourth MAC Championship Game of the last decade entering the 2016 season's final stretch.
But for the Bobcats to return to Detroit — and perhaps win the MAC title game for the first time in program history — they must first fend off a suddenly surging bunch from Buffalo.
The Bulls limped to a 1-6 start in head coach Lance Leipold's second season. However, Buffalo comes into Thursday night's divisional matchup having already impacted the MAC East race, last week beating Akron in one of the stranger outcomes of the season.
Bulls running back Jordan Johnson gashed the Zips for 282 yards and a pair of touchdowns in the 40-21 upset.
Buffalo at Ohio
Kickoff: Thursday, Nov. 3, at 6 p.m. ET
TV Channel: CBS Sports Network
Spread: Ohio -19.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Ohio's Run Defense
The ground attack buoyed Buffalo last week against Akron in what could realistically be deemed the biggest win of the Lance Leipold era. Complementing Jordan Johnson's 282 rushing yards, dual-threat quarterback Tyree Jackson added 60 of his own, with another couple of rushing touchdowns.
The Bulls' four rushing scores against the Zips equal half the total number of touchdowns Ohio's given up on the ground all year.
The Bobcat run defense ranks as one of the nation's best at 20th overall, yielding just 115.9 rushing yards per game and 3.27 yards per carry. Take away the 201 rushing yards Tennessee gained on the Bobcats in Week 3, and that average drops to 105 yards per contest.
2. The Multifaceted Bobcat Rushing Attack
Frank Solich's teams have remained true to the option for more than a decade, which he brought to Athens, Ohio, from his time at Nebraska. Ohio typically ranks among the better rushing offenses in the nation as a result, and this year's Bobcats post a respectable 200 yards per game on the ground.
The hallmark of most any Solich team is the balance of the run game, and this year, five Bobcats average between 23 and 78 yards per contest, with four ball carriers scoring at least three touchdowns.
Buffalo's rush defense comes in ranked not just last in the MAC, but below all but three teams in the FBS at 269 yards per game.
3. Two Ends of the Turnover Spectrum
Ohio's plus-7 advantage on the turnover battle has served the Bobcats well with them playing multiple close games. The Bobcats have proven especially adept at forcing turnovers; their 19 takeaways match such ballyhooed defenses at Texas A&M and Washington.
Buffalo, meanwhile, is on the wrong end of a season-long minus-3 turnover disparity. The Bulls haven't given up many possessions, but have struggled generating takeaways.
Ohio's road to first place in the MAC East and a 6-3 record on the season has been a veritable tight-rope walk. Six of the Bobcats' nine games have been decided by single digits, including all three losses, and each of their last four games.
The trend would dictate Ohio's headed to another nail-biter, especially with Buffalo coming in off a much-needed, potentially reinvigorating win over Akron. Conversely, every other trend suggests a lopsided, Bobcat win: Ohio's success stopping the run; the Bobcats' rushing prowess against Buffalo's porous rush defense; a 10-turnover disparity in the season-long margin.
Buffalo's two wins came against two of its better opponents, Army and Akron, and making it a third win over a probable bowl team would be a nice foundation for Lance Leipold's rebuilding project. However, the Bulls might be overmatched this time around.
Prediction: Ohio 37, Buffalo 20
(Top photo by Sarah Stier/Ohio Athletics, courtesy of www.ohiobobcats.com)