The 2018 version of the Dollar General Bowl certainly doesn’t lack for intrigue, as Buffalo and Troy meet in Mobile on Saturday night for a matchup of two of college football’s top Group of 5 programs from the regular season. The Trojans will be looking for their 10th win of the season and aim to extend the Sun Belt’s recent run of success in this bowl, as the conference has claimed five out of the last six games versus the MAC. The Bulls hope to erase a disappointing second half in the MAC title game with a win over Troy, lifting the program to 11 victories for the first time in school history.
With a win over Buffalo over Saturday night, Troy would earn its 10th victory of the season, giving the program three consecutive seasons of double-digit wins. Under coach Neal Brown’s direction, the Trojans are 30-8 over the last three years and have claimed back-to-back victories in bowl contests. Additionally, Troy has defeated Power 5 opponents for two straight seasons. The Trojans knocked off LSU in 2016 and defeated Nebraska in ’17. Despite losing quarterback Kaleb Barker due to injury midway through the 2018 campaign, Troy leaned on a standout defense to finish with nine overall victories and just one loss (Appalachian State) in league play this fall.
The 2018 season has been a historic one for coach Lance Leipold and the Buffalo program. The Bulls won 10 games for the first time in school history, claimed the program’s first MAC East title since 2008 and earned a bowl trip for just the third time at the FBS level. After a 109-6 run at Wisconsin-Whitewater, Leipold took over in Buffalo prior to the 2015 season. After a 7-17 start, Leipold has guided the program to a 16-9 mark over the last two seasons. Like Brown, Leipold is clearly a rising star at the FBS level and could get looks at Power 5 programs in the near future. The Bulls picked up non-conference victories against Temple and Rutgers en route to their 10-win season, but Leipold’s team ended the regular season in disappointing fashion. After leading 29-10 in the third quarter of the MAC Championship, Buffalo fell 30-29 after Northern Illinois scored 20 unanswered in the second half.
This is the first meeting between these two programs. Buffalo is 0-2 in its previous bowl appearances, while Troy is 4-3 overall.
Dollar General Bowl: Buffalo (10-3) vs. Troy (9-3)
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 22 at 7 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Buffalo -2
Three Things to Watch
1. Strength vs. Strength...Buffalo’s Offense Against Troy’s Defense
This is the must-see matchup for Saturday’s game. Buffalo’s offense is one of the best in college football, averaging 34.8 points a game and 5.8 yards per play. Defense has led the way for Brown’s team in 2018, as Troy is holding opponents to 5.0 yards a play and just 21.2 points a game.
The catalyst for Buffalo’s offense is quarterback Tyree Jackson. The junior has intriguing arm talent and size (6-foot-7) and posted 2,857 yards and 27 touchdowns to just 11 picks in the regular season. He also added 165 rushing yards and seven scores on the ground and connected on 14 throws of 40 yards or more and eight of 50-plus. Even though Jackson has a good arm and is the reigning first-team All-MAC quarterback, he can stand to improve on a completion percentage that checks in at 55.1 percent in 2018. It’s no secret the go-to receiver for Jackson is Anthony Johnson (52 catches for 944 yards and 11 TDs), but K.J. Osborn (49), George Rushing (21) and tight end Tyler Mabry (25) will test a Troy secondary that ranked fourth in the Sun Belt in pass efficiency defense.
The aerial assault isn’t the only strength on Buffalo’s offense. The Bulls average nearly 200 yards a game on the ground (195.8), making it difficult to find a flaw on Leipold’s group. The freshman tandem of Jaret Patterson (946 yards) and Kevin Marks (805) leads the way for Leipold’s ground game, with one of the nation’s top offensive lines clearing the way in the trenches.
While Brown has a background on offense, Troy’s defense has quietly led the way over the last three seasons. Last year’s unit led the Sun Belt by holding opponents to 18.5 points a game, and the 2018 version is only giving up 21.2 a contest. Additionally, the Trojans rank second in the Sun Belt by holding teams to 5.01 yards a play, led the league in rush defense and sacks generated (36). Coordinator Vic Koenning’s group is anchored by first-team All-Sun Belt linebacker Hunter Reese (14.5 TFL) and lineman Trevon Sanders (7 TFL), while second-team selection Tron Folsom (79 tackles) paces the team in stops.
Can Buffalo get its high-powered offense on track against Troy’s standout defense? The Trojans excel at getting to the quarterback and creating havoc in the backfield, but the Bulls have one of the top offensive lines in the nation. If this unit protects Jackson, there will be opportunities for Johnson to make big plays downfield.
2. Troy’s Offense
Troy’s offense suffered an early setback with the season-ending injury to quarterback Kaleb Barker, but Sawyer Smith kept this unit on track. The Trojans averaged 29.8 points a game, 5.9 yards per play and generated 21 plays of 40 yards or more in 2018.
After sluggish performances in games against Texas State and Appalachian State to close out the regular season, there should be no shortage of motivation from Smith. In six games prior to injury, Barker connected on 73 percent of his passes for 10 touchdowns and 1,013 yards. Smith finished the regular season with 1,349 yards and 10 passing scores, while connecting on 61.1 percent of his passes. While both quarterbacks are certainly capable, the small sample size suggests a healthy Barker would make a difference for this attack. However, Smith was hindered late in the year by injuries in the receiving corps. Damion Willis (43 catches) and Deondre Douglas (44 grabs) missed time in the second half of the season but are listed on the depth chart as starters for Saturday night’s game. Getting a full complement of receivers comes at the right time for Smith. Buffalo’s defense struggled to contain Northern Illinois’ passing game in the MAC Championship and gave up nine passing scores over its final three games.
Up front, Troy will lean on its ground game to chew up the clock and keep Buffalo’s high-powered attack on the sideline. B.J. Smith ended the regular season with 1,093 yards and 12 touchdowns, with Jabir Daughtry-Frye (369) and Sawyer Smith (192) chipping in as secondary options on the ground. Led by standout linebacker Khalil Hodge, Buffalo’s defense ranked fourth in the MAC against the run and allowed only two opponents to rush for more than 250 yards this season.
Buffalo’s defensive numbers are solid within the MAC, but this unit has been vulnerable at times. Can Troy find success on the ground and stay in third-and-manageable all night? Additionally, will a healthy receiving corps make a big difference in the passing game after struggling at the end of the regular season?
3. Turnovers/Special Teams
With a tight game expected, turnovers or a play on special teams could decide this contest. And considering this matchup is considered a toss up by the oddsmakers, it should be no surprise both teams enter Saturday night with a plus-seven turnover margin. Troy has been better at generating takeaways (27 to 23) but is slightly more generous in giveaways (20 to 16).
On special teams, Troy kicker Tyler Sumpter connected on 18 of 24 kicks and averaged 44.8 yards a punt. Cedarius Rookard has scored on a punt return for the Trojans, while Marcus Jones averaged 25.6 yards (with a touchdown) on kickoffs.
Field goals have been a bit of an adventure for Buffalo this season. Kicker Adam Mitcheson has connected on 8 of 12 field goals but has missed seven extra points (48 of 55). Punter Evan Finegan is averaging 41.8 yards a kick, while K.J. Osborn (punts) and Charlie Jones (kicks) are handling the bulk of the returns.
Of the four bowl games on Saturday, Dec. 22, this should be the must-see matchup. Will Buffalo erase the disappointment of the MAC Championship and add to a historic season? Or will Troy add a victory and another double-digit season to the impressive resume of Brown? This game is all about style of play. Can the Bulls use their dynamic offense to jump ahead and force the Trojans out of their comfort zone? Or can Troy’s defense create havoc in the backfield and force Jackson into making a couple of mistakes to give the offense a couple of short fields? This one is tough to pick, but let’s take the team that should have a homefield advantage and a better defense (Troy).