Schools that are separated by 2,600 miles on opposite coasts will meet for the first time ever on the gridiron when Buffalo and San Diego State face off in the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl in Boise, Idaho.
Buffalo went 8-4 and finished second (6-2) in the East Division of the Mid-American Conference (MAC). In his fourth season with the school, head coach Jeff Quinn led the Bulls to just their second bowl appearance in program history and only their third winning season in the last 20 years. Buffalo lost to Connecticut 38-20 in the International Bowl following the 2008 season in its only other postseason appearance.
On the other side, San Diego State is making its fourth straight bowl appearance. Under the direction of head coach Rocky Long, the Aztecs won seven games in the regular season (7-5) and finished second (6-2) in the West Division of the Mountain West Conference (MWC). San Diego State has lost its last two bowl games, the most recent a 23-6 defeat to BYU in the 2012 Poinsettia Bowl.
For what it’s worth, the Bulls and the Aztecs did have one common opponent during the regular season. Both teams played Ohio State on the road and the games took place on back-to-back Saturdays. Buffalo opened its season with a 40-20 loss at The Horseshoe on Aug. 31, with the Aztecs coming in right behind them and likewise tasting defeat, 42-7, at the hands of the Buckeyes.
San Diego State also may a slight home-field edge in this game, which is being played at Boise State’s Bronco Stadium. As a member of the MWC, the Aztecs have played the Broncos in each of the past three seasons. This season’s contest was in San Diego State, but the Aztecs played in Boise in 2012, and won 21-19. Will their success on the well-known blue-colored artificial surface known as “Smurf Turf” carry over against the Bulls?
Buffalo vs. San Diego State
Kickoff: Saturday, Dec. 21 at 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: ESPN
Spread: Buffalo -3.5
Buffalo’s Key to Victory: Establish the run
The Bulls enters this game 67th in the nation in rushing at 171.9 yards per game. While that may not seem like a lot at first, a closer look at the numbers shows how important the ground game is to this offense. In eight wins, the offense averages 223.5 yards rushing per game. In four losses, that number plummets to just 68.6. The Bulls are powered by senior running back Branden Oliver, a two-time, first-team All-MAC selection who has rushed for nearly 4,000 yards in his career. Prior to his last game, Oliver had recorded seven straight 100-yard rushing performances, including two over 200 yards. He is averaging five yards per carry and has 1,421 yards and 15 rushing touchdowns in just 11 games. San Diego State has been very good against the run this season, coming in tied for 22nd in the nation in rushing defense (132.9 ypg). If Oliver can get going early, it should only help open up a Buffalo passing game led by sophomore quarterback Joe Licata that produced nearly 2,800 yards and 22 touchdowns with just seven interceptions.
San Diego State’s Key to Victory: Balance on offense
The Aztecs are 58th in the nation in total offense at 422 yards per game. For the season, the offense has skewed more to the pass (262.3), with more than 62 percent of their yards coming through the air. However, the recipe for much of the Aztecs’ success this season has come when both aspects of their offense is working. In San Diego State’s seven wins, the offense is averaging 255.1 yards passing per game compared to 272.1 in losses. That’s a difference of less than 20 yards. When it comes to running the ball, however, the gap is considerably bigger – try 199.9 yards rushing per game in wins versus 103.6 in losses. That’s a difference of nearly 100 yards. Junior running back Adam Muema (above, right) has gone over 1,000 yards in consecutive seasons and is averaging 19 carries a game. He needs to lead the Aztecs’ own charge on the ground against a Buffalo defense that gave up less than 160 yards rushing per game. Similar to Buffalo’s offensive game plan, Muema’s success on the ground will help open up things for quarterback Quinn Kaehler without putting too much of the burden on the junior who struggled some (239-1-2) in his last game, a 45-19 blowout loss at UNLV.
Key Player: Khalil Mack, LB, Buffalo
The 6-3, 248-pound senior is the heart and soul of the Bulls defense and one of the best defenders in all of college football. He’s a three-time, first-team All-MAC honoree and was named the conference’s Defensive Player of the Year this season. Mack established a new NCAA record for career forced fumbles with 16 and he is tied for the all-time mark with 75 tackles for a loss. He has led the team in tackles three straight years, registering 94 of them so far, along with 19 tackles for a loss, a team-high 10.5 sacks, five forced fumbles and three interceptions. He is a big reason why the Bulls were tied for 11th in the nation in sacks (36) and is definitely someone the Aztecs will need to account for on every single play. Mack is expected to be a first-round pick in May’s NFL Draft and no doubt he would love to end his collegiate career on a high note with a big game on national TV.
There’s no denying the level of competition is considerably stiffer in the MWC compared to the MAC, but that doesn’t mean you should sell this Buffalo team short. With Branden Oliver running the ball and Khalil Mack anchoring the defense, the Bulls have some NFL-caliber talent on their roster. San Diego State can put up some offense of its own, but the Aztecs have had their problems on defense and seem to lack instant impact-type of players. With Oliver and Mack playing their final collegiate games, I think their teammates will rally together and help these two standouts cap off a memorable season with the program’s first-ever bowl victory.
Prediction: Buffalo 31, San Diego State 27