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MAC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Northern Illinois vs. Buffalo

MAC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Buffalo Bulls vs. Northern Illinois Huskies

MAC Championship Game Prediction and Preview: Buffalo Bulls vs. Northern Illinois Huskies

Buffalo and Northern Illinois meet on Friday night in Detroit at Ford Field for the 2018 MAC Championship Game. These two teams did not meet in the regular season and bring an interesting contrast of styles to the Motor City. Led by quarterback Tyree Jackson and receiver Anthony Johnson, the Bulls leaned on a high-powered offense and a solid defense to win the MAC East. The Huskies are no stranger to Ford Field and the MAC Championship Game. This program has played in eight conference title games and is back after a two-year absence, leaning on the MAC’s top defense to win the West Division.

The 2018 season was a historic one for coach Lance Leipold and the Buffalo program. The Bulls won 10 games for the first time in school history, posted their best record in MAC play (7-1) and defeated Temple (36-29) and Rutgers (42-13) in non-conference action. As mentioned above, a high-powered offense guided Buffalo to the division title. Jackson led the way for a unit averaging 35.2 points a game and 5.9 yards a play. Buffalo wasn’t a one-dimensional team, as Leipold’s defense ranked third in the MAC in points allowed (24.2) and held opponents to 5.1 yards a play. The Bulls have only one previous appearance in the MAC title game. In 2008, the Bulls defeated Ball State 42-24 in the championship contest.

Northern Illinois enters Friday night’s game at 7-5, but coach Rod Carey’s team faced a brutal schedule, including non-conference matchups against Iowa, Utah and Florida State. After the 1-3 start, the Huskies proceeded to win their next six matchups but fell to Miami and Western Michigan to close out the regular season. Led by All-America candidate Sutton Smith at end, Northern Illinois possesses the MAC’s top defense and has picked up the slack for an offense that has struggled at times this season. Friday night’s game in Detroit will be the Huskies’ eighth trip to the MAC title game. This program is 3-4 in its seven previous matchups here, with the last victory coming in 2014.

Northern Illinois is 10-0 against Buffalo in matchups since 1999. Last year’s game was decided by one point (14-13), but the Bulls lost the three previous matchups by 11 points or more.

Buffalo vs. Northern Illinois

Kickoff: Friday, Nov. 30 at 7 p.m. ET

TV Channel: ESPN2

Spread: Buffalo -3.5

Three Things to Watch

1. Buffalo’s High-Powered Offense

This is the must-see matchup on Friday night. It’s a strength versus strength matchup when Buffalo’s offense is on the field against Northern Illinois’ defense. The Bulls rank third in the MAC by averaging 35.2 points a game, average 5.9 yards per play and lead the conference with 19 plays of 40 yards or more.

Quarterback Tyree Jackson earned MAC Offensive Player of the Year honors after throwing for 2,605 yards and 25 touchdowns to 11 picks this season. Jackson also has seven rushing scores over 41 carries in 2018. K.J. Osborn leads the Buffalo passing attack with 46 catches, but Anthony Johnson (45 catches for 820 yards and nine scores) is the go-to target for Jackson. The junior quarterback isn’t hurting for weapons outside of Osborn and Johnson, as receivers George Rushing and Charlie Jones have combined for 38 catches, and tight end Tyler Mabry (24 receptions) is another valuable weapon.

In addition to Buffalo’s big-play ability through the air, this offense possesses one of the MAC’s top ground games. Jaret Patterson (874 yards) leads the way on the ground for Leipold, with Kevin Marks (733) and Emmanuel Reed (371) also in the mix as key contributors.

An underrated cog in Buffalo’s offensive success this season has been the play of its line. Anchored by standout center James O’Hagan, this unit allowed only eight sacks and cleared the way for rushers to average 4.7 yards per carry in 2018.

With a standout quarterback, productive ground game and one of the top offensive lines in the nation, Buffalo’s high-powered offense is going to present a major test for Northern Illinois’ defense. The Huskies rank first in the MAC against the run, yards per play allowed and scoring defense. This unit is only giving up 20.9 points a game and 4.6 yards per snap. End Sutton Smith is a disruptive force off the edge, recording 21 tackles for a loss and 13 sacks through 12 games. Smith isn't the lone standout in the trenches for Carey, as Josh Corcoran (eight) and Jack Heflin (six) chipped in for a pass rush that has generated 46 sacks in 2018.

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Will Buffalo’s standout offensive line keep Smith away from Jackson? Or can the Huskies create pressure to limit Jackson’s ability to test one-on-one matchups on the outside? Northern Illinois ranks fifth in the MAC in pass efficiency defense and is holding quarterbacks to a 57.1 mark in completion percentage. Those numbers will be tested in this matchup of strengths on Friday night.

Related: College Football Predictions for Every Game in Week 14

2. Can Northern Illinois Find a Spark on Offense?

The offense has been a season-long issue for Northern Illinois coach Rod Carey. The Huskies scored just 13 points through the first two weeks and posted just two games of more than 30 points scored. Additionally, the Huskies managed only 28 points (including a defensive touchdown against Western Michigan) over their last two contests.

The overall numbers emphasize just how much of a struggle it has been on this side of the ball for Northern Illinois in 2018. This unit ranks 11th in the MAC in scoring (19.9 ppg), has only 11 touchdown passes this fall and is averaging 4.4 yards per snap. Quarterback Marcus Childers has all 11 of the Huskies’ touchdown tosses and is connecting on 57 percent of his passes. However, the sophomore is only averaging 5.1 yards per attempt.

The ground game is the strength of Northern Illinois’ attack, as Tre Harbison (950 yards), Marcus Jones (527) and quarterback Marcus Childers (438) will each play a role in keeping the offense on schedule on Friday night. The Huskies are averaging 4.1 yards per rush, but Buffalo has been susceptible to giving up yardage at times to opposing ground games. In a 52-17 loss to Ohio, the Bulls surrendered 437 rushing yards to the Bobcats and allowed 281 in a defeat against Army. While the loss against Ohio stands out for Leipold’s group, Buffalo still ranks fifth in the MAC versus the run and third in the conference in fewest points allowed (24.2 ppg). Additionally, this unit is giving up just 5.1 yards per play.

The gameplan for Northern Illinois is pretty simple on Friday night. This group has only five plays of 40 yards or more this season, so it will need to stay out of third-and-long situations and stay on schedule on early downs. Most importantly, the Huskies have to test the Buffalo defense and establish the run. If this offense can stay on the field and keep the Bulls’ high-powered offense on the sidelines, it's a huge boost for Northern Illinois' upset hopes.

3. Turnovers and Red Zone Defense

Considering Buffalo’s firepower on offense, Northern Illinois will need a couple of breaks to win this game.

In the turnover department, the Huskies are plus-one for the season, and the Bulls are plus-six. Buffalo has forced 22 turnovers and lost only 16. Northern Illinois has generated 18 takeaways but has lost 17.

Despite the talent on offense, Buffalo ranks last in the MAC in red zone offense. The Huskies rank fourth in the conference in red zone defense and will need this group to deliver once again on Friday night.

If Northern Illinois can finish with a plus-two or plus-three margin in the turnover battle and force Buffalo to kick field goals instead of scoring touchdowns, then Carey’s team can get the upper hand in this matchup. However, if the Bulls are scoring touchdowns and dominating in the turnover department, the Huskies will have a tough time leaving Detroit with the MAC title.

Final Analysis

Which team can establish its style of play early in this game? Northern Illinois needs to get its ground game established to limit Buffalo’s possessions and keep Tyree Jackson on the sideline. On the flipside, the Bulls want to let their prolific offense to get off to a fast start and force the Huskies out of their comfort zone. The battle in the trenches will be a crucial part of Friday night’s game. Buffalo’s offensive line has been a standout group this year but faces a tough assignment against an active front by the Huskies. While Northern Illinois’ defense is good enough to carry this team to the MAC title, the Bulls just have too much firepower on offense. In a close game, the team with the better quarterback and skill talent gets the nod as our predicted winner.

College Football Rankings: Buffalo

Prediction: Buffalo 31, Northern Illinois 24