Three years ago, in what many around the program believed was an act of serendipity, Buffalo hired Jim Hofher to turn around its football fortunes. Three years and five victories later, the school still believes it hired the right man for the crisis.
But the reality is that victories best demonstrate the continued success of a program, and the Bulls need to show improvement in 2004, particularly in the win column. If not, Hofher's job could be in serious jeopardy.
Thirteen starters return from last year's 1-11 team, and many are experienced juniors beginning their fourth seasons in the program. In that regard, the road ahead looks somewhat fruitful.
OffenseBuffalo ranked 114th in the nation in scoring offense last year (14.8 ppg), and this was one year after the Bulls averaged just under 18 points per game.
Hofher will once again direct the offense, which will emphasize the run. Although junior starter P.J. Piskorik returns at quarterback, the Bulls need more consistency at the position, and Piskorik may not hold onto the job. Sophomore Stewart Sampsel and redshirt freshmen Chris Moore looked good in the spring, and senior Randall Secky was solid, as well.
"We've never been in a position with that kind of competitive experience returning," Hofher said. "They've proven to be slightly different in style and we don't really care. The end result is performance and production and it's eliminating errors first and allowing yourself to make a play second."
The competition at tailback also will be lively. The top six rushing leaders return, including juniors Dave Dawson and Aaron Leeper and sophomores Chris McDuffie, Jared Patterson and Steven King. Combined, this group averaged an impressive 4.6 yards per carry and scored 10 touchdowns last fall.
Senior wideout Matt Knueven rebounded from an injury-plagued sophomore season to pace the team in receptions, yards and touchdowns, but no other wideout had more than 14 catches.
DefenseLast season's group was as bad as it got in the country. Four teams scored 40 points or more and three scored over 50.
Somehow there's good news. The return of junior defensive end Anthony Andriano, who missed all of last season with a foot injury, helps. He is explosive off the edges, as is redshirt freshman Andrae Smith, who figures to have an immediate impact.
At linebacker, sophomore Ramon Guzman, who was recruited heavily by Syracuse, has moved over from fullback and is arguably the team's best athlete. The status of junior cornerback Kevin Concepcion, who served a university-mandated suspension last season, is uncertain after he was suspended yet again during the spring.
SpecialistsExpect a pair of true freshmen to take over. Kicker Gerry McGroarty from Wilkes-Barre, Pa., is a two-time all-state selection whose 64-yard field goal is the longest in state history. Punter Ben Woods from Hermitage, Pa., averaged 43.1 yards per punt as a senior.
Final AnalysisIn what figures to be another challenging schedule, four of Buffalo's first six games are on the road. The MAC crossover games, Eastern Michigan and Central Michigan, look winnable on paper, but both programs have new coaches which generally means renewed enthusiasm.
Buffalo has won a total of two games over the past two seasons, and the school's administration wants to see some progress in '04. That places Hofher squarely on the hot seat.
The running game should be solid again, but whoever plays behind center will dictate how far this team will go.
Defensively, look for Buffalo to be improved with the return of Andriano and Guzman shifting to linebacker. Another one-win season would be a major setback and could send Buffalo searching for its third head coach in five seasons.