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College Football Odds & Picks for Buffalo vs. Northern Illinois: Bulls are MAC Conference Contenders

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Gregory Fisher/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images. Pictured: Julien Bourassa (85).

  • Buffalo will head to DeKalb on Wednesday to take on Northern Illinois in its season-opener.
  • The Bulls are the preseason favorites to win the conference, and while Stuckey doesn't have them winning the title, he's leaning toward picking them in this game.
  • Check out Stuckey's full betting analysis with updated odds below.

Buffalo Bulls at Northern Illinois Huskies

Buffalo Odds -13 (-109) [BET NOW]
Northern Illinois Odds +13 (-112) [BET NOW]
Moneyline -625/+410 [BET NOW]
Over/Under 51.5 (-112/-109) [BET NOW]
Time Wednesday, 7 p.m. ET
TV ESPN2
Odds as of Tuesday night and via DraftKings. Get up to a $1,000 sign-up bonus at DraftKings today.

Buffalo Bulls

Fresh off an 8-5 season that was capped off by a blowout bowl victory — the first in school history — Buffalo heads into 2020 as the preseason favorite to win the conference. And it’s for good reason, as the Bulls are the only team in the MAC to rank inside the top 50 in Success Rate on both sides of the ball last year. Heading into 2020, they bring back as much production as any other team in the league.

Buffalo also really turned it on at the end of last year. If not for an FBS record fourth-quarter comeback by Kent State, it would have finished the season 7-0.

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Offense

Kyle Vantrease comes back at quarterback for the Bulls. He wasn’t great statistically last year but has some mobility they utilize in a variety of ways. Still, he isn’t necessarily a lock for the starting gig as of now. Head coach Lance Leipold stated there’s a real competiiton between Vantrease and Matt Myers, who was the starter at the beginning of 2019 before suffering an injury. We’ll see who ultimately gets the job on opening night.

Regardless, this is still a run-heavy offensive attack. To know where the strength of this offense lies, look no further than the 2019 yards per pass (outside the top 100) vs. yards per rush (top 25). Wide receiver Antonio Nunn does return as a bona fide explosive deep threat, but this offense goes as far as the ground game takes it.

Undoubtedly, the star of the show is running back Jaret Patterson. The two-star out of Laurel, Maryland, who didn’t garner much national attention out of high school, ran for 1.799 yards last season. By almost every measure, he was a legitimate top-five back nationally in Buffalo’s heavy outside zone running scheme.

And don’t forget about backup Kevin Marks, who also ran for over 1,000 yards for a Buffalo team that was one of only two schools (Central Michigan) in the country with two 1,000-yard rushers.

Of course, you can’t mention the rushing attack without bringing up the offensive line, which was tremendous in every way. Not only was it an elite run blocking unit (27th in Line Yards), but it absolutely dominated in pass protection, finishing top in the nation in Sack Rate.

Can Buffalo maintain that level of production up front? That’s a tall order after losing three starters, including two key pieces in Evin Ksiezarczyk and Paul Nosworthy. It will still have the services of Kayode Awosika, the best offensive lineman in the conference that we’ll eventually see play on Sundays.

He will be asked to move from right to left tackle, but you can assume it will be a smooth transition. Ultimately, this offensive line will have plenty of new faces and moving parts, so it’s safe to assume a drop in production. At least Buffalo has a reliable commodity in the middle with center Mike Novitsky.

Defense

The defense was the best in the MAC in 2019, ranking 26th nationally in Success Rate. It started up front with a defensive line that had no glaring weaknesses. It ranked 17th in Line Yards and fourth in Sack Rate, which almost mirrored its offensive line from a statistical perspective. Buffalo clearly got it done in the trenches on both sides of the ball.

The Bulls have the best edge-rush duo in the conference with first-team All-MAC defensive ends Taylor Riggins and Malcolm Koonce. They’ll miss Ledarius Mack, but make no qualms about it — this is still an elite MAC defensive front. Chibueze Onwuka transferred to Boston College, but massive Eddie Wilson will still hold down the interior for a defense that ranked fourth nationally in yards per rush allowed at a minuscule 2.9.

There’s also no shortage of talent behind that front. While Patterson drives the bus on offense, his twin brother, James, is no slouch at linebacker, especially against the run. He’ll move to the middle of Buffalo’s 4-3 base, flanked by Kadofi Wright (an outstanding off-ball linebacker) and FCS All-American transfer Keith Woetzel.

The Buffalo front seven is still loaded.

In regards to the secondary, the Bulls will miss Joey Banks, but All-MAC safety Tyrone Hill and cornerback Aapri Washington come back for a more than serviceable secondary.

Synopsis

The special teams are dreadful, but that’s a common theme in the MAC. That won’t hurt Buffalo. What will is a significant drop in production along the offensive line, which was nothing short of extraordinary last year. If it can come close to duplicating last year’s effort, Patterson and Marks will run wild again.

Meanwhile, the defensive front should once again wreck havoc against opposing offenses. It’s hard to envision any other team coming out of the East to play for the MAC title at Ford Field in mid-December.

Keep in mind Buffalo may come out a little salty for its season opener. The last time it faced Northern Illinois was in the 2018 MAC Championship when NIU made a miraculous late comeback to win by one.

Northern Illinois Huskies

Former Ravens running backs coach and NIU alum Thomas Hammock hopes to build some momentum in his second season as head coach in DeKalb. NIU finished with a 5-7 record, but not much went right. It dealt with key injuries and transfers in addition to an offense and defense that both ranked in the bottom 25 nationally.

Hammock will need to find a way to plug quite a few holes after losing 11 primary starters from last year’s squad. Five of those starters departed in the offseason via transfer. As a result, it’s a very young roster with 66 underclassmen.

Offense

NIU at least has a very experienced quarterback in Ross Bowers under center, but he will have a completely overhauled backfield after Tre Harbison transferred to Charlotte. Plus, second-leading rusher Jordan Nettles is no longer listed on the roster.

Losing tight end Mitchell Brinkman to the transfer portal is a big blow for an offense that features the tight end position, but three of the top four receivers do return.

Even with Harbison, NIU couldn’t run the ball, primarily as a result of an offensive line that ranked 119th in Line Yards. And when Bowers dropped back, the offensive line didn’t do a very good job of pass blocking, ranking 91st in Sack Rate. Now, the offensive line has to figure it out after losing its best player in Jordan Steckler, a four-year starter at tackle who just signed with the Patriots’ practice this past week. It will be a very inexperienced unit with more questions than answers outside of Marques Cox at left tackle.


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Defense

In 2019, NIU’s defense performed slightly better than its offense, but it was nowhere near the level we’ve seen in recent years. The Huskies will get only five returning starters back, including senior linebackers Lance Deveaux and Kyle Pugh, who missed most of last season due to injury.

The defensive line was fairly stout up front, ranking 24th in Line Yards, but it failed to generate much of a pass rush (11th in Sack Rate). NIU will now have to find replacements for two starters who decided to transfer in Jack Heflin and Matt Lorbeck, who both darted for Iowa. Weston Kramer is still very good up front, but he doesn’t have much experienced help.

Even the secondary lost a lot of production and will particularly miss safety Mykelti Williams. The linebacker corps is the clear strength of NIU’s 4-3 base defense, but the secondary and defensive line have major gaps to fill.

Synopsis

The offense returns a league-low 39% of returning production from 2019. That’s not ideal after such an unprecedented spring and summer. There are major question marks all over the offense. The same can be said for a defense that needs to quickly find solutions along the defensive line and secondary. It may be a struggle for NIU all season. At least the Huskies should field decent special teams with kicker John Richardson and punter Matt Ference.

Game Breakdown

Ball State is my pick to win the conference on a hunch and the team I see the most value with in the futures market.

That said, the highest-rated team in the conference by far is Buffalo, which is the only team in the MAC that I have projected with a top-50 offense and defense. When you combine what Buffalo was doing to MAC teams in the second half of last year with how much returning production it has, the Bulls are the well-deserved odds-on favorite to win the MAC.

There are some questions about how much of a drop-off we’ll see with some new pieces along an offensive line that destroyed opposing defensive fronts in every aspect last season. I make this line Buffalo -13, so it’s either Bulls or nothing. I want no part of this NIU team early on after all of the offseason transfers and inexperienced pieces it will need to rely on. Buffalo should control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball, and it has the best skill position players by a wide margin.

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