BUFFALO, N.Y. (AP) -Standing at the podium following Buffalo's final spring practice, junior running back James Starks made a bold statement that only a year ago would've been considered preposterous.
``It is basically a bowl game or bust for us,'' Starks said. ``That's how everybody feels. That's our mind-set.''
The Bulls are no longer the nation's punchline, and Starks' high hopes are an indication of how far the University at Buffalo has come in two years under coach Turner Gill, and after enjoying its most successful season since returning to the elite ranks in 1999.
``I think that's the biggest difference in this team: The confidence,'' quarterback Drew Willy added last weekend. ``We've won some games now, so people are definitely going to take us more seriously, and that's what we want.''
The Bulls - and the rest of the Mid-American Conference - have reason to believe Buffalo's for real.
The Bulls (5-7, 5-3 MAC) are coming off a season in which they won a share of the East Division crown, but lost the tiebreaker after losing to Miami (Ohio). This was from a team that had gone 12-79 in its first eight seasons in the MAC, while its five victories were the most since going 8-3 in 1996 as a Division I-AA program.
Buffalo also returns 18 starters, including all but one on an offense that's showing signs of jelling. The only offensive starter not back is center Jamey Richard, who's projected to be a mid-round pick in the NFL Draft.
It's a group headed by Willy, who enters his fourth year as a starter. There's Starks, whose 1,103 yards rushing last season ranked third in school history and were the most in the program's Division I-A era. And then there's the receiving tandem of junior Naaman Roosevelt and senior Ernest Jackson, which combined for 1,411 yards receiving and 10 touchdowns.
The offense's chemistry was apparent in the Bulls' annual Blue and White game on Saturday, when the first team produced touchdowns on two of its three possessions.
That included Willy's well-timed 4-yard touchdown pass to Roosevelt, hitting the receiver on a quick slant just in front of a flatfooted defender.
It was the type of pass that emphasized the confidence Willy has in his ability and the trust he's established with his receivers.
``You could tell that Drew's really developed as a quarterback this year,'' Roosevelt said. ``As soon as the play begins, he knows where to throw it.''
Coach Gill, a former Heisman Trophy-finalist quarterback at Nebraska, is impressed by the offense's progression. It's a unit that showed great improvement last season, averaging 6 more points and 80 more yards a game than in 2006.
Gill, though, wouldn't go as far as Starks in characterizing the team's objective as ``Bowl or Bust.''
``It's a high expectation, but I wouldn't necessarily say it would be a bust,'' Gill said. ``But it's not all about what's on paper. It's all about how you perform on the football field. So we're excited about the opportunity.''
Buffalo's defense is unsettled, particularly at linebacker. Gill has yet to determine his starters at the position, and hasn't ruled out the possibility of having a freshman winning a job by the time Buffalo opens its season hosting UTEP on Aug. 28.
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