While San Diego State and Buffalo may be at different levels of program building, both teams see a potential next step in the offering with a victory in Saturday's Famous Idaho Potato Bowl at Boise.
The Aztecs (7-5) set a school record with their fourth consecutive bowl appearance after finishing second to Fresno State in the West Division of the Mountain West Conference. San Diego State overcame a brutal 0-3 start in which it was drilled 40-19 by FCS school Eastern Illinois on Aug. 31 to open the season and routed 42-7 at Ohio State the following week.
Coach Rocky Long has sustained the success of predecessor Brady Hoke, guiding the Aztecs to bowl appearances in each of his three seasons and is trying to balance using the game as a reward for a successful season as well as a foundation for next year's team.
"I think the team is happy and excited to about going to a bowl game," Long said. "As a coach, you would like more time to prepare because you could work more on next year's team if you had another week or so before you play. But we have enough time to work on next year's team a little bit as we prepare for the bowl game."
The four straight bowls match San Diego State's total bowl appearances in its first 41 years after joining Division I, and the Aztecs are the first FBS team to make a bowl appearance following an 0-3 start since 2010. They closed the regular season with a 45-19 loss at UNLV, their first contest in eight games not decided by seven or fewer points.
Running back Adam Muema will be pivotal for San Diego State to win just its second bowl game in the last seven. The junior topped 1,000 yards for the second straight season, but has totaled only 57 yards on 36 carries his last two games after amassing 620 in the previous four.
"(The lack of success) has nothing to do with Adam Muema," Long insisted. "It has to do with our offensive line not blocking very well for the run in the last two games. But all good running backs that have a good game have to have someone open a hole for them up front."
Senior safety Nat Berhe, a first-team all-Mountain West selection, anchors the San Diego State defense. He totaled team highs of 59 solo tackles and 94 overall and added six passes defended and two fumble recoveries.
Buffalo is making its second bowl appearance in school history after setting an FBS-program record for wins with its 8-4 record. Like the Aztecs, the Bulls overcame a rocky start that included lopsided losses to BCS-bound Ohio State and Baylor by a combined 110-33 to begin the season.
They turned it around with a five-overtime win over FCS foe Stony Brook that triggered a seven-game winning streak in which they averaged 35.0 points. That offense continued to hum until Buffalo's regular-season finale, a 24-7 loss to eventual Mid-American Conference champion Bowling Green on Nov. 29.
"It's been four years in the making," coach Jeff Quinn said about his team's bowl berth. "We talked about setting our goals towards being a football program that has a November and December tradition. And to be invited to a bowl game when we knew there were more bowl eligible teams, represents the kind of hard work we have invested in ourselves."
The Bulls have a standout running back of their own in senior Branden Oliver, also a two-time 1,000-yard rusher after totaling 1,421 yards and 15 TDs. He had a streak of seven consecutive 100-yard games end in last month's loss to the Falcons, who held him to 46 yards on 18 carries.
"I remember Buffalo played Ohio State pretty tough, a lot tougher than we did, so they have some good players on that team and especially on defense," Aztecs quarterback Quinn Kaehler said. "I just think we need to execute better both in the running game and the passing game."
Buffalo made its only other bowl appearance in 2009 -- a loss to Connecticut in the International Bowl -- but it also turned down an invitation to the 1958 Tangerine Bowl after being told two of its African-American players would not be allowed to participate.
San Diego State rebounded from an 0-3 start to the season to win seven of its last nine. Buffalo opened 7-2, with its only two losses coming to teams playing in BCS bowl games (Ohio State, Baylor), but dropped two of its last three. San Diego State will need to run the ball with some success against Buffalo's stout rushing defense. In the Aztecs' seven wins this season, they ran for 2 more yards per carry than in their five losses.