(Eds: Will stand.)By JOHN WAWROWAP Sports Writer
AMHERST, N.Y. (AP) - University at Buffalo coach Jeff Quinn could have saved himself the airfare last December to find out firsthand whether star linebacker Khalil Mack had decided to return for his senior season.
Mack had already made up his mind he was coming back before Quinn showed up at his doorstep in Florida.
''I already knew what I was going to do in my heart, yeah, deep down,'' Mack recalled, saying the NFL draft could wait one more year because he had plenty of unfinished business to take care of back in Buffalo.
A psychology major, Mack didn't want to disappoint his mother, a school teacher, who wanted her son to finish his degree.
And then there was football. Mack didn't want to end his college career without one more shot at turning the Bulls into a winner.
''You don't want to leave a loser,'' Mack said. ''I felt that those first three seasons, it wasn't the right way to go out, man. I wanted to go out on top.''
Mack has more than done his part in boosting Buffalo and solidifying his place as one of the best players in the program's 119-year history.
Chosen as one of five Butkus Award finalists given to the nation's top linebacker, Mack's been the leader on a defense that's helped put Buffalo (8-3, 6-1 Mid-American Conference) in a position to match a school record for victories and win only its second East Division title.
That will be determined in a showdown at Ralph Wilson Stadium on Friday, when the Bulls host Bowling Green (8-3, 6-1). The winner advances to face No. 18 North Illinois in the championship game at Detroit on Dec. 6.
''It's a big week. It's a big game, one of the biggest of my career,'' Mack said. ''Every week, I go in with the same mentality, and that's to win. Other than that, there's nothing else.''
Mack has been a relentless force in putting the finishing touches on a career that has him being regarded as an NFL first-round pick. Credited with 82 tackles, 10-1/2 sacks, 16-1/2 tackles for a loss, five forced fumbles and three interceptions, he leads the team in nearly every defensive category.
Overall, Mack has already set the FBS career record with 16 forced fumbles, and holds the school record with 28-1/2 sacks. He is also three tackles for a loss shy of breaking Jason Babin's FBS career record of 75.
Mack is the school's first player to be named a finalist for a national award. And he is only Buffalo's second player to be invited to the Senior Bowl, joining defensive end Gerry Philbin (1964), who went on to become a star with the New York Jets.
''It hasn't been done before because they haven't had a Khalil Mack before,'' Quinn said. ''The best player I've ever coached.''
Quinn is in his 29th season at the college level and went 9-27 in his first three years at Buffalo.
With a talent-laden senior class returning this season, Quinn understood how much better the Bulls' chances to compete would be with Mack on board, too.
He described his visit to Mack's home as his most important recruiting trip of the offseason.
''I remember calling him up and saying, `Khalil, I'm going to be down in your area recruiting so I want to stop by your house,''' Quinn said. ''When I showed up, he said, `Hey, Coach, who are you recruiting?' And I said, `I'm recruiting you.'''
That's when Mack informed Quinn he was coming back.
''I had great faith that he was going to do the right thing,'' Quinn said. ''It was a great decision, and I couldn't have been more fired up.''
Mack has been the one on fire since the start of the season.
He began raising attention in the opener, when he put a scare into then top-ranked Ohio State. Mack finished with nine tackles, 2-1/2 sacks and returned an interception 45 yards for a touchdown as part of a Bulls run that cut the Buckeyes' lead to 27-20, before Ohio State pulled away for 40-20 win.
Mack's biggest disappointment is that Buffalo didn't pull out the upset.
''I wanted to win that game so bad,'' he said. ''We were the underdogs, and we wanted to go out and fight and show we didn't need to be that.''
Calling himself ''tremendously blessed,'' Mack said he's nowhere close to being satisfied just yet.
''I don't believe in validation,'' Mack said. ''You can say we've turned it around, but I don't think we've turned it around until we get to where we want to be, and that's the MAC championship and being MAC champions.''
AP freelancer Jonah Bronstein contributed to this story.