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UMass Football To The FBS, Part I: Can The Minutemen Compete?

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[Ed. note -- The Barking Carnival / Twelve Pack dudes recently introduced me to Tbrennan, a PhD candidate at Stanford. As a lifelong college football fan and stat nerd (with a love of maps), he recently wrote a paper on UMass' transition to Division I-A and thought it would be an interesting read from a Boston College perspective. You know, since I've kinda freaked out about the Minutemen's move to I-A and its impact on the future of BC football. Hope this set of posts this week will stimulate some good discussion as our fan base prepares to welcome an in-state rival to big-time football. Enjoy.]


Is Amherst Foxborough, Massachusetts ready for big-time college football?

You'd be forgiven if you missed the big headlines on April 20 when the University of Massachusetts at Amherst announced plans to move up from Division I-AA to I-A (or to the FBS from the FCS for all in favor of those newfangled acronyms). The transition will also entail leaving the Colonial Athletic Association (CAA), probably the deepest conference in I-AA, and joining the MAC (certainly not the deepest conference in I-A) and is to commence with the 2012 season. UMass will play a mixed I-AA/I-A schedule in 2012 and will not be eligible for postseason play until 2013. The announcement followed some months of speculation that Villanova, another CAA team, would also be moving up to I-A to play in the Big East (this does not appear to be happening anytime soon).

While this offseason story might lack the drama and suspense of the Duckeyes, it’s worth noting that some pretty successful teams including Boise State, South Florida, and UConn have made the I-AA to I-A transition in the past 15 years. On the other hand, so have teams like Florida International, Western Kentucky and Buffalo. So is UMass the next Boise State or the next FIU?

UMass may be best known in the sports world as the school that Marcus Camby Reggie-Bushed to the 1996 Final Four, but the football team has had a good deal of success at the I-AA level, winning the national title in 1998 and being runner-up in 1978 and 2006.  They have played the past four seasons in the CAA and prior to that in the Atlantic-10 with most of the teams that now compose the CAA.  The CAA, known for its penchant  for embarrassing the ACC, includes Delaware (the 2007 and 2010 I-AA runner-up), Richmond (the 2008 I-AA national champ), Villanova (the 2009 I-AA national champ), and James Madison (the 2004 I-AA national champ, but probably more famous for beating Virginia Tech last year). So yeah, like I said, the CAA is a good conference whose members have beaten a number of I-A teams. Indeed, just last fall UMass nearly mounted a successful comeback against the winningest program in I-A history and the year before only lost by four at Kansas State. Going back to 2007, UMass kept it close against BC’s best team in years losing 24-14 (it was also a pretty good season for UMass); UMass and BC will play again this fall. Do not expect UMass to be intimidated by the higher competition level in I-A.

In addition to the anecdotal there is also quantitative evidence that the Minutemen will be able to hold their own in the MAC. Looking at the final Sagarin rankings of the BCS era, (see table below) UMass finished ahead of an average of 32 I-A teams per year. Pretty impressive. On the other hand, their average ranking among I-AA teams was only 15th so by no means have they been completely dominating the I-AA field. Also note that UMass has typically ranked highly even without a stellar record (e.g. 2008), a byproduct of their tough schedule.

UMass-Amherst Football in the BCS Era

Year Wins Losses Win. Pct. Sagarin Overall Sagarin I-AA # of I-A Teams Behind UMass
*1998 12 3 0.800 65 2 49
1999 9 4 0.692 92 6 28
2000 7 4 0.636 120 25 20
2001 3 8 0.273 168 52 1
2002 8 4 0.667 105 12 24
2003 10 3 0.769 99 9 27
2004 6 5 0.545 104 19 34
2005 7 4 0.636 98 11 32
**2006 13 2 0.867 71 4 52
2007 10 3 0.769 72 4 52
2008 7 5 0.583 93 12 39
2009 5 6 0.455 105 14 29
2010 6 5 0.545 112 19 27

* I-AA champion
** I-AA runner-up
Note: For 2001-2010 Sagarin's Predictor algorithm (which factors in margin of victory/defeat) was used. It is not available for 1998-2000.

Another interesting part of UMass’s transition to I-A will be how big of a crowd it can draw to its new "home" stadium. The Minutemen will begin playing their home games at Gillette Stadium, a mere 2 hours from campus.  Despite the distance, their first experiment with playing at Gillette last year against New Hampshire resulted in a bad defeat but the attendance highlight of the year as they attracted more than 30,000 fans, over double their average in Amherst (note that the NCAA requires an average attendance of at least 15,000 for I-A programs). As long as Patriots owner Robert Kraft is letting UMass play there rent-free on Saturdays, it looks like attracting fans and alums to the games will be best done in Foxborough rather than the "hippy haven" of Amherst.  Hopefully UMass finds a good way to get students to and from the games.

Given their consistently strong play at the I-AA level and UMass’s status as the flagship university of a large (if not football-mad) state, I’m pretty confident that UMass will hold its own in the MAC. But past performance and attendance aside, my primary interest in writing about UMass’s transition to big time football has to do with recruiting (a point recently raised by Ivan Maisel), namely: what are their prospects in the barren Northeast (where "Northeast" means New England plus New York)?

From the BC fan’s perspective, UMass’s move raises a few questions:

-- Will UMass alumni suddenly act like they’ve really been huge college football fans all along and attempt to display their fandom in a rather ingratiating fashion?
-- Will and should BC play UMass regularly?
-- Will they steal any of BC’s players? 

This week I’d like to take a look at the last point and see if there are in fact enough quality players around to stock Northeast rosters.

I’ve previously written for a Texas audience on quantifying recruiting success and who the underperformers are (hint: two of the three I discuss are actually ACC schools). I thought an examination of the recruiting landscape near Amherst, Massachusetts as I’ll describe in Parts 2 & 3 might be a nice way to further describe my modeling and why I got interested in this topic.

Note: you’ve been warned.