Our preseason previews are in full swing now, and after looking at Georgia Tech yesterday, we get a chance to look at the UMass Minutemen today.
After returning from the Emerald Isle, the Eagles will make the short trip down I-95 to the hallowed grounds of Gillette Stadium, where they'll take on their in-state rival, UMass, on the field patrolled by Tom Brady and Bill Belichick. Under the Super Bowl championship banners' gaze, BC and the Minutemen will engage in the "Battle of the Bay State" for the second time in three years.
That said, it's a very different UMass program from when BC last made the trip to Gillette in '14. In order to get the lowdown, we chatted with Michael Traini of Fight Massachusetts.
BC Interruption: UMass begins life as an independent this year. Looking back, how will the school reflect on their time spent in the MAC, and what are the long-term plans for a conference affiliate?
Fight Massachusetts: The MAC experiment from UMass' point of view will be looked upon as a necessary evil as part of the move to FBS, and that's obviously not saying much. UMass was never a good fit for the MAC, not even initially when they and Temple were supposed to join at the same time as football-only members. At least then they would have a comrade-in-arms football-only affiliate, but as soon as Temple got the chance to join the AAC (and I want to stress there is no blame for Temple here), it left UMass on a lonely island in a situation they didn't want to be in.
Going forward, the long-term plan is clearly the American Athletic Conference. It's a poorly-kept secret that UMass wants to end up with age-old rivals Temple and UConn (if they remain, which is another conversation) in the AAC, and you can bet the wheels are already turning behind the scenes for the Minutemen to position themselves favorably should the conference need teams. The AAC is the only feasible situation where UMass would accept an all-sports invite and move their basketball program from the Atlantic 10.
BCI: Blake Frohnapfel is gone, having graduated after throwing for over 6,000 yards and just about 40 touchdowns in two years. What's the position looking like for UMass this year, and how hugely important is it to the Mark Whipple offense?
FM: Quarterback is generally the primary position for any offense, but for Mark Whipple's pro-style attack, being a true field general is paramount. The sets and be play calls can be complicated, so you need someone under center with a complete grasp of the game plan.
This season will have their first serious QB competition in camp since the move to FBS, with JUCO transfer Andrew Ford battling with Ross Comis to see who takes the first snap in The Swamp on September 3rd. Both players are very talented but bring different strengths to the table. Comis has been with the program for two years already, so he has the working knowledge of what the offense is trying to do. Comis also brings a read-option threat to the table with his mobility that is an aspect Whipple hasn't had much chance to use before. Ford is the prototypical pro-style QB, a big, strong, former 4-star recruit out of high school who went to JUCO after redshirting his first year at Virginia Tech. It's too early to call on who wins the competition, but whoever does come out on top will have earned it.
BCI: What kind of defense can BC expect, and who are some of the players expected to make a name for themselves this year?
FM: UMass under defensive coordinator generally runs a 3-4 base defense that will feature a lot of movement, but you could also see more 3-3-5 this year as well. There are a lot of defensive backs on this UMass roster that are likely to see the field, and the Minutemen are proponents of utilizing a hybrid OLB/SS spot. Joe Colton filled that role for the Minutemen last season, and this year UMass has a couple of JUCO transfers in Teddy Lowery and Colbert Calhoun that should see time there.
The UMass pass rush, or lack thereof, has been a serious issue for the Minutemen since the move up. Look for JUCO transfer Ali Ali-Musa to make a name for himself at defensive end getting after the quarterback. You will likely see a couple of redshirt freshman, D'Shan Harley and Aaron Kinsey, getting their chance at OLB as well. Mike linebacker Shane Huber should have a huge season this year as well as the leader of the defense from the middle. He's a tackling machine and will be called upon to do a lot for the Minutemen. In the secondary the Minutemen have gotten younger but they've also brought in a great deal of talent. Redshirt freshman Brandon Mangram and true freshmen Martin Mangram and Cycoby Burch are just a few of the young DBs that could make an impact this year.
BCI: I thought this was the last year of guaranteed games at Gillette. What's UMass' plans to either extend the offer or get out of Foxboro altogether to move back to the 413?
FM: This is the final year of the existing deal requiring UMass to play game at Gillette, however there will be select games there in the future until UMass' on-campus stadium situation is resolved completely. Once Idaho reclassifies to FCS, UMass' McGuirk Alumni Stadium will be the smallest venue in FBS, and it needs to be totally renovated before you would ever see a team like Boston College make the trip to play an away game there.
The new leadership of the athletic department understands that college football is meant to be played on campus, and as such have set up UMass' future home schedules (staring in 2017) to be played almost exclusively in Amherst, which is a huge step. The whole 2017 home slate is in Amherst, and only the game against BYU in 2018 will be at Gillette. The Minutemen's future Gillette games (as of now) are BYU in 2018/2019, UConn in 2019/2021, and BC in 2021. Things can change, like say a conference affiliation, but going forward the team will be playing in Amherst outside of those dates.
BCI: Give me best case/worst case scenarios for UMass.
FM: There's a big swing here for the Minutemen as far as best/worse case. Best case, UMass' team chemistry comes together very quickly, their 2016 recruiting class makes a positive impact immediately from several positions, they stay healthy at key spots, and they surprise a few teams that might be looking past the newest FBS Independent. If they can get all that, along with some good breaks, they could potentially win five games in 2016, maybe even six. And since this is a "Best case scenario", one of those wins would obviously be over a reeling Boston College team in the Battle of the Bay State on September 10th.
Worst case, the growing pains for the new recruits and young players are very real, they don't get contributions from the expected places, they're hit by the injury bug, and they are worn down by the rigors of playing their most difficult schedule ever. UMass is playing three SEC teams this year, BYU on the road, an ACC opponent and big rival in BC, and they also have to travel to Hawaii to end the season. They cover a ton of miles in 2016 and don't have a bye week til mid-November. Though it pains me to say it, if things go badly for the Minutemen this season, they may fail to even match the three wins they picked up in 2014 and 2015.
BCI: Okay - now what's reasonable expectations?
FM: As is usually the case, the reasonable expectations are somewhere in the middle. There are a lot of fresh faces on this UMass team for 2016, and that will take time to shake itself out. Those fresh faces however account for the most talented recruiting class UMass has ever brought to Amherst, which is a big step forward in the maturation of the program. There will be some surprises, good and bad, but on the whole this season, even if it is disappointing record-wise, is crucial for UMass going forward, showing that they can play Independent football at the FBS level and are an attractive option for conferences once the realignment dominoes begin to fall. Personally, I see this season as another 3-9 campaign (their 3rd in a row), and while on the surface that may not look pretty or appear to be progress, if they do it against this schedule in this season, it absolutely is.