Two years ago, Boston College played Massachusetts as full-fledged football bowl subdivision members. The Eagles, in their first game with Tyler Murphy under center, led by only a 6-0 count at halftime (thanks to a shanked extra point, the first of many in '14) but imposed their physical will, opening up a 20-0 third quarter lead and coasting home with a 30-7 victory.
Deep down we all kind of knew how that game would go. BC was in their second year of Steve Addazio, and we knew the Eagles had the athleticism and overall talent to run through UMass (despite not knowing what kind of formation/strategy BC would use). Despite that, the first game of the season had hype around it due to the brash predictions and attitude of the fans on message boards and social media.
Despite having two seasons under Mark Whipple, UMass is still a struggling program. Despite improving in 2014 from their dismal inaugural campaigns under Charley Molnar, the team went 3-9 again this past year, falling from tied for fourth in the Mid American Conference's East Division to one of the prohibitive worst teams in 2015. Even with an upset win over Buffalo in the season finale (which kept the Bulls from a bowl game), the Minutemen dipped 78th in scoring offense in 2014 to 108th this past season while remaining consistently bad in scoring defense (105 in 2014 to 108 in 2015).
At the conclusion of this season, the Minutemen will depart the MAC for the occasional turbulent world of independence. Committed to playing without a conference for 2016 and 2017, UMass will be without a television contract or bowl revenues.
At first glance, the moves are designed to really hurt the UMass program. Coach Whipple will be recruiting the next couple of seasons against a schedule set up for struggles. Without conference or bowl money, the Minutemen can't start paying down the $5 million subsidy provided by public funds. That money, which according to the Globe report makes up 62.5% of the UMass football operating budget, is an alarming number, especially given the team's a) poor performance on the field and b) worse performance off the field.
But UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford is attempting to get his football program out of a quagmire he was pigeon-holed into by the missteps of the original transition. He was saddled with a fragmented home schedule and a requirement to play half of UMass' home slate at Gillette Stadium in Foxboro, MA. Because of what Gillette offers, any chance at playing a marquee opponent in Amherst is gone because the more important games are pushed to the home of the New England Patriots.
These are the challenges facing UMass, and they're no doubt about to wade into some murky waters. Without a television contract, without a true home field advantage, and without any real guaranteed money outside of a couple of "paycheck games" where they'll get smashed by Florida and South Carolina - this is a tough challenge. But it's a necessary reboot as they get themselves out of the MAC and try to move their way into better times. Their future success is far from a sure thing as they try to balance the need to play guaranteed money games against rich programs with the need to prove they're worthy of a spot in a conference. At some point, they have to make a move, something that's not easy when you're stuck in limbo like they are.
I don't think I'm breaking any ground in saying UMass is in a hell of a predicament. From the beginning, I've been vocal that they mismanaged their transition to FBS. Their projections, their predictions, the groundswell of support simply isn't there. That's something we all saw coming, all knew would be the case. For some reason, the Minutemen chose to ignore it and rushed the move to FBS. They moved before they were ever really ready, necessitating the games at Gillette (which were a terrible idea from the get-go) and the affiliation with a conference that probably thought accepting the football program was the way to get the NCAA Tournament contending basketball team.
But that doesn't mean there isn't a vested interest in seeing UMass succeed. With BC on their schedule in 2014, UMass averaged 17,579 people per game in three games at Gillette and over 16,000 per game (though one of those games, a 17,000 sell-out, was the first game in Amherst since 2011). In non-BC years, however, they've failed more than once to draw 10,000 to a single game and averaged 15,000 people in one of those three years.
It shows there's an interest when Boston College plays UMass. It was well-marketed with a healthy amount of hate. Even though nobody in their right mind could have bet on a UMass win, it shows that, if the Minutemen can succeed, the Eagles will find themselves with a marketable home game against a local opponent.
In an era where BC attendance is declining and average weekly attendance at Alumni Stadium is well below the national average of about 44,000 per game, one non-conference solution is an annual game with the Minutemen. If that game draws 35,000 people, it's a solid addition to the 33,000-fan MAC special against Northern Illinois. Should BC not draw the NIUs of the world, the UMass game potentially guarantees them at least one decent G5 matchup. If UMass is able to grow their program from the doldrums they're currently in, the regional rivalry is all of a sudden a hot commodity.
For the short term, that might not make much sense, but consider what it offers BC. The Eagles get an unofficial home game in Massachusetts if the game is played at Gillette Stadium, and even if UMass expands McGuirk again, they can't match the capacity needed for the 30K-plus that went to the game the first time around. It provides the Minutemen with a built-in rivalry game, one they can market for Gillette and at home. And if UMass is able to figure things out and grow the program, the game can evolve into Massachusetts' answer to a civil war type game - east vs. west, Boston vs Amherst, private Jesuit vs. public.
There is an argument that playing UMass year-in and year-out would water down any interest in the game, especially since the Minutemen are a really bad team these days. That's where the long-term investment comes into play. By maintaining an interest in UMass football, BC is banking that the Minutemen will one day be able to figure this out. There's a trust placed in them that they can grow that program behind Ryan Bamford. It exercises a belief that in 10-15 years, maybe longer, the Eagles will have a real, legitimate rivalry with a local team, something they currently lack.
This is a low-risk type of investment for BC. The Eagles will always be one of the top college football draws in New England with their ACC affiliation. If UMass succeeds, BC will find themselves with a year-in and year-out opponent worth getting excited for. When you add in potential games against Notre Dame, the Eagles all of a sudden have real rivalries with real opponents. There's something special about those type games, perhaps even in line with the football at Fenway Park proposals.
If it fails, then there's no skin off BC's back. UMass stands alone in that. But a stronger UMass football program is mutually beneficial. And as the Minutemen enter the 2016 season as an FBS Independent, BC should see to it to help as best as they can and try to grow something that could be truly special at home in its backyard.