It’s bowl game or bust for UConn football in 2014

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

A total of 76 teams will make the postseason for college football in 2014. UConn needs to be one of those 76 for the season to be a success.

There will be a lot of bowl games starting this December.

And that might be the most understated lead I’ve ever written because there’s going to be more than a lot. There will be 38, which is an absurd number that grows to 39 if you include the new title game. As you survey this year’s bowl schedule, there will be multiple games every day for two solid weeks.

A total of 76 teams will make the postseason for college football this year. We can argue all day about whether that’s too many or just right or, hell, let’s play even more – that’s the number for this year.

UConn needs to be one of those 76.

Some UConn fans may choke at the word "needs" because they sat through a brutal three-year stretch under Paul Pasqualoni that ended with a resounding thud last September. They watched UConn get manhandled by Towson and Buffalo. They may believe that a bowl game may too high a bar to clear for a 3-9 team with a new coach.

I disagree.

For starters, UConn was not that far away from a bowl game in 2013, despite how horrific the season played out. UConn won three games. They should have beat Michigan. They should have beat USF. They were within a touchdown of SMU with four minutes to go. And an FBS team should always beat an FCS team.

Obviously, those things didn’t happen and 3-9 is an ugly record to look at no matter how you analyze it.

But there are more than a few things working in UConn’s favor that makes a bowl game the reasonable end goal for Bob Diaco’s first season.

Offensively, UConn has a lot of talent coming back. Geremy Davis toward the end of last season proved to be one of the most valuable wide receivers UConn has ever had, calling to mind Marcus Easley’s tremendous 2009 season. Casey Cochran and Tim Boyle, at times, proved to have the ability to complete passes – a vital and important part of winning football games that had seemed to vanish last September with Chandler Witmer. Max DeLorenzo and Lyle McCombs both return in the backfield and have shown flashes of brilliance in the running game when given an opportunity.

I’m not expecting the UConn offense to suddenly replicate Gus Malzahn’s offensive frenzy at Auburn but the pieces are in place for UConn to score points. If you’ve watched UConn football since the 2011 Fiesta Bowl – you know how important that is.

On the defensive side of the ball, there is talent if it’s young and unproven. But Diaco has made his career building and creating tough, attacking defenses. We saw Diaco’s Notre Dame defense in 2012 lead the Irish to an undefeated season and a BCS title game berth despite an offense that struggled mightily at times.

Diaco is another huge plus simply in the fact that he is not Paul Pasqualoni. It’s impossible to overstate how terrible Pasqualoni was for the UConn football culture – the apathy that surrounded the program, the declining season ticket sales, the mounting losses, the frustrating decisions. Diaco has tried to be as polite as he can but he has admitted – sometimes overtly – that the program was in disrepair and the slate had to be wiped clean.

But the most important reason why UConn should view a bowl game as the definition of success in 2014 is the schedule. It is, in a word, manageable.

The 12 games can be broken down into categories, which show how getting to six wins is reasonable.

The Unwinnable: at East Carolina

East Carolina is a potential 10-win team that scores a ton of points and is mighty tough to beat at home. I am getting a UCF 2013 vibe from ECU as the program has been dying to leave the faltering Conference USA for a decade now and has finally got its chance. While the AAC lost its automatic BCS berth, it still has by far the best chance of the "other five" conferences to make a New Year’s bowl game. You think East Carolina doesn’t know that? Just feels like way too much to ask of a young UConn team.

The Home Game Opportunities: BYU, Boise State, UCF, Cincinnati

I wrote about this at length in a previous blog post and UConn needs to steal at least one of these games. Of these four, I believe Boise State will provide the best opportunity since they always have a new coach and UConn should, okay could, be riding the momentum of a close game against BYU and easy win over Stony Brook.

UCF and Cincinnati both appear to be AAC preseason favorites, along with East Carolina and Houston. Missing the last team there – Houston – is a huge help to getting to six wins.

If UConn wins two of these games, a bowl game would be all but assured.

The Should Win’s: at USF, at Tulane, at Memphis

The Friday night game at USF, after three straight home games to start the season, could be the most important game of the season. It’s tough to plot out circumstances four months in advance but if UConn loses to BYU and Boise State, they would be 1-2 going into that game and a loss to USF would be devastating.

As for Tulane, they went 7-5 last year against a very mediocre schedule and faded down the stretch. Tulane also lost a lot from graduation, so they are bound to take a bit of a step back. It’s a road game, which makes it difficult, but UConn should win this game. At the very least, it’ll be a pick ‘em.

The Must Win’s: Stony Brook, Temple, vs Army

Not really much to say here – UConn should win all three of these games against inferior competition, especially with the first two being home games. Army at Yankee Stadium will be a scene but Army, going through its own coaching change, should not beat UConn this year.

The Big Question Mark: SMU

Saturday, December 6, at Rentschler Field – SMU at UConn – and who knows what could be on the line. At the very least UConn should be 5-6 going into this game. They may have already gotten to six by then. Maybe SMU is really good, maybe they’re not as the program can’t seem to figure out if they’ve turned the corner with June Jones or not.

So the math is pretty easy for UConn to make a bowl game.

If they win two of the four big home games, they have margin for error and will make the postseason.

If they win one of the four big home games, they need to go 5-2 against the bottom half of their schedule.

And if they win zero of the big home games, they need to go 6-1.

UConn really needs to win one of the big home games.

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