The 2014 UConn football season is all about perception.
Under Randy Edsall, UConn was perceived to be an improving program with potential.
Under Paul Pasqualoni, UConn was perceived to be a glorified FCS team without the ability to recruit or compete in a major football conference.
That dichotomy has been tough for UConn fans to deal with over the past three years. For the program’s first decade at the FBS level, there was always an undercurrent of optimism. Everyone understood that UConn was fighting an uphill battle in college football, including the lack of history, a disintegrating conference and an infertile recruiting area.
Last year, the bottom fell out. The Big East died. The American Athletic Conference rose from its ashes, rather successfully in year 1. The losses piled up. The doubt crept in. The program was mocked nationally.
Over the past couple of weeks, I have written about what success looks like for UConn football this year and it all boils down to perception. UConn has to overcome the past three years and, due to the current climate of college football, it has to do so quickly. Fair or not, there is a significant portion of the fanbase that will not be satisfied until the Huskies have joined the Big Ten or the ACC.
That’s a long-term goal that wins and losses only can’t achieve.
For 2014, UConn needs to get better. If you’ve heard new coach Bob Diaco speak during his impressive tour of the state, he has continually harped on this. He is not talking about wins or losses in these stump speeches, but how the UConn program can improve.
Diaco has been in full-fledged salesman mode because he knows that perception can be derived from television – a sold-out Rent filled with season ticket holders look better than a half-empty stadium on ESPN.
The wins and loss will be important too, whether that means pocketing a big home win over a quality opponent or nabbing the program’s first bowl game since the Fiesta Bowl, aiding by a manageable schedule.
However, success is not always what you can do – but what you can avoid.
The past three years for UConn have been marked by bad, bad losses. There were multiple games last year in which UConn was simply not competitive. Maryland, UCF and Louisville all basically toyed with the Huskies. Towson absolutely dominated them. Buffalo completely embarrassed them and finally put Paul Pasqualoni out of his misery.
When it comes to building a program – or rebuilding, in the case of Diaco – the perception must be there that things are turning around. As we have seen with the good start to recruiting, the energy and pedigree of Diaco is already shining through. The momentum, remarkably, is there.
But they haven’t kicked off yet.
In 2013, Washington State made its first bowl game in a decade under Mike Leach but the seeds were planted during a 3-9 campaign in 2012. The win-loss number wasn’t pretty but if you followed the Cougars that season – or if you were a recruit they were targeting – you saw vast improvement. They lost to eventual Rose Bowl champs Stanford by 7 on the road. The lost to eventual Pac-12 South champion UCLA by 8 at home. It came to fruition with a Thanksgiving weekend victory over archrival Washington.
UConn will not face a schedule as hard as the one Washington State played in 2012, but there will be opportunities for big wins. These, however, double as opportunities for big losses. The type of losses that demoralize a fanbase and cause the players in the locker room to question themselves.
It starts from week 1 with BYU. Games against Boise State, UCF, Cincinnati and East Carolina provide stiff tests. They are the measuring sticks for UConn this year.
Simply put, can UConn avoid the bad blowout? Can the Huskies keep the fans in the seats for all four quarters? Can the days of a mass exodus down four touchdowns be a distant memory?
As Coach Diaco has hammered home consistently since the moment he was hired, UConn needs to be better in 2014. They will be judged by how many games they win. Just as important, they need to be competitive on a weekly basis. The game against BYU needs to be close at halftime. The road trip to East Carolina cannot be a repeat of last year’s trip to UCF.
UConn needs to cleanse the past three years from its system. Avoiding the painful blowout is a good place to start.