UMass and UConn, from a football perspective, aren’t really that different. After a handful of just awful seasons at the FBS level, both schools have gone back and hired coaches that have had success at the school before. For the Minutemen, that’s Mark Whipple, who led UMass to an FCS championship 1998.
Whipple’s been back in Amherst for a few years longer than Edsall’s second stint at UConn, heading into his fifth season in his second go-around at UMass. Things are a little bit tougher for our neighbors up north, as building a schedule and recruiting can be difficult as an independent without the history of a school like Notre Dame or the fanbase and prestige of West Point. Nonetheless, Whipple has put a pretty good squad together, led by a dynamic offense that should make their matchup agains the Huskies pretty interesting.
Of course, being former Yankee Conference members, UMass and UConn and have faced off numerous times (72 matchups since 1897), but have played just once this millennium, with the Huskies cruising to a 37-0 victory in the Minutemen’s first-ever FBS game. Things will likely be a little different this time around when they meet on Oct. 27 for homecoming.
2017 Season in Review
Things didn’t start off too great for UMass in 2017, but they finished on a high note. SB Nation’s Bill Connelly put it best.
UMass was so close to something but started 0-6 all the same. But instead of collapsing down the stretch, the Minutemen charged. They crushed Georgia Southern and upset an awesome Appalachian State at home, then gave Mississippi State a fight in Starkville before falling, 34-23. They beat Maine and upset BYU in Provo (I guess that was an upset?), then fell in a shootout against FIU in the season finale.
Starting off 0-6 is not ideal, but things certainly came together in the second half of the season, especially the offense, which went from averaging 26 points per game in the first six games to finishing out the season putting up 36 points per game. Fortunately for Whipple, pretty much every major contributor on offense is back this season.
On offense, UMass’ biggest loss is tight end Adam Breneman, who had 134 catches for 1,572 yards and 12 touchdowns in two seasons with the Minutemen. He was a potential late-round draft pick after graduating last year, but chose to retire instead.
Defensively, UMass lost safety Jesse Monteiro, who posted 7.5 tackles for loss and and one interception last season, to graduation. Defensive ends Da’Sean Downey (20 tackles for loss, five sacks) and Sha-Ki Holines (6.5 tackles for loss) will also need to be replaced.
This UMass offense should be fun to watch, and while it might be hard to imagine the Minutemen as an offensive juggernaut, there is a chance this will be the best opposing offense Husky fans see at the Rent this season.
Pretty much all of the key components are back from a unit that ranked 66th in offensive S&P+ last season, including southpaw quarterback Andrew Ford, who already has done some damage in 2018. In the season opener on Saturday, Ford threw for 186 yards and two touchdowns to help the Minutemen to a 63-15 blowout over Duquesne.
Aside from Ford, running back Marquis Young is a as big of an all-or-nothing threat as you can find at this level, ranking third in marginal explosiveness last season behind Bryce Love and Rashaad Penny. Pretty good company.
Bilal Ally will also compete for touches and had success against Duquesne, rushing for 109 yards and a score on just nine touches.
In the passing game, Andy Isabella racked up 1,020 receiving yards last season with 10 touchdowns and is on pace to do something similar in 2018 after a 131-yard, two touchdown performance in the win against Duquesne.
The UMass defense has its strengths, but if the defensive line doesn’t take a step forward, it might all be moot. Replacing linebackers Downey and Holines could be a problem too, but Bryton Barr and Jarell Addo may be able to help soften that blow. If the line and linebackers unit can pressure opposing quarterbacks, a talented secondary should be able to shine.
While losing Monteiro hurts, Brice McAllister — who transferred to UMass from UConn — should be able to help out and make an impact along with junior Bakhari Goodson. Cornerbacks Isaiah Rodgers and Lee Moses are both back, and the duo racked up 27 passes defensed last season. For a defense that ranked 81st in defensive S&P+ last season and 59th in Passing S&P+, there’s enough talent coming back to make this defense take another step forward.
Matchup Against UConn
This will be very different than the last meeting between these two teams in 2012, when UMass struggled to really make anything happen and the Huskies dominated for an easy 37-0 victory.
Depending on your optimism on the Randy Edsall 2.0 Era, you can say that UConn and UMass are on the same trajectory, but the Minutemen are just a few steps further ahead right now. Whipple has a pretty solid team and a favorable schedule, so bowl eligibility is more than attainable for them.
Whether they make it to a bowl game that has a spot for a team not affiliated with a conference is the bigger issue, but that’s a dilemma UMass would love to have after a rough few seasons at the FBS level. Regardless, this should be an entertaining game and a good barometer for how close (or far) UConn is to making their first bowl game since Edsall returned for round two.
Prediction: UMass 31, UConn 27