With a 36-33 win over Liberty on Saturday, UConn football hit another set of milestones in a season filled with them. Beating a ranked team to qualify for bowl eligibility, and doing it at home, is about as good a day as the program has seen since the 2015 victory over Houston.
With great success also comes great responsibility, however. Now the program has expectations for every game going forward, and also some genuine concerns about the future, even though things are looking bright right now.
Some thoughts and observations with one game left in the season:
We’ve seen signs that UConn is a new and improved team since the first game. Keeping it close against Utah State and handling CCSU without any drama showed us it had cleared the very low bar set by the 2018-2021 Huskies. But the next three games were big losses that also saw more injuries pile up as UConn started 1-4 through five games. Since then, they’ve only improved even as key players went down with injury.
Though Fresno State was a struggling Mountain West team traveling cross-country, that win taught us that the Huskies are at least a competent FBS program.
Against FIU and UMass, like CCSU, the Huskies showed us they can take care of business and may even have a talent advantage on a (small) group of teams.
Ball State was a disappointment — a winnable game that could have prevented UConn from getting to six wins. But on the bright side, it gave fans a new feeling. It was the good kind of disappointing loss, as opposed to the disappointing losses that made people question the legitimacy of the program.
Against BC, they raised the bar, taking down the “power five” regional rival for the first time in the program’s history. At our most optimistic, we wanted UConn to be competitive in that game. To beat them, quite comfortably, was incredible.
It was a similar feeling heading into the Liberty game, where UConn was a 14.5-point underdog, that the best fans could ask for is to keep it close. Jim Mora’s squad had other ideas. They jumped out to a big early lead and powered through a lot of bad bounces to find a way to win in the fourth quarter. Of all the Huskies’ accomplishments this year, beating a ranked team was more unlikely than getting to six wins.
As a result, we no longer expect to lose every game, or find competing to be an exciting prospect. UConn should beat Army, a 3-6 team that just lost to Troy, and if invited to a bowl, they will not be facing anyone so strong that the Huskies, or their fans, should feel they are overmatched.
The Bowl Math
Fortunately and unfortunately, we now have to deal with the fact that UConn does not have any bowl ties. After leaving the AAC for the Big East and football independence, this was the one hangup. This was not believed to be an urgent matter, but the overwhelming success of this season has UConn in this position.
Getting a bowl invite this year comes down to how many teams finish with six or more wins at the end of the season. With 41 bowl games, there are 82 spots that need to be filled. Of course, four of those will be College Football Playoff participants, but from our perspective, we can think of them as four spots filled by P5 teams.
The UConn Blog Stats & Information Department has determined that 63 teams that have six wins, but one of those is James Madison, who is not eligible as a transitioning FBS team. Another 38 teams are vying with UConn for the 19 remaining slots. Almost all of them have the advantage of a conference tie to get one.
So now we play the waiting (and campaigning) game. As we’ve shared before, UConn has a free verbal commitment that fans can sign up for so the school can show bowl organizers that the support behind a bowl appearance would be significant.
Celebration for the ages
For this to happen at home is great for the people who do their best to get to the Rent and support this formerly struggling program. The scenes from the post-game celebration looked amazing.
UConn football is bowl eligible pic.twitter.com/jVj4QyToEr— Joe Arruda (@joearruda9) November 12, 2022
THE UCONN HUSKIES ARE BOWL ELIGIBLE pic.twitter.com/R3zc0cb8yI— SB Nation (@SBNation) November 12, 2022
UCONN FOOTBALL IS GOING BOWLING BABY COME ON!!!!! pic.twitter.com/M0qrFDn0Qd— Kyle Barry (@Kbarry15) November 12, 2022
Former players speak out
These are tough days to be a Randy Edsall apologist.
As UConn quickly ascended to “very successful season” status in its first year under Jim Mora, many are left wondering: just how bad of a job was Edsall doing?
We knew he was stuck to outdated strategies on the field and didn’t want to take advantage of the transfer portal. We also saw that he did a poor job of taking advantage of the talent he inherited from a team that was in a bowl two years earlier, and that this contributed to the significant coaching and roster attrition that he experienced over his 3+ years at the helm.
Lately, some players from that era have been more vocal about the details:
Bowl Eligible First season— Robert King (@rob_king3) November 12, 2022
Beat a top 25 team
we were the problem … #HIMMORA
Edsall simply couldn’t connect with his players. He made it abundantly clear he didn’t believe in the people he was gifted. An instant, and constant disconnect would never allow for success. Was a shame, so much talent sabotaged.— Mason (@masondonaldson_) November 13, 2022
This aligns with 2019 reporting from The UConn Blog and comments from former Husky cornerback Jamar Summers about players being told to cut their hair, while others said they regretted staying at UConn to play for Edsall. Earlier in the 2019 season, Edsall blamed cell phones and video games for his teams’ struggles. Meanwhile about 20 players a year were transferring out.
It’s honestly nice to see that despite the fact that Edsall mismanaged their college careers and professional trajectory, players still have love for UConn and the guys currently on the roster.
Congrats @UConnFootball on eligibility, that’s how you make a last statement in the Rent!— Jamar Summers (@jsum) November 12, 2022
Somebody get this man a statue at the Shenkman https://t.co/3QQ4tdnmlE— Brice McAllister (@BMcAllister_) November 12, 2022
Lingering thoughts about the future
Been thinking about some of this stuff all year, finally have to say them now that we’re 11 games through the season:
Who plays QB next year?
Ta’Quan Roberson will be rehabbing after a serious injury, with no timetable set for his return. Zion Turner, meanwhile, has done an incredible job of leading the team after being thrust into the role as a true freshman. His stats are not anything off the charts, but given the circumstances, especially losing some of the big playmakers around him on offense, he’s been great.
If Roberson is healthy for the start of the season, he will probably compete with Turner for starting duties. But it will be Turner’s job to lose going into spring and summer camp. The rehabilitation of this position has been a key to Mora’s success. It will be an interesting situation to keep an eye on.
What’s Mora’s long-term future?
With UConn having success and also not being very high in the FBS pecking order, it’s possible that a program with deeper pockets can make an enticing offer to hire the man who made this year’s unexpected turnaround possible. Keeping Mora for next year is not a guarantee.
Even if Mora stays, members of his staff may also be sought after. This speaks to some of Mora’s recent commentary about the school’s investment in football. While this year has been exciting, the staff and foundation of the team may not stay intact. How will the administration respond to heightened expectations and attention around the program?
How much better next year?
Six wins this year is an overachievement of significant magnitude. The Vegas oddsmakers had UConn’s over/under at 2.5, and even the most optimistic fans could not say they saw all of this coming.
With most key contributors returning next year, the opportunity to add more impact transfers who are excited to be part of something special brewing in Storrs, and the return of Nate Carter, a stud running back who could change the dynamic of the offense if fully healthy, six wins is feeling like the baseline expectation going into 2023. With slightly better injury luck, and improved play at QB, it could be a really solid team.
Of course, that is also hoping that nothing happens over the offseason to rock this faith and new optimism around the program. We’ll see.