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The UConn Football Weekly: Schedule Preview

Existential questions around UConn football persist, but we’ve got a 2022 schedule to focus on.

Ian Bethune/The UConn Blog

Hello and welcome to the first-ever UConn Football Weekly, a newsletter that will also be available here on The UConn Blog as a weekly article.

We’re excited to help you get ready for the 2022 season and prepared to deliver dedicated coverage once it kicks off. In case you missed our debut podcast, you can check that out here or scroll down to the bottom of this article.

Today, we start with a rundown of the 2022 schedule. As an independent program, UConn has to pull some strings and favors to put its schedule together every year. This slate offers a solid sampling of old nemeses, regional rivals, and some far-flung programs that happened to have an opening.

After breaking it down, it looks like there are four (maybe five!) games out of the 12 that could be wins. Another four are likely blowouts and an additional three or four are probable losses.

At Utah State - Aug. 27

The Huskies’ first matchup of the year will be one of their toughest. Utah State won the Mountain West last year—for the first time in school history—and is a favorite to win it again. The program returns most skill position and defensive contributors in 2022, although the quarterback position is a minor question mark.

Luckily for Utah State, veteran WRs Justin McGriff and Kyle Van Leeuwen are joined by Brian Cobbs and Xavier WIlliams, transferring in from Maryland and Alabama respectively. Leading rusher Calvin Tyler is back, along with five starters on the offensive line. Their leading tackler, Hunter Reynolds, returns as a linebacker/safety hybrid along with defensive end Byron Vaughns, who had 10.5 tackles for loss last year.

This is going to be a challenging opener for UConn. We’re calling it a likely blowout.

CCSU - Sept. 3

The in-state FCS program posted a 4-7 record last year, 4-3 in the Northeast Conference. After what is likely to be a tough outing at Utah State, Jim Mora’s first-year campaign will get a chance to reset in the home opener.

Ryan McCarthy has been CCSU’s head coach since 2019 after four seasons as the Blue Devils’ offensive coordinator. They had a historic run in 2019, going 11-2 and making the FCS playoffs, but head coach Peter Rossomando left to become O-line coach at Rutgers.

If all goes according to plan for UConn, Jim Mora will get a chance to evaluate this team’s depth in this game. Seasoned UConn football fans know not to take anything for granted, but this should be a win.

Syracuse - Sept. 10

UConn’s first home FBS opponent is also one of its biggest rivals. The Orange’s 5-7 record last year doesn’t tell the complete story of a program in crisis; Dino Babers is on the hot seat after a three-year stretch with an 11-24 record, including a 1-10 season in 2020, and only one winning season in six years in Syracuse. This year’s team is projected by most to finish last in the ACC Atlantic, if not the entire conference.

The combination of an unimpressive quarterback in Garrett Shrader and a dominant running back in Sean Tucker means Babers isn’t working with his preferred style of offense. As good as Tucker is—he was a second-team All-American last season—he’ll need a lot of help to get this team to a bowl. The positives are a lot of experience, with 17 returning starters from last year’s team, and the emergence of a couple of star defensive players in middle linebacker Mikel Jones and cornerback Garrett Williams. Their biggest weakness on both sides of the ball is on the line.

The Huskies will be underdogs at home, but they may have a puncher’s chance.

At Michigan - Sept. 17

Michigan is coming off a season where it checked every box for a successful year: defeating Ohio State, winning the Big Ten, and making the College Football Playoff. Jim Harbaugh faces a new challenge this year: proving 2021 was not a fluke.

Michigan loses a few huge contributors on the defensive side and some grittiness in the rushing attack. Harbaugh named Matt Weiss and Sherrone Moore as dual offensive coordinators, replacing Josh Gattis, who joined Mario Cristobal’s staff in Miami. Cade McNamara returns after a bumpy 2021 where he threw for 2,500 yards and completed 64.2% of passes.

The Wolverines may take a small step back but shouldn’t have much trouble with UConn at home.

At NC State - Sept. 24

Is this the year NC State finally gets over the hump and makes the ACC Championship game? In nearly a decade under head coach Dave Doeren, the Wolfpack have had only two losing seasons, but never won their division.

Hopes are high in Raleigh this year. They have several key contributors returning, making them a threat to win the conference. This will be a tough game for UConn on the road—the second in a row.

Devin Leary returns at quarterback after a 3,400-yard passing season last year, tossing 35 touchdown passes. The team lost left tackle Ikem Ekwonu to the NFL draft last year, but Leary will have starting receivers Devin Carter and Thayer Thomas back after they combined for 1,152 yards passing and 14 touchdowns in 2021. The Wolfpack’s defense was a strong point last year, ranking in the top 20 in opponent yards per play and points per play despite a rash of injuries.

Fresno State - Oct. 1

Fresno State already had a squad capable of winning the Mountain West before quarterback Jake Haener returned. With him forgoing the NFL Draft for another year in college, the Bulldogs will be potentially the best Group of 5 team in the nation and will have a shot at a New Year’s Six bowl.

Haener had one of the best quarterback seasons in the country in 2021, completing 67.1 percent of his passes for 4,096 yards and 33 touchdowns. His top two targets, receivers Jalen Cropper and Josh Kelly, also return. The Bulldogs retain their four leading tacklers on defense, where they ranked No. 20 in points allowed per game in 2021.

Fresno State will likely be the best team that UConn faces at home all season, catching them after a nightmare road trip that includes trips to NC State and Michigan.

At FIU - Oct. 8

Florida International is one of the worst teams in all of FBS right now, making the Panthers an ideal opponent for the Huskies this year. Jim Mora’s squad gets a trip to Miami and a chance to win a road game against a team that went 1-11 last year.

The Butch Davis Era took a turn for the worse at FIU, which will be led by first-year head coach Mike MacIntyre this season. MacIntyre has been called a good football coach in the past, but he’s on his third job since being fired from the head job at Colorado in 2018, where he had just one winning season in six years. This is as winnable as it gets for an FBS opponent, especially one on the road.

At Ball State - Oct. 15

Ball State may not hit the radar of many Husky fans, most of which might have trouble naming which state this school is in. But Husky fans may recall that Beth Goetz, former associate AD at UConn, is the athletic director here. UConn also played Ball State in its FBS infancy in the early-2000s, losing all three games.

Right before its bye, UConn will be on the road for the second straight week in a visit to Muncie, Indiana to take on Ball State, a MAC squad coming off a 6-7 season. The Cardinals are led by head coach and alumnus Mike Neu, who won MAC MVP and a conference championship at his alma mater as a star QB in 1993.

Neu’s team has gone bowling two seasons in a row, but after a 6-7 campaign last year, star quarterback Drew Plitt has moved on and every Ball State player who made an All-Mac first or second team is no longer on the 2022 roster. Leading rusher Carson Steele is one of the top returning offensive threats for the Cardinals, who also return three of last year’s top receivers in Jayshon Jackson, Yo’Heinz Taylor, and Steele.

Boston College - Oct. 29

The Eagles have been perhaps the most consistent team in FBS lately, winning either six or seven games every season since 2015. There’s reason to believe this could finally be their breakout season, although a breakout season at Boston College might just mean winning eight games.

The biggest factor in their ultimate fate is the health of Phil Jurkovec. The junior quarterback lost a big chunk of last season due to a hand injury, and he’s the key to whether BC is good.

UConn has never beaten Boston College and hasn’t hosted the rivalry since 2003. Though the Eagles are not a very special team or program, they will be favored against the Huskies.

UMass - Nov. 4

This has been UConn’s true football rival over the last few years, and it’s easy to see why. UMass is an independent, has been since 2016, and has won two games in the last three seasons. One of those wins was a 27-13 triumph over a hapless Randy Edsall-led Husky squad in 2021. The Minutemen also grabbed a victory over UConn in 2018.

When these two teams meet, all we know for sure is that both of them will not be very good. UMass will also be playing under a first-year head coach, Don Brown, who spent a couple of years at UConn as DC under Paul Pasqualoni before scooting to BC and eventual national notoriety as Michigan’s defensive coordinator. He was fired after a rough season in Ann Arbor, and after one year at Arizona, the Massachusetts native is back home. He had two previous coaching stints at UMass, as defensive coordinator from 1998-1999 and head coach from 2004-2008 for the then-FCS program.

Don is old and UMass is trash, so the Huskies better win this game. This smells like this program’s Paul Pasqualoni hire, except unlike UConn under PP UMass can’t possibly fall any further as a program.

Liberty - Nov. 12

Liberty’s 8-5 record in 2021 can be attributed to three things: 20 starters who had returned from the previous season, an NFL-caliber quarterback in Malik Willis, and a weak schedule. This year’s team returns only ten starters, brings in former Baylor starter Charlie Brewer to replace Willis, and still has a weak schedule. Brewer had success under Matt Rhule (less so under Dave Aranda) and seems to be a perfectly competent quarterback, and the schedule is still weak, but it’s still possible Liberty finishes this season with its worst record since joining FBS in 2018.

Brewer will enjoy throwing to sophomore wide receivers CJ Daniels and Demario Douglas, who were Willis’ top targets as freshmen last season, but without having much experience within the skill positions, the team’s youth may not be an asset this season. Another problem is that only two major contributors from last year’s defense are still on the Flames’ roster. The defensive line is inexperienced but talented, so they might be able to generate a consistent pass rush, but I’d honestly say UConn’s linebacker unit is better than Liberty’s. The Huskies will have a chance in this one.

At Army - Nov. 19

Army does not appear to have changed much since last season. Jeff Monken has completely turned around a once-struggling program, making five bowls in the last six seasons, and creating a consistently strong team with excellent infrastructure. The Black Knights return 14 starters, but it almost doesn’t matter how many starters Army ever returns; everyone knows the game plan and has experience with running it by the time they see the majority of snaps on the field.

Army’s defense is going to be good again, especially with the return of Andre Carter, who was second in the nation in sacks last year behind only Alabama’s behemoth edge rusher Will Anderson. There are a few more questions about the offense, most importantly whether presumed starting quarterback Tyhier Tyler is the best choice. Throwing ability doesn’t really matter with this team (which attempted only 107 total passes last year, most of them screens), but outgoing starter Christian Anderson rushed for 5.7 yards per carry in 2021, and Tyler averaged only 3.9. That’s a significant difference, and Monken will need to figure out quickly whether Tyler has improved enough to close that gap, as the offense’s biggest standout Tyrell Robinson won’t get the ball often enough to lead the team by himself.

Nonetheless, when your biggest question mark is how to distribute carries most effectively, you’re probably headed for a productive season. This is a great game for UConn to end the season, in the picturesque West Point campus, but it is also a likely blowout for the Huskies.

In the first episode of our new football-only podcast, we decided to start with a conversation about the state of the program.

UConn football has been independent for two seasons, one of which it did not play due to COVID-19. The Huskies have their third new head coach in seven years and have not eclipsed the three-win mark since 2015. Their last winning season was 2011.

What’s up with UConn football? Is there any merit to the idea of moving to FCS? These are the questions we start with.

Though Rentschler Field once rocked, that is no more. Fan interest and attendance are dwindling. New head coach Jim Mora is an interesting hire, but far from a sure thing. The history of coaches like him working out in situations similar to UConn is … mixed.

Across the 40-minute conversation, our football podcast crew addressed the meaning of UConn football’s existence, life as an independent, and reasons for optimism with this program going forward.