The Massachusetts Minutemen face an uncertain future in 2016. Entering the land of FBS Independents by choice, there is quite a bit of the unknown. While UMass isn't looking to remain independent any longer than absolutely necessary, they are comfortable with their new status as an unaffiliated program.
SBN's Bill Connelly did a great job looking at the Minutemen's 2016 season by the numbers in his preview, which shows that while UMass might have a difficult task in 2016, there's plenty of reason for optimism. We're going to focus on two specific aspects of the Minutemen's 2016 season in our early preview in their quest to improve on consecutive 3-9 seasons: roster turnover and schedule.
Heading into the 2015 season, UMass returned more starters than anyone else in the country. Now in 2016, the Minutemen return one the lowest amounts of starters in FBS. Because of that, the position battles for spots will be crucial to the Minutemen's chances of success this upcoming season.
On offense, replacing starting quarterback Blake Frohnapfel is of paramount importance. Given the way head coach Mark Whipple likes to run his pro-style offense, a QB with the ability to stand in the pocket is key.
Redshirt sophomore Ross Comis was the primary backup last season and showed flashes of potential. Comis is very mobile and has a significant dual-threat element to his game, but his first instinct is to pass the ball. Comis is slightly undersized by pocket passer standards but is a fierce competitor who has battled for what he's earned.
Andrew Ford comes to UMass from Lackawanna Community College after redshirting his freshman season at Virginia Tech. Ford was a 4-star recruit coming out of high school and held an offer from UMass. Word was that Whipple and the staff were huge fans, but Ford chose Blacksburg and the Hokies. Ford is much more of a traditional pocket passer with the size to match, and considering nearly every QB that Whipple has started in both his stints at UMass has been a transfer, he might have a leg up.
Ford has not yet arrived in Amherst so it's too early to say who has the inside track to be the starter. The quarterback competition that'll take place in fall camp will be fierce, and whichever QB gets to start Week 1 in The Swamp will have certainly have earned it.
Defensively the Minutemen have the most amount of holes in the secondary, a unit that had some real growing pains since the move up to FBS. Several seniors (including Green Bay UDFA signee Randall Jette) are gone and it would have been one more if Khary Bailey-Smith had not gotten hurt last season. Bailey-Smith returns as the veteran leader, but there will be a lot of new faces patrolling UMass' defensive backfield.
Those new faces figure to mix with some of the returning players and also several of UMass' recruiting class of 2016, by far the best in school history. Look for JUCO transfer and early enrollee Teddy Lowery to make an impact early on. Lowery had a very impressive spring and could be a steal for the Minutemen.
True sophomore James Oliphant should see a lot more time at corner this year as well as in the return game where he was a real threat last season. Redshirt freshman Brandon Mangram had a good spring, including a particularly good spring game and should get a chance to play, along with his brother, incoming true freshman Martin Mangram. Incoming true freshman safeties Cycoby Burch and Antione Webster should also challenge for time early on.
It is certainly a roll of the dice for UMass to look to so many younger guys to contribute significant minutes, but they are particularly proud of the recruits they brought in for 2016 and a big part of the pitch was early playing time. There will be some tough moments for them this season but the long-term dividends could be huge.
This season UMass faces its most daunting schedule ever, a significant step up from their previous years in the MAC. Three SEC opponents (at Florida, Mississippi St, at South Carolina) along with ACC opponent and rival Boston College, plus a trip to BYU makes this quite the challenge. But while there are several tough match-ups, there are also many games UMass can be competitive in as well.
UMass' Director of Athletics Ryan Bamford and his staff have done an excellent job in 2016 and beyond of creating a good mix of necessary paydays, games where UMass can compete and win, while also getting six home games. It's a tough balance to strike but the Minutemen have done it well.
In 2016, most reasonable UMass fans are looking for about four wins, an improvement over previous years and a sign of progress. That may be difficult but is certainly within reach.
Even though the Minutemen are heading into independence this year without an idea of where they may end up, the program remains undaunted in their belief in what UMass Football can become. With steady progress and success, the Minutemen will position themselves well for a potential conference move within the next few years. If UMass can achieve stability, who knows what the future could hold.