Last season could have gone a lot better for the Uconn Huskies. While most people will call 6-7 a successful season for a program that has struggled since Randy Edsall left in 2010, UConn missed a bigger chance to do some more damage in the American Athletic Conference. They lost four games by less than ten points, including their loss in the St. Petersburg Bowl to Marshall. Considering this was the Huskies first bowl game appearance in five seasons, most fans in Storrs, Connecticut, didn’t complain much.
The big question heading in 2016 is: Can Bob Diaco take the Huskies to the next level in a competitive AAC conference and continue to gain traction? The Huskies have come a long way from going 2-10 in Diaco’s first season, and this year they have the potential to have a surprise season similar to what Temple did last year.
Since Edsall left Storrs, the Huskies have averaged fewer than 21 points a game the last four seasons to become one of the worst offenses in FBS. Not many are expecting the Huskies to be incredibly on offense again this year but change is expected as this is trending to be the best offenses since Edsall’s last team in 2010.
Diaco definitely has the experience coming back on offense with 10 starters, but that same offense only averaged 12 points in their seven losses.
Of the 10 starters that return, the feature players are QB Bryant Shirreffs and RB Arkeel Newsome. The majority of Shirreffs’ receivers are back too, led by WR Noel Thomas and big-time tight ends Alec Bloom and Tommy Myers. Shirreffs has the potential to make this offense successful if he can stay poised in the pocket and emerge as a leader.
With the success of Shirreff under center being obviously imperative for the Huskies this fall, his success will be determined by an offensive line that was dreadful last season. Four starters from last year’s offensive line return which presents more hope for improvement. They also get center Ryan Crozier back after missing all of 2015, and will move Richard Levy to guard after a rough season at left tackle in 2015. This offense won’t dazzle anyone, but as long as they take the pressure off the defense the Huskies will be in much better shape compared to last year.
Defense in Storrs will be the key cog to this team, but how much will they need to be relied on? UConn had one of the best defenses in the AAC last season, and it is the main reason they were able to upset Houston. Connecticut’s tradition of being well coached on this side of the ball is the reason that they made a bowl game in 2015.
Connecticut will have playmakers at each level of the defense with Foley Fatukasi, Mikal Myers and Luke Carrezola up front, LB Junior Joseph and Jamar Summers, Obi Melifonwu and Jhavon Williams out of the secondary. Summers returns as the heart of the UConn defense after pulling down eight interceptions last season. These players returning will easily help the new players coming into the program to jump in right away. That is the benefit of laying a foundation of good defensive play for years. They have a lot of depth at middle linebacker as well with E.J. Levenberry coming in from Florida State. No matter the opponent, the UConn defense will be good enough to keep them in every game this season.
Before conference play begins in earnest the Huskies will have their work cut out for them in their non-conference schedule. They do not have any likely losses in non-conference so if this is the year UConn turns the corner we’ll know after non-conference play has ended..
9/1: vs. Maine (W) - This is a nice tune-up for the Huskies as Maine has been one of the more successful FCS schools in recent memory. UConn only beat their FCS opponent last season, Villanova, by five points last season. Regardless if the offense struggles, the Huskies will take their home opener.
9/10: at Navy (L) - Without question this early conference matchup will tell us the most of what this UConn team will be for 2016. Navy does not have the services of Keenan Reynolds anymore, but still return most of a defense that was vastly improved. I wanted to pick the Huskies, but Annapolis is a tough place to win especially with many question marks on offense.
9/17: vs. Virginia (W) - After a tough road test against Navy comes the Huskies biggest non-conference test of the season when the Virginia Cavaliers come to Storrs. The Cavaliers have become inconsistent after once having lofty expectations years ago under Mike London, but now have a coach that defeated UConn a season ago in Bronco Mendenhall. This will be a rebuilding year in Charlottesville. Its a toss-up, but I’m giving the Huskies the advantage here with the game being at home.
9/24: vs. Syracuse (W) – Back to back ACC teams come to Rentschler Field this season with the Orange coming to renew a Big East rivalry. The Orange are improved, but the Huskies should be able to dispatch Syracuse.
9/29: at. Houston (L) – The Cougars have had this game circled on their calendar since they left Storrs last season. The Huskies ended Houston’s hopes at making a case to be in the CFP and an undefeated season. However, this time Greg Ward Jr. will most likely be healthy. In that case, this will not be pretty for the Huskies.
10/8: vs. Cincinnati (W) – This 11:30 A.M. home matchup provides cross-roads matchup for UConn. The Huskies were bashed in the Queen City last season, but this season trends towards the Huskies defeating the Bearcats. The Bearcats lost a ton of starters and have a question mark at the quarterback position after deciding to start Hayden Moore over Gunner Kiel.
10/15: at. South Florida (L) – Expectations are high in Tampa as the Bulls have been anointed the biggest threat to Houston repeating as conference champions. The Huskies look for revenge this season after dropping a tough one at home to the Bulls. I am picking the Bulls because their defense is good enough to hold UConn down and have their offense seal it in the end.
10/22: vs. UCF (W) – It can only go up for the Golden Knights after zero wins in 2015. They will get some in 2016, but one of them will not be against Connecticut
10/29: at East Carolina (L) – I really went back and forth with this game. East Carolina is a dark horse in the AAC this season, and a win for UConn over the Pirates could go a long way in determining how November will go in Storrs. UConn has enough to win in Greenville, but I am giving the advantage to the Pirates here.
11/4: vs. Temple (L) – This is another game that UConn is circling due to getting blasted in Philadelphia last season. Temple will be out to prove that last season was not a fluke with an experienced offense that had some of their most success against the Huskies defense last season. Connecticut will give it their all, but it will not be enough.
11/19: at Boston College (W) – Boston College laid a goose egg in the ACC last season, but the faithful in Chestnut Hill are excited for this season. They return an experienced offense which will present a tough road challenge for the UConn defense. Many are picking the Huskies to win this game and I concur.
11/26: vs. Tulane (W) – The Huskies senior class will be rewarded with a matchup versus Tulane to close out the regular season. Tulane has nice new uniforms, but a not nice everything else. UConn will have an easier time versus the Green Wave than they did last season in New Orleans.
Season Prediction: 7-5
Offensive MVP: Akeel Newsome
Defensive MVP: Jamar Summers