The Minutemen walked off the field at McGuirk Stadium on September 30 last year smarting from a 58-50 loss to Ohio University.
It was yet another loss in a string of tightly-contested games. Their record of 0-6 felt like an anchor.
Fast forward to the start of the 2018 campaign and there are whispers of bowl eligibility around Amherst. That’s what a hot second half of the season can do for a team that keeps grinding.
The Minutemen went 4-2 in the season’s second half, including sticking with SEC heavyweight Mississippi State before bowing out late. Belief grew strong following a sudden two-week layoff (game against South Florida was scrapped due to a hurricane).
The hype and belief in the program to start the 2018 season is as strong as it ever has been. There are plenty of prognosticators outside of western Massachusetts who seem to believe, too.
The preseason watch lists are starting to grow:
Quarterback Andrew Ford: Davey O’Brien and Wuerffel Trophy
Linebacker Bryton Barr: Butkus
Receiver Andy Isabella: Biletnekoff, Wuerffel Trophy and Paul Hornung
Running back Marquis Young: Doak Walker
What do all four players have in common? All seniors.
The Minutemen return 16 starters (nine on offense), giving the team continuity and leadership when they have the ball. The only downside to so much senior leadership? It’s 2018 bowl or build from scratch in 2019.
And yes, all games on the schedule are sacred. However, there are three games that stand out when it comes to bolstering bowl game chances.
Here they are chronologically...
1. Boston College
When: Saturday, Sept. 1, 1 p.m.
Where: Alumni Stadium, Chestnut Hill
Yes, it cannot be understated that a letdown in the opener against Duquesne would derail the train before the conductor even gets to the station.
However, it’s hard to imagine many Minutemen fans circling it as vigorously as the game at Boston College the following week.
Boston College’s stout defense should be the perfect litmus test for the veteran Minutemen offense. As for the Minutemen defense, objective number one is to contain number two, AJ Dillon.
Ultimately, this game is much more of an opportunity to “make the season” than a “break the season.” A loss would be a setback, but a win could do wonders for a squad who took too long to find their stride last season.
It would also do wonders for the Minutemen during the recruiting season. A win over BC would go a long way to solidifying how far the UMass program has come, and might just offer New England recruits an alternative to Chestnut Hill, it they want to stick around the area for college.
You’ll notice the word “rivalry” has not been mentioned here yet.
Beat the Eagles and watch that word pop up all over the New England football scene for seasons to come.
When: Saturday, Oct. 27, time TBD
Where: Rentschler Field, East Hartford
Speaking of stoking old rivalry flames, hello Huskies.
Another win-and-recruiting-gets-a-bump contest will come on the road against UConn, as the Minutemen look to finish October on a high note.
The ninth game of the season promises to be an important juncture for the UMass season. This is the time of the year in 2017 that the Minutemen seemed to be firing on all cylinders.
If a bowl is in the cards for the Minutemen, simple math shows that they need at least one (probably two) wins on the road. This might be their best shot at a late road win, especially if they drop a couple games early at home.
UConn has some intriguing players (sophomore running back Kevin Mensah is dangerous), but this is a very winnable game against a program who is trying to find itself.
Strike now, this year, before they are found.
When: Saturday, Nov. 10, time TBD
Where: Gillette Stadium, Foxborough
Home, sweet home-away-from-home.
Sure, it’s not McGuirk, but if the 2018 Minutemen have postseason aspirations, getting that essential sixth win might need to come in the last official home game of the season across the state at Gillette Stadium.
That season-ending trip to play Georgia doesn’t bode well as a “must win.”
UMass knocked down fellow Independent BYU last year out in Provo, 16-10. This is a chance to not only reach that elusive sixth bowl-clinching win, but to also show last year’s second half tear was no fluke.
From the 4-2 second half stretch run, the Minutemen’s win over BYU was their only road victory. In the contest, the UMass defense forced four turnovers and kept the Cougars to three points before a touchdown with under a minute to play gave the game some extra drama.
The defense will need an encore performance.
BYU will have seniors Tanner Mangum and Joe Critchlow to choose from in the coming days to be under center, and a fresh start with Jeff Grimes entering as new offensive coordinator.
It will be the same blue-and-white uniforms with a new challenge for the Minutemen to overcome.