Not every start to the season feels the same. Regardless, a new season always means a healthy dose of optimism for the possibilities to come.
In western Massachusetts, the optimism is real and reasonable.
A strong second half finish in 2017 has Minutemen fans believing 2018 is the year their team not only breaks the .500 wall, but reaches a bowl for the first time since their move to FBS.
Head coach Mark Whipple, now in Year 5 of Stint two, has tangible expectations of success this season.
The gang that put up about 31 points per game is (mostly) back. A year with continuity on offense figures to pay dividends, especially early in the season.
Lead by senior quarterback Andrew Ford, the Minutemen return nine offensive starters.
The UMass offense was potent in 2017 as they ranked 17th in passing offense. Ford’s 22:4 TD-INT ratio a big reason for their success. Many of his favorite targets return in Andy Isabella, who is starting to garner a few morsels of attention, as well as Sadiq Palmer, who showed flashes of being a versatile playmaker. Throw in sophomores Jessie Britt and Brennon Dingle who each made solid contributions last season, and you have the potential for an exciting brand of offense in Amherst.
Running back Marquis Young is the Minutemen’s best running back and figures to be the perfect guy to try and balance the lethal passing attack.
The only big question mark on offense is, “How will UMass replace Adam Breneman at tight end?” Breneman was an ultra-flexible tight end in Whipple’s offense, who could make plays downfield or get separation for a quick first down.
It feels like UMass will lean on their experience at receiver and use more four-receiver sets.
Four of five returning starters on the offensive line is also a cause for excitement, as long as they can help shave Ford’s sacked total from 2017.
The only real area of concern comes on third down. They ranked in the bottom tier (102nd overall in FBS) for third down conversions, meaning a greater emphasis on those first two downs is needed to keep UMass from being predictable.
While the offense essentially copy and pastes themselves into 2018, the Minutemen defense will have some soul searching up front to do before they can be declared a finished product.
Only six starters return here, with a lot of new starters expected to be up front. A second season in Ed Pinkham’s system will be beneficial for players transitioning into larger roles, such as linemen Jake Byczko, Mario Patton and Leon Flanagan, as well as linebacker Cole McCubrey.
Senior middle linebacker Bryton Barr might just be the best all-around player on any of the Independent FBS teams (you heard me right, Notre Dame fans). Fellow senior Jarell Addo seems to be getting better every year, and defensive backs Isaiah Rodgers and Lee Moses have the capacity to make big plays.
If UMass goes bowling in 2018, it will be because the defense came together. And if the defense comes together, it means finding combinations of those playing up front with consistence pressure on opposing quarterbacks.
A total unknown.
With the graduation of kicker/punter Logan Laurent, all of the experience UMass had kicking the ball left town as well.
The Minutemen do have an explosive offense, but getting field position edges from time to time will be crucial. That means freshman punter George Georgopoulos will be thrusted into a large role immediately. JUCO transfer Cooper Garcia appears to be the man to get field goal duties, but must show reliability early on to get the gig full-time.
For a team that started 0-6 last season, any early success will be great for morale and the team’s confidence.
Potential wins over rivals Boston College and/or UConn would double as a great recruiting tool for the future. With limited success on the road last season, UMass will need their seniors to step up leadership-wise even further.
Teams such as BYU and Georgia Southern, who UMass beat during their hot second half last season, will be extra focused on revenge this season.
It feels like now or never for UMass to reach a bowl game. If the defense can come together quickly, and keep giving the ball to their high octane offense, happy days will come to McGuirk in 2018.
Ultimately, if they stay healthy, I like the Minutemen to finish 7-5 and reach a bowl game.
The optimism is real. The start of this UMass football season feels very different indeed. Time will tell if the ending is different too.