Since UMass made the jump to FBS, they have done everything wrong. From initially playing games hours away from campus at Gillette Stadium, to struggling to find a conference, to multiple bad coaching hires, and the list goes on, the Minutemen have been a bottom feeder annually since 2012. In nine seasons at the FBS level, UMass has a 19-81 record. Current head coach Walt Bell feels scarily like Charley Molnar, holding a 1-15 record after one full season plus four games during 2020.
But, we could go forever on why UMass is terrible and how long they’ve been terrible. It’s kind of beating a dead horse at some point. It’s certainly not breaking news. So, hear me out. There is a good chance that this program isn’t just improving and being built up, but that they could be headed for their best FBS season ever.
It starts with pressure growing around the program...
Athletic director Ryan Bamford hears you saying that UMass should drop back down to FCS, and he wants nothing to do with it. He truly believes, for better or worse, that the football team can win as an FBS Independent. It’s easy enough to see why. After all, the hockey team at UMass has gone from a doormat team that had recently resurrected their program to National Champions with back-to-back Frozen Four appearances. That seemed impossible, but it happened under Bamford.
It didn’t just happen, but it saw students lining up hours before games, at night, in the cold Massachusetts winter to get into games. This, on a campus of nearly 30,000 students proved that there is still an appetite for great sports on campus. So, why don’t students jump over from tailgates to McGuirk Alumni Stadium on Saturdays? Again, according to Bamford, it’s just that they don’t win.
Students and alumni are desperate for them to win again. They want these games to be fun, like they used to be when UMass was making FCS playoff runs and the way hockey games are now. This is a school that still proudly counts John Calipari’s Final Four, even if the NCAA doesn’t. There is pressure here, even if outsiders don’t see it.
It’s just hard to physically go into the stadium and watch a team lose by multiple scores every game. Walt Bell and company feel this pressure too. They know that it’s time to win.
The schedule breaks really nicely this season...
UMass should (and should — is doing a lot of work here) roll out of bed and win four games in 2021. That doesn’t mean that they will. It just means that they should. UConn comes to Amherst. There are two regional FCS games, against Rhode Island and Maine, late in the season. The Minutemen finish at New Mexico State. That’s two FCS schools and two bottom feeder FBS schools who didn’t play in 2020. Hypothetically, that’s four wins, which would match the most they’ve ever had in a season at the FBS level.
Along with UConn and New Mexico State, UMass also plays Liberty and Army from the ranks of the Independents. Both of those games will be on the road, and there’s no reason to expect UMass wins either one of them.
There are three Power 5 opponents on the schedule, none of which are wholly intimidating, though they’re all interesting in their own right. Of course, that doesn’t mean a ton. UMass shouldn’t beat any P5 opponent, but upsets do happen. UMass opens the season at Pitt, where former head coach Mark Whipple is the offensive coordinator. Pitt has been known to lose sillier games. The next week Boston College comes to Amherst. They’ll blow out UMass, but getting them to come to Amherst is a win in its own right for UMass, as the Eagles like to pretend the Minutemen don’t exist. Finally, a trip to Florida State is another likely loss, but with the intrigue of it being Bell’s former employer.
From there, they have three more games against Group of 5 opponents. A trip to Coastal Carolina is going to be ugly. Two games against UMass’ former conference-mates in the MAC are more interesting. Toledo and Eastern Michigan both come to Amherst. They’ll both be preseason favorites, but EMU in particular could easily lose that game.
If UMass shows mild improvement, their opponents regress a bit or overlook UMass, and the Minutemen get lucky, they could have a path to be .500.
If Umass can improve at all...
At some point, UMass has to get better. It’s not like there’s no talent in Amherst after all. They’ve had a player drafted in every NFL Draft since 2019. So, what’s going on?
Bell had to completely reset the roster, and for his first two seasons, he has been relying on teams well below the scholarship limit and playing a lot of freshmen. It’s shown. By now, the vast majority of that roster should be ready to take the next step. The guys who aren’t bought in should be gone by now.
UMass even has an interesting quarterback this season, as Colorado transfer Tyler Lytle should be a spark plug that the Minuteman haven’t had since Blake Frohnapfel.
Maybe Walt Belt taking over play-calling will even help the offense stay in rhythm. The point is, they can’t be worse. So, they have to be better. Right?
Now, this isn’t about going crazy and saying UMass is going to a bowl. After all, a 6-6 (at best) team with two FCS wins and no conference tie-in for bowl games isn’t getting invited to a bowl. Rather, this is about building confidence and proving that UMass isn’t a joke. This is about taking a step forward and setting themselves up for 2022 and beyond. Maybe, just maybe, fans and recruits start showing up with this proof of concept.