For 13 long, painful weeks, I was fortunate, or unfortunate, to have front row seats to watch the Massachusetts football team during its inaugural season as a member of the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS).
And during that three-month-long stretch, I witnessed one painful pounding after another, whether in the form of a blowout (the Minutemen lost six games by more than 37 points) or a grinder that exposed UMass’ ineptitude to preserve a lead and close a game out in the second half, as the Minutemen (1-11, 1-7 Mid-American Conference) had third quarter leads in four games and surrendered three of them.
So what did we learn about a team that, for the most part, was expected to struggle against foes with superior talent, strength and athleticism? Well, not much, but I do know this: UMass can hang in the big-boy-league of college football and has a future in the FBS.
But for the team to make it, it is going to take patience on the part of the students, alumni and players.
It all starts with coach Charley Molnar. Despite the shortcomings in his first season at the helm — a season that clearly didn’t go the way he intended it would — Molnar was able to get his players to play hard and go into every game thinking they could win.
No coach plays the game to chalk up moral victories, including Molnar, but I’d wager that as frustrated as he was after close losses to Ohio (37-34 on Sept. 29) and Buffalo (29-19 on Nov. 17), Molnar had to be encouraged that his inferior Minutemen could hang around with teams in the MAC. All he needs are his handpicked recruits to come through the system and those narrow losses could someday turn in to prevailing victories.
If UMass had pulled out those wins along with its sole victory of the season over Akron, the mood surrounding the program wouldn’t be so down. It’s even possible that if the Minutemen pulled off the upset over the then-undefeated Bobcats students might have shown up to watch the games.
But then again, probably not.
Anyways, I don’t think many people expected much from the Minutemen. I sure didn’t. I knew this season was going to be filled with a series of new low’s and spectators asking themselves, ‘How could it get any worse?’ And that was probably before UMass’ most embarrassing loss of the season in its 63-0 smack-down at Northern Illinois.
The fact of the matter is this: the Minutemen were stacked against teams that have recruited players to play in the FBS for years and years, not the Colonial Athletic Association teams like New Hampshire and Delaware that UMass had played in the past. These were teams, particularly Michigan, with players that have NFL aspirations. Meanwhile on the Minutemen’s sideline, most were recruited to play in the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). It was a modern version of David and Goliath, just taken down a notch.
Yes, FBS-recruited transfers like receiver Deion Walker, running back Michael Cox and others suited up for UMass, but football teams can’t survive with FBS players hidden here and there, while being surrounded by FCS talent. Football isn’t like basketball where only five players are on the court at a time and one can run the show if needed; it requires 11 guys to be in sync on every play. You could have 10 players do their job and one get beat — whether it’s a lineman missing a block or a quarterback missing a read — and the play won’t go anywhere.
So it isn’t groundbreaking news that a team consisting largely of carryovers from the former-FCS Minutemen struggled to impose their will on the opposition.
The clear lack of established playmakers on both sides of the ball, with the possible exception of senior safety Darren Thellen, couldn’t have scared many opponents.
But what might be a scary and unfortunate truth is that the lack of attendance that UMass drew to home games at Gillette could have an effect on its qualifications as an FBS team. If the Minutemen do not average an attendance of 15,000 or greater at home games for any year during a two-year period, the NCAA could drop the Minutemen from the FBS.
No team has yet to be dropped for this reason, but I’d imagine that’s a hot topic for UMass Athletic Director John McCutcheon and all involved in the development of the football program.
I understand why people don’t want to drive two hours to watch a team that, at times, looked better suited for the FCS than FBS. But it’s a five-year plan, just like all programs starting over with new coaches and even more so during a transition period.
So give Molnar and UMass a chance. It might pay off a few years down the road.
Stephen Sellner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and followed on Twitter @Stephen_Sellner.