Cyr: 2015 season is bowl game or bust for UMass football

By Andrew Cyr

(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

(Alec Zabrecky/Daily Collegian)

Although the Massachusetts football team’s record could be dramatically different had it not been for some last-second blunders and missed field goals down the stretch, no one should be disappointed with the change that coach Mark Whipple brought to the Minutemen.

After going 2-22 in their previous two seasons in FBS football under Charley Molnar, there was virtually no benchmark that Whipple had to obtain in terms of wins and losses for this season to be deemed a success. As long as UMass improved from its dismal start in football’s highest level, anything that Whipple did would be considered progress.

Aside from games against Boston College and Penn State, every game was winnable this season, most notably the bad second-half leads the Minutemen blew to Colorado, Vanderbilt and Miami (OH).

That’s why after a 3-9 season from UMass this year, I’m setting the expectations a little higher for the Minutemen in 2015. Anything short of a bowl appearance will be considered a failure.

Let’s start with the foundation. Whipple’s first season at the helm was nothing more than a practice run. His new pro-style offense was something that Mid-American Conference teams had rarely seen compared to the usual spread offenses that most teams were accustomed to playing against.

Whipple’s ability to design plays to get his playmakers open in different spots on the field is what made UMass’ offense so unique and diverse. Having two offensive tackles lined up near the numbers next to wide receiver Tajae Sharpe was a thing of beauty.

Another reason why the bar is set so high is the return of quarterback Blake Frohnapfel. Prior to getting injured in the second half of the Minutemen’s win over Ball State Nov. 12, Frohnapfel was third in the nation in passing with 3,345 yards. Had he not missed the last two games of the season, Frohnapfel could have easily been a candidate for the nation’s leading passer.

Not only will Frohnapfel be back calling the plays next season, if all goes according to plan, his top receiver will also be returning and demanding more receptions than ever. Sharpe finished the year with 85 receptions, 1,281 receiving yards and seven touchdowns. Sharpe will likely be atop the all-time school records next year if all goes according to plan.

I do think tight end Jean Sifrin is packing his bags and heading to the NFL after this year, but that’s a story that we’ll have to wait on.

Defensively, there’s no question that the leadership and consistency of both Stanley Andre and Daniel Maynes will be missed, as the two played almost every defensive snap this season and served as mentors for the young defense unit. But the Minutemen return their staples on defense with the nation’s third-leading tackler in Jovan Santos-Knox (143 tackles). Randall Jette and Joe Colton will solidify the back-end of the defense while Peter Angeh and Sha-Ki Holines have improved dramatically from the start of the season and looked like legitimate pass-rushers in the latter end of October and into November.

And let’s not forget the transfer-card that Whipple always has in his hands. He brought in Sifrin this season, and it’s safe to assume that more talented players will be finding their way to Amherst next fall.

Looking ahead to the non-conference schedule for the 2015 season, UMass has a pair of very winnable home games against Temple and Florida International. Road games against Colorado and Notre Dame will certainly be tough, but who says this team doesn’t have a miracle in it?

The future is bright for the Minutemen and anything short of a trip to a bowl game will be a huge disappointment. And if you talk to anyone in that locker room, their sights are set just as high.

Andrew Cyr can be reached at [email protected], and followed on Twitter @Andrew_Cyr.