Corey: If UMass is serious about finding a conference for football, upcoming FCS opponents are must-wins

Minutemen need to prove they can beat FCS teams before begging for an invite into a conference

By Dylan Corey, Collegian Staff

The Massachusetts football team has a real shot at doubling its collective win total over the past three seasons with two upcoming matches at home against FCS opponents Rhode Island and Maine. The Minutemen, 2-22 since hiring Walt Bell in 2019, have struggled to remain relevant since climbing back to FBS play in 2013. Becoming independent in 2016 only made matters worse.

This season, UMass entered the year with the 61st toughest schedule out of 130 teams per Power Rankings Guru.  Injuries to key players including Tyler Lytle, Kay’Ron Adams, Josh Wallace, and others make that schedule an even taller task. The final four games, however, have the lowest strength of schedule rating in the country. As the Minutemen continue to rank as one of the worst teams in college football, pressure has mounted for Athletic Director Ryan Bamford to find a suitable conference for the football team to have a shot at being competitive.

With a conference realignment hitting college football and other independents like Liberty, UConn, and New Mexico State being in talks to find a home, fans are growing irritated with the radio silence coming from UMass. Bamford addressed the buildup of frustration earlier this week in a video where he revealed that he has been working the whole time to find a conference. He also thinks the team has benefited in some aspects from being independent, like visibility on NESN and FloSports as well as using it as a recruiting tool.

“We’ve been able to build quality schedules,” Bamford said. “Obviously, we’ve had some challenging schedules like this year playing three ACC schools. We’ve got a couple of FCS schools coming up which I think will balance the schedule a little bit.”

But for a team that has sat in the bottom-5 of college football in almost every single statistic on both offense and defense for three years, it makes sense that players, coaches and fans are not seeing the same evolution as Bamford. Sophomore safety Tanner Davis tweeted his opinion on Oct. 28, when it was reported that UConn was communicating with C-USA.

Bell said earlier that week that he had strong opinions on the topic which he wouldn’t reveal, but it was obvious that the schools that invested in their programs were the ones that were invited to the AAC.

Bell also replied to that video and said that the team has been well-supported, and that investment isn’t the only factor in finding a conference. Both he and Bamford cited $65 million allocated to football facilities, so the dollars are there. It’s the competitiveness and support that’s lacking.

Upcoming home games against URI and Maine are undoubtedly the best chance for the Minutemen to prove that all of the investments and shiny new facilities are leading to some type of positive result on the field. The Rams and Black Bears offenses both rank below 70 out of 123 FCS teams, and the scoring defenses are similarly underwhelming. Still, Bell doesn’t think that being in the FBS automatically gives as much of an advantage as it used to.

“With the way the transfer portal works from a numbers standpoint, there aren’t huge differences like there used to be,” Bell said. “10 years ago, almost everyone was at 80-85 [scholarship players]. Now, with there being a lot more transition in terms of rosters and the NCAA not allowing us to fill this next coming recruiting class to address those when people leave, there are a lot of [group of five] rosters that are at or near, or even less than some FCS rosters.”

Even if UMass does lose one or both games, it doesn’t completely diminish any chance of joining a conference. That complication stems more from Bamford making it clear that it would be a “football only” move, and the simple geography of Massachusetts being so far away from the hubs of most conferences. Still, there is a level of competence that Bell has to start proving his team can display. The final two home games against mediocre FCS teams give a perfect chance to take care of business and retain some measure of pride that is typically so elusive for the Minutemen.

Dylan Corey can be reached at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @TheDylanCorey.