Going Out On Limb For 2015: UMass Goes Bowling

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Nothing about the University of Massachusetts’ decision to move up from the Football Championship Subdivision to the Bowl Subdivision made sense to me.

The Minutemen reached the FCS Championship Game in 2006, then made the Playoffs the next year, but failed to reach the postseason every season thereafter. This wasn’t Appalachian State or Georgia Southern, moving up after years dominating.

Along with the move to FBS came the announcement UMass would play its home games some 70 minutes away from its Amherst campus in the New England Patriots’ Foxboro home. The Minutemen’s average attendance of 10,901 looked especially heinous among a sea of 70,000 blue seats.

But in 2014, UMass showed its first signs of life as an FBS program. The Minutemen finished 3-9, but all three wins came in Mid-American Conference play, surpassing the league’s win total in league from the previous two seasons.

There’s more to take away from the Minutemen’s losses than their wins, however. UMass dropped five games by a total of 19 points, including a pair of three-point decisions against Power Five competition, Colorado and Vanderbilt. The Minutemen had opportunities to win both contests.

UMass also lost by one score at MAC stalwart Toledo, and fell to MAC East divisional champion by just one point.

A few plays turn out differently, and a 3-9 UMass team is suddenly 7-5 and going to a bowl game. Some of the misfires can be attributed to inexperience, which will be of no concern for the team Phil Steele notes as the nation’s most experienced in 2015.

Chief among them is quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, a gunslinger with prototypical pro prospect size, which works out well given head coach Mark Whipple is well-tenured in the NFL.

And before he spent time with the Pittsburgh Steelers, Philadelphia Eagles, Cleveland Browns and Miami Dolphins, Whipple was the head coach at UMass, from 1999 through 2003.

The university turned to a coach with experience in Amherst after parting ways with Charley Molnar, and Whipple delivered in his first season. The intricacies of his offense streamlined implementation, and Forhnapfel explained to Friend of the Site Alex Kolodziej that Whipple’s system was easy to run.

That manifested in UMass scoring more than 27 points per game in 2014 — not Baylor-like numbers, sure, but a monumental improvement over 2013, when the Minutemen averaged fewer than 12 points per game.

Look for a considerable spike again with virtually the entire offense returning.

Bringing back a previous, successful head coach wasn’t the only call-back to UMass’ Div. I-AA/FCS days that gave the program a needed boost. While the Minutemen remained in Gillette Stadium for a few contests, including matchups with Power Five Boston College and Colorado, the majority of MAC home games were played in Amherst, at Warren McGuirk Alumni Stadium.

UMass’ average home attendance in 2014 jumped to over 16,000, a huge improvement from its two seasons playing exclusively in Foxboro and approaching the maximum capacity of McGuirk Stadium.

McGuirk will host some of the must-win games the Minutemen need in order to reach bowl eligibility, starting Oct. 3 with a nonconference tilt against FIU.

UMass could face an 0-3 start heading into that game, opening the season with a road trip to Colorado, hosting Temple then getting the paycheck that comes with the scheduling of Notre Dame from Molnar’s time as head coach.

FIU will be improved in its own right, so this could very well determine which rising team meets its potential in 2015.

The other biggies in Amherst at MAC matchups with Kent State, on Oct. 17, and Miami U. on Nov. 21.

UMass is at Gillette Stadium for showdowns with Toledo and Akron. Whipple’s bunch lucked out drawing road games against retooling Buffalo and perennial basement dweller Eastern Michigan.

There’s the critical seven games that should make or break the Minutemen’s bowling aspirations. Building on the positive momentum of last season, expect UMass to disprove every critic who questioned the program’s ability to ever compete in the FBS — myself included.