Matt Vautour: UMass is about to embark on most important season in school history

Laste modified: Thursday, September 04, 2014
UMass coach Mark Whipple has referred to Saturday’s game against Boston College as “the biggest opener in school history” and “the biggest home game ever at UMass.”

It sounds like hyperbole from a coach trying to drive up ticket sales. But in reality, he’s underselling it. This might be the most important game in school history. It is inarguably the most important football season ever at UMass.

The Minutemen have competed for conference championships for decades and reached the FCS national championship game three times. Those were all big games and great moments for the program, but the effects of those games on the future of the program were intangible and nebulous at best.

There’s a lot more of UMass’ future directly riding on Saturday than any one of those games. For the Minutemen it’s just a game. It’s a big game and one that will set a tone for the year and offer a glimpse into how good they’re capable of being, but still just a game. Win or lose they’ll be thinking about Colorado on Sunday.

For the program however, it’s huge. The Minutemen are auditioning for other conferences. UMass is preparing to play as an independent for at least 2016 and 2017 because its arrangement with the MAC is coming to an end after 2015. But it can’t be conferenceless forever. Eventually it needs to get back in a league.

Everything it does right now sends a message to potentially interested leagues about what kind of member the Minutemen would be. Facility upgrades, how they handle increasing the value of scholarships and other resource allocation will reveal how serious the school is about football. But nothing will crystallize their potential more than improving on the field.

If UMass is even competitive with BC, an Atlantic Coast Conference team, it paints a clear picture that the Minutemen could be a potentially competitive and valuable addition to a league. If UMass can pull an upset that message only gets clearer and louder.

If the MAC hadn’t forced UMass to choose between leaving or putting its whole athletic department in the league, this would be a significant year. But the need for a new league increases the pressure on this season exponentially.

UMass is also auditioning for its own fans. After back-to-back 1-11 seasons, there are people who care about Minuteman sports who aren’t willing to shell out for the cost of a ticket to see their team get drubbed. A competitive game with BC improves ticket sales for next week’s game with Colorado and the rest of the season. A win could create a very busy Monday at the ticket office. A season with continued improvement and increased wins could turn some people into long-term fans.

Beating any power conference team would be a milestone for UMass, but beating BC would come with an added layer of benefit. For starters, the Minutemen and Eagles will pursue every significant recruit in New England. Besides getting a leg up on the recruiting trail, just about every UMass fan knows at least one BC fan. For decades, those Eagle supporters have been able to pooh-pooh the Minutemen’s accomplishments in the less relevant I-AA. This is the first real chance in a long time for UMass to approach equal footing.

GAME OF THE WEEK: No. 16 Clemson at No. 12 Georgia, Saturday, 5:30 p.m. ESPN — It’s tempting to pick No. 21 Texas A&M at No. 9 South Carolina (Thursday 6 p.m.) because it’s a league game that could affect the SEC race and the SEC champ is almost certain to reach the brand new College Football Playoff. But A&M sans Johnny Football looks pretty overrated at 21. It would be stunning to see the Gamecocks lose this game at home. Meanwhile, Clemson and Georgia both lost quarterbacks, but they have a lot of other key players back. The winner becomes an outside contender for a playoff berth.

MAC GAME OF THE WEEK — Boston College at UMass, Saturday, 3 p.m. ESPN3 — For all the reasons above, UMass vs. BC matters.

IF I HAD A HEISMAN VOTE — Jameis Winston is the obvious choice, but nobody repeats and the Florida State QB has shown the tendency to step in some of the same PR potholes that Johnny Manziel did. So I’m going with Oregon quarterback Marcus Mariotta. If the Ducks make the College Football Playoff, and they’ve got a great shot to, his numbers figure to be good enough to get him there.

PLAYOFF BOUND: Florida State, Oregon, Alabama, Oklahoma — No shockers here. Any one of them could take home the first College Football Playoff championship.

FINALLY — Marshall has a chance to be really good, but an embarrassingly fluffy nonconference schedule — Miami (Ohio), Rhode Island, Akron and Ohio University — will prevent the Herd from ever really being considered a playoff contender even it does go undefeated.

Information from personal interviews, newspaper articles and sports information releases was used in this report.

Matt Vautour can be reached at mvautour@gazettenet.com. Get UMass coverage delivered in your Facebook news feed at www.facebook.com/GazetteUMassCoverage