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Matt Vautour: Can UMass football exceed low expectations?

JERREY ROBERTS
UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, center, listens to Head Coach Mark Whipple during a scrimmage Monday at McGuirk Stadium.

JERREY ROBERTS UMass quarterback Blake Frohnapfel, center, listens to Head Coach Mark Whipple during a scrimmage Monday at McGuirk Stadium. Purchase photo reprints »

A week from now, everyone will have a better idea, who was right — the professional prognosticators, who’ve predicted another bad year for the UMass football team, or the Minutemen themselves, who believe they’re on the brink of a break out season.

UMass opens against Boston College on Saturday at 3 p.m. at Gillette Stadium.

The Minutemen were picked last among all college football teams in the Bowl Subdivision by USA Today which dwarfs also being picked last in the Mid-American Conference east division in the league’s preseason poll. The preseason magazines all have UMass near the bottom of the MAC and the bottom of the FBS.

And why not? The Minutemen are coming off back-to-back 1-11 seasons, which is not exactly yeast for optimism.

The players think they’ll be much better than that, but they thought they’d be better in 2012 and 2013 too. Everybody thinks they’ll be better in camp. But with a new coach, a new attitude and several key new players, there’s reason to think UMass should be better. How much better is the real question:

WORST CASE SCENARIO — New quarterback Blake Frohnapfel never gets on track. The young offensive line suffers through injuries and/or inconsistency and none of the running backs emerge from the pack. The offensive woes force the defense to stay on the field for too long again. The five tough games to open the season sap the Minutemen’s early optimism and they never get any momentum in the MAC.

It rains on Aug. 30 (vs. Boston College) and snows on Nov. 12 (a Wednesday night vs. Ball State) and fans stay away from the two highest profile games on the schedule. Miami (Ohio) avenges last year’s loss in Foxborough and UMass’s lone win comes against Eastern Michigan for the Minutemen’s third straight 1-11 season. It finishes last in the MAC and proving the prognosticators right.

BEST CASE SCENARIO — The new-face-filled offense clicks around Frohnapfel. The upstart Minutemen pull an upset in one of their first two home games against struggling former powerhouses Boston College or Colorado, who are picked low in the ACC and Pac 12 respectively. Several of the running backs all contribute. Unlike the last two years, the offense’s ability to move the ball keeps the defense from being overworked.

Kassan Messiah and Trey Dudley-Giles each earn all-conference honors.

UMass wins games against Kent State, Eastern Michigan, Miami (Ohio) and Akron and are 5-6 heading into the season finale against Buffalo. McGuirk is sold out with a postseason berth on the line. The Minutemen score late to move to 6-6 and earn a bid to the Famous Idaho Potato Bowl. Whipple wins MAC coach of the year.

SOMEWHERE IN THE MIDDLE — Some Minuteman players would consider the best case scenario an undersell of what they’re capable of, but reaching .500 would certainly be cause for wild celebration. There are below .500 records that would spark long-term optimism for UMass fans.

How many wins constitutes a successful season depends on who’s being asked, but most Minuteman fans have a low bar for what would make them happy:

1. A team that’s more watchable offensively — not too hard to pull off considering.

2. Fewer shaky play calls, time outs and clock management decisions.

3. Being competitive into the fourth quarter.

4. Three or more wins.

All are attainable. UMass has never actually finished last in the MAC east despite twice being picked there and the league isn’t as good as its been the past two years.

It’s hard to imagine the offense won’t be at least a little better. It was so poorly executed last year and still UMass nearly won two more games (Western Michigan, Akron). With an even passable offensive showing, it might have beaten Maine. The Minutemen’s crater-low external expectations stem from being 1-11, but this is truthfully a team that had enough talent to be 4-8.

On top of that, UMass has only five seniors (including graduate students Alex Kenney and Brian McDonald who’ll run out of eligibility after this season on the roster). All progress made this year helps build toward a 2015 seasons that should feature much more optimism.

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

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