Matt Vautour: From Maine to Wisconsin, ranking UMass’ 2013 opponents

Last modified: Friday, August 30, 2013
Throughout preseason, the University of Massachusetts football players and coaches have expressed confidence that the Minutemen will be better this year.

But everybody is optimistic in August. Coming off last year’s 1-11 season, there’s plenty of room for improvement. UMass figures to have its hands full again with three (out of four) very difficult nonconference games in addition what figures to be another difficult MAC slate. Here’s a look at the Minutemen’s schedule ordered from easiest to hardest, taking talent, location and timing into consideration:

1. Maine – It will be interesting to see if UMass has distanced itself from its former rivals. Losing this game would be a public relations disaster for a program trying to sell its forward progress. The Black Bears famously upset Mississippi State in 2004. But they’re coming off a 5-6 season a year ago and were picked eighth in the CAA preseason poll.

UMass is hoping the Black Bears provide a victory and a lot of fans to pad the Minutemen’s attendance totals.

2. Akron — UMass beat the Zips last year on the road for the Minutemen’s only win. Akron hasn’t beaten an FBS team since 2010 and they badly need to show some progress. UMass fans are counting on being able to win at home on Nov. 16. This game isn’t expected to mean much in either the MAC standings or bowl eligibility picture, but it’s huge for these two programs. Akron led the MAC in passing last year, but lost quarterback Dalton Williams. The Zips were among the league’s worst defenses but bring back seven starters there, which could be a blessing or a curse.

3. Miami (Ohio) — The Minutemen hung with the Red Hawks for most of the game last year. This one is in Foxborough and Miami lost record-setting quarterback Zac Dysert giving UMass reason for hope.

4. Western Michigan — It’s hard to determine which directional Michigan game will be tougher for UMass. The Broncos crushed the Minutemen 52-14 last year in Kalamazoo. They lost quarterback Alex Carder to graduation, but it was backup Tyler Van Tubbergen who shredded UMass last year. The Broncos faltered after that losing five of their last six to finish 4-8, causing coach Bill Cubit to be fired.

New coach P.J. Fleck has generated plenty of buzz, but how will Cubit’s holdovers fare in his new offense? Top returning receiver Jamie Wilson could be out for the year.

5. Central Michigan — The Minutemen lost 42-21 to the Chippewas at Gillette. CMU will have a very inexperienced offense outside of running back Zurlon Tipton (1,492). Still he’s a yardage machine and by the time UMass goes to Mt. Pleasant, Mich., the Chips will have had plenty of time to come together and could need this game to be bowl eligible.

6. Buffalo — The Bulls are a popular choice to be among the most-improved teams in the conference. They won three of their last four games, including a 29-19 win over the Minutemen, and bring back 15 starters. Buffalo should have standout running back Brandein Oliver, who missed five games, back.

Linebacker Khalil Mack could be the conference’s best defensive player. He leads a unit that could be among the league’s best.

7. Vanderbilt — The Commodores were 9-4 a year ago. They will be the highest profile opponent UMass has hosted in its short time in the FBS.

Jordan Matthews figures to be the best wide receiver UMass faces all season, but Vanderbilt is young at quarterback and running back, making them potentially vulnerable against some teams. However, the Minutemen would have to take huge leaps to be ready to upset an SEC team.

8. Ohio — Northern Illinois’ success makes it easy for forget that in the preseason last year, the Bobcats were the chic pick to be a BCS buster. Ohio lost 12 starters and has lots of questions on defense, but it returns star quarterback Tyler Tettleton and running back Beau Blankenship, who rushed for 1,604 yards last year. By the time UMass arrives on Black Friday, the Bobcats will have had plenty of time to come together.

9. Bowling Green — Last year, the Minutemen could barely move the ball against the Falcons in their 24-0 loss at Gillette. BGSU returns nine starters back from that defense and the game is on the road making this a long shot on paper for UMass.

10. Northern Illinois — The Huskies might be better than the Wildcats, but this game is in Foxborough. While Gillette hasn’t given UMass a home field advantage, it’s still better than a true road game. Regardless of venue, this is a huge long shot.

Quarterback Jordan Lynch is a fringe Heisman candidate, but the clear leader for MAC Player of the Year. There are only three starters back on defense, but their offense should be strong enough to carry the defense early.

12. Kansas State — The Wildcats aren’t nearly as good as they were a year ago, when they were in the national championship picture into November. But they still will be an overwhelming favorite against UMass.

13. Wisconsin — The Badgers will have a new coach and a new quarterback, but just staying competitive will be a challenge for the Minutemen.

GAMES OF THE WEEK: — No. 5 Georgia at No. 8 Clemson, Saturday 8 p.m. ABC — Winner is firmly in the title chase. Loser becomes a long shot.

No. 12 LSU vs. No. 20 TCU, Cowboys Classic, 9 p.m. ESPN — Both teams have top 10 potential with a win here.

MAC GAME OF THE WEEK: Northern Illinois at Iowa,3:30 p.m. Big Ten Network — Losing to the Hawkeyes didn’t prevent NIU from reaching the BCS last year. This will serve as a good barometer for whether NIU can be elite again.

HEISMAN PREDICTION — Braxton Miller, Ohio State

CHAMPIONSHIP CRYSTAL BALL — Ohio State over Alabama.

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.