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Matt Vautour: UMass ready for bowl bid? 2015 schedule gives it a chance

Maine defensive back Jamal Clay (15) wraps up Massachusetts running back Stacey Bedell (23) during their NCAA football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday Sept. 7, 2013. Maine defeated Massachusetts 24-14. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Maine defensive back Jamal Clay (15) wraps up Massachusetts running back Stacey Bedell (23) during their NCAA football game in Foxborough, Mass., Saturday Sept. 7, 2013. Maine defeated Massachusetts 24-14. (AP Photo/Stephan Savoia)

Monday, April 21, 2014
(Published in print: Tuesday, April 22, 2014)

At first glance the University of Massachusetts and Florida International scheduling each other in football doesn’t seem overly newsworthy in Amherst, Miami or anywhere in between. Two schools that were 1-11 and lost to Championship Subdivision teams in 2013, are playing each other in 2015 and 2018. Simply, it looks like teams that have been lousy just filling their schedules out and creating home games.

Maybe that’s all it is. But the game could represent both UMass’ belief that it’ll be ready to compete for a bowl bid in 2015 and a potential change in its approach to scheduling.

2015 shapes up like a pretty important year for UMass football as it’s the last in the Mid-American Conference. If the Minutemen haven’t already secured a new league before then, that year is an audition.

When UMass made the decision to move up, the school touted its desire to stock its nonconference slate with heavyweights. Not long after, games with Michigan, Wisconsin, Florida, Kansas State and Notre Dame began showing up on future schedules. Those games brought with them big paychecks, but extremely low chances to win.

While Notre Dame is on the 2015 slate, the remaining nonconference games that year are far more manageable. After going 1-11 each of the past two seasons, there are no easy games for UMass, but if the team makes its hoped-for improvement under new coach Mark Whipple, it could be competitive against Temple (2-10 in 2013), Colorado (4-8 with two wins over FCS teams, 1-8 Pac 12) and FIU (1-11).

Combine that with an expected regression at the top of the MAC, and it looks like the Minutemen are creating a schedule that gives them a chance, if they improve even a moderate amount, to be bowl eligible in 2015.

UMass hoped that playing schools from brand-name conferences would draw interest and big paychecks until the team got competitive. But playing too many of those schools could be a significant impediment toward being competitive.

The Minutemen were bad last year, so who they played in nonconference play obviously didn’t matter that much. If they’d been really good, there were enough beatable teams in the MAC that they could have been bowl eligible regardless.

It’s the years when a team is decent or a little above average that the schedule can make the difference between a bowl appearance and finishing 3-9.

UMass’ 2013 schedule could have prevented a pretty good team from making a bowl. The Minutemen could have been considerable better last year and still not found a way to the necessary six wins. Even in UMass’ struggling state, Maine, Akron and Western Michigan all could have been wins with fewer mistakes. The Minutemen wouldn’t have needed to be good to win those games, just a little less bad.

But going from four wins to six would have been a challenge because Wisconsin, Kansas State and Vanderbilt would have beaten even top-shelf MAC teams. If UMass replaced two of those schools with Sun Belt, AAC or Conference USA teams, or even a mediocre MAC team, it might have found a way to sneak into a bowl.

The tangible interest in UMass football has been disappointing so far. How much would that interest increase if the Minutemen went from awful to decent? How much would a bid to a bowl, any bowl get people excited? It’s impossible to know for sure.

The balancing act is determining the value of a winnable game vs. collecting a big paycheck. UMass plays Penn State (2014), Notre Dame (2015) and Florida (2016) in the future with each bringing a paycheck not far from $1 million, but after 2016, there are no rich Goliaths scheduled. In 2017, UMass is at Temple and at Indiana, with two games open. In 2018, the Minutemen host Vanderbilt and are at Boston College and FIU.

A trip to Colorado is the only game so far on the 2019 schedule.

Is that a coincidence or a philosophy change?

Until UMass gets a conference, scheduling is going to be more challenging as it figures out when and who it can play. If it doesn’t find a conference, scheduling will be really challenging.

The other point that makes UMass vs. FIU noteworthy is the 2015 game’s location. According to FIU’s press release (UMass hasn’t officially announced it), the 2015 game will be in Amherst not Foxborough. That’s the first nonconference game scheduled for the newly renovated McGuirk Stadium. That would mean there would be two MAC games at Gillette Stadium that season.

If UMass is starting to schedule nonconference opponents willing to play at McGuirk, it could mean UMass is setting the wheels in motion to play five games at McGuirk and just one at Gillette. Under NCAA rules, if they have six home games, the Minutemen could either play three games in each venue or five in one place and one in the other. A split of four and two is not an option.

Every season has to have 12 games, and maybe this is just filling scheduling holes on both sides. But maybe not.

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