University of Massachusetts sophomore quarterback A.J. Doyle, center, hands off to freshman running back Lorenzo Woodley during the Minutemen's first football practice of the 2013 season Monday, August 5, at McGuirk Stadium in Amherst. KEVIN GUTTING
It sounds like hyperbole to call Saturday’s game an important one.
The Universities of Massachusetts and Maine have had big games before in their long history as New England, Yankee Conference and Colonial Athletic Association rivals. They’ve met with conference titles, Division I-AA postseason implications and of course bragging rights all on the line.
Saturday’s 2 p.m. game at Gillette Stadium might be bigger. Those previous games impacted the present. This one potentially has a bigger stake in the future.
At the most basic level, this game is big for UMass at the box office. For starters, the school is hoping that more than a few Black Bear fans pack 95 south en route to Foxborough. The Minutemen need to average 15,000 fans this year to avoid an NCAA probationary status. Any game over 15,000 helps and the NCAA doesn’t care if a hefty chunk of those fans are wearing Black Bear blue and silver.
But the box office will be affected by more than just how many Mainers and Minuteman fans show up. If UMass plays well and beats the Black Bears, it will show that UMass has at least made some progress in its quest to put distance between itself and its Championship Subdivision past.
Beating Maine, which has been a back-end CAA team recently, certainly does not announce UMass having arrived by any stretch of the imagination. But losing to the Black Bears would be an utter disaster. Losses to FCS teams are huge setbacks for struggling FBS programs and can create an avalanche of lost confidence in the fan base.
Potential supporters can convince themselves that there are a lot of teams that would flounder as badly as UMass did against a very good Wisconsin team if the Minutemen come back and play well against Maine. Lay an egg on Saturday and fans will quickly question the entire direction of the program. Walk-up ticket sales for the remaining five home games would likely take a hit.
Seven FCS teams beat FBS squads last week. Kansas State, UConn, South Florida, Iowa State, San Diego State, South Alabama and even No. 25 Oregon State all got beaten by little brothers. Those upsets had to make the UMass administration reach for antacid.
When UMass first moved up, school officials said it wouldn’t play FCS teams. It was a show of bravado at the time, wanting to announce the program ready to take on the big boys. It was a stance they’ve quietly backed away from.
There are good reasons to play an FCS team once a year. The NCAA requires programs to play at least 50 percent of its games at a venue to call it home. For the Minutemen to play three games in Gillette and three in McGuirk Stadium, they need to have six home games. It hasn’t been easy for UMass to get nonconference home games. Lots of decent opponents wouldn’t play UMass on the road. Those who have agreed to play — Boston College, Colorado, Vanderbilt and Indiana — would only do so in Foxborough.
The Minutemen could probably get home-and-home series with Sun Belt, Conference USA or some Mountain West teams, but would more fans show up to see UMass vs. Louisiana-Monroe or UMass vs. Maine? Plus, scheduling those games would hamper the Minutemen’s ability to take big paycheck road games.
Scheduling FCS opponents gives FBS teams a potentially winnable game, one that makes reaching bowl eligibility (record of .500 or better) that much easier. Given UMass’ gauntlet of nonconference games down the road, wins will be valuable commodities as it tries to qualify.
For this year, playing the game makes sense because it’s a more winnable game that could give the Minutemen an opportunity to build some confidence and perhaps momentum. For most realistic UMass fans, bowl eligibility isn’t the standard set for calling 2013 a successful season. Winning three or even four games would feel like things were moving in a positive direction. If the Minutemen beat Maine it could be a springboard toward that.
But all those potential benefits evaporate fast with a loss. So this is a big game, maybe the biggest in UMass’ young life in the Bowl Subdivision.