There's plenty of excitement surrounding a college football program that's making the jump to Division-I like the UMass Minutemen. Players, coaches and fans alike are buzzing with school pride, which should make for an exciting season. At the same time, it's tough to expect much success from a glorified FCS team playing with the big boys for the very first time.
UMass made the jump from Division I-AA (a.k.a. FCS) to the Mid-American Conference (MAC) in FBS this offseason after a successful FCS tenure. The Minutemen have an all-time record of 556-526-51, with the football program dating back to 1879. UMass has won 22 conference championships and won the FCS National Championship, the title game of the Division I-AA playoffs, against Georgia Southern (a 55-43 win) in 1998. The Minutemen appeared in the inaugural D I-AA title game, falling to Florida A&M, 35-28, in 1978. UMass has appeared in three FCS Championship games, with its last appearance coming in 2006 -- its final season in the Atlantic 10 Conference. UMass lost to Appalachian State, 28-17.
As part of the transition to Division I, the Minutemen will not be fully instated to FBS by the NCAA until it meets certain requirement, which it should in the following season. During that time, UMass will not be bowl eligible. Quite frankly, the Minutemen shouldn't be worried about that anyway.
Charley Molnar will guide the Minutemen into their first FBS season, replacing the fired Kevin Morris as the school's head football coach. Molnar came from Notre Dame, where he served as the offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach for the last two seasons. Molnar has also coached at Cincinnati and Central Michigan and helped the three schools amass a 59-20 record.
While this will be the first Division I season for the Minutemen student athletes, they do bring some experience to the field. Keyword, some. UMass has 18 returning starters -- six on offense and 10 on defense, as well as a kicker and punter. As shown by those numbers, the defense is more experience than the offense, and that will likely show immediately when the team hits the gridiron.
Junior quarterback Kellen Pagel was slated on top of the depth chart, but was mysteriously held out of training camp for the first few weeks in early August before it was revealed that he was dealing with post-concussion symptoms from concussions that he had suffered last season, resulting in him missing three games. Mike Wegzyn, a redshirt freshman, and A.J. Doyle, a true freshman, were both in the running to take Pagel's spot while he recovers. Molnar confirmed that, barring "disaster," Wegzyn will get the starting job. Pagel and Wegzyn battled for the top job last spring.
There aren't many starting jobs left for grabs, according to Molnar (via Mass Live). The special teams game is particularly week, so the kickers and punters will continue to jockey for position until Thursday night's season opener against the UConn Huskies. Left guard and running back are the only two other positions where Molnar said there weren't clear-cut No. 1 options. In the backfield, it looks likely that the Minutemen will roll with a back-by-committee plan, but they do have some experience (senior transfer Michael Cox comes from the University of Michigan and both Chris Burns and Alan Williams are seniors). Either John Wallace or Michael Boland will start at left guard.
In the receiving game, Marken Michel, Deion Walker and Tajae Sharpe are the top targets with Alan Williams, a running back, playing in the slot. Rob Blanchflower is the starting tight end.
The offensive line has experience, anchored by senior center Quinton Sales. On the defensive line, UMass will work with (defensive ends) Stanley Andre, Ryan Delaire, Kevin Byrne, Brandon Potvin and (defensive tackles) Chaz Thompson, Galen Clemons, Hafis Williams, Daniel Maynes (via Mass Live). Perry McIntyre, Tom Brandt and Greg Hilliard run the linebacking corps, which is working to replace the graduated Tyler Holmes, an FCS All-American. In the backfield, Darren Thellen and Christian Birt are the safeties and Antoine Tharpe and Randall Jette are the CBs.
The injury to Pagel aside, things have been coming together for Molnar and company this summer, but it's going to take more than just a group of healthy, committed players to get the job done at this level. Talent is what matters at the end of the day, and with a team full of FCS talent playing on an FBS stage, the Minutemen have their work cut out for them. It's tough to predict how well UMass will do in its first season in the MAC, but it's hard to believe that it could top the four or five win mark. Who knows? No one really does -- we're all just guessing -- and that's what makes it fun.