Recently, SB Nation determined the UMass Minutemen football program had put together the toughest non-conference schedule in the FBS. They will be facing four Power Conference opponents out of a possible four games, and are one of only 18 schools in the country who refused to schedule an opponent from the FCS.
This was a pretty bold move by the Minutemen, but what better time to take their licks than in a transition year that bars them from the postseason? It's going to be a rough ride for them over the next couple years, but as long as the determination continues and the fans remain patient, it's a strategy that could end up paying off very well in the recruiting department. That being said, I was curious how unprecedented, if at all, this inspiring strategy was.
As it turns out, it is fairly rare for a transitioning program to schedule zero FCS teams, never mind scheduling only teams from auto-qualifying conferences. In fact, either condition has been met only once since the BCS was implemented: both by Florida Atlantic in 2005. No, it did not work out well for the Owls, who dropped all four non-conference tilts and finished at 2-9 overall. Not necessarily the model program for the Minutemen, but the effort is no less noble.
Prior to Florida Atlantic's move, it was not commonplace for a school to jump directly into an FBS conference. Buffalo was the only team to do so from 1999-2005, and they have remained members of that conference to this day. However, even Buffalo could not avoid the lure of the "schedule win," agreeing to meet with both UConn and Hofstra in their first year of Division I-A ball. Of course, Buffalo managed to lose to both teams, along with everyone else they played that season, showing the transition is much tougher than it may seem. Buffalo will have the opportunity to prove that to UMass this November.
The other movers in that pre-2005 time span came into I-A as Independents, free to schedule whomever they could, whenever they could. None played less than three FCS teams (Mid-Major totals include teams classified as Independent):
- Troy (2002) Troy ended up putting together the most impressive schedule, challenging Nebraska, Iowa State, Missouri, Mississippi State, and Arkansas. Totals: 5 Auto-Qualifiers, 3 Mid-Majors, 4 Division I-AA teams.
- USF (2001) South Florida's only BCS-conference opponent their first year was Pitt. Totals: 1 AQ, 7 MM, 3 DI-AA.
- UConn (2000) Connecticut also only had one matchup against a Power Six team in Big East's Boston College. Totals: 1 AQ, 6 MM, 4 DI-AA.
- Middle Tennessee (1999) MTSU grabbed Mississippi State and Arkansas from the SEC and Arizona from the Pac-10 for their inaugural I-A season. Totals: 3 AQ, 5 MM, 3 DI-AA.
Certainly this is no way to measure a team's future success; UConn won the Big East in their eighth FBS season, and USF became the fastest football program in NCAA history to become ranked in the Top 25, Top 10, and Top 5, climbing all the way to #2 in the country in 2007, their seventh in FBS.
Four teams are making the jump this season, the most since 1996. While UMass will be off challenging the Big 10, Big East, and SEC, the other three newcomers each have at least one game against the lower D1 tier. Let's take a look at how these teams' schedules compare to the other schools that joined a conference immediately upon their FBS/DI-A move:
- UMass (2012) UConn, Indiana, Michigan, and Vanderbilt, for a total of four AQ Conference schools.
- Texas State (2012) Texas Tech is on the schedule this season. Totals: 1 AQ, 4 MM, 1 FCS
- South Alabama (2012) NC State and Mississippi State will face off against the Jaguars. Totals: 2 AQ, 2 MM, 1 FCS
- UTSA (2012) Reaction to this one below. Totals: 0 AQ, 2 MM, 2 FCS, 2DII, 1 NAIA
- Western Kentucky (2009) The Hilltoppers played Tennessee and USF their first year in FBS ball. Totals: 2 AQ, 1 MM, 1 FCS
- FAU (2005) The only other listed team with only AQ opponents in year one: Kansas, Oklahoma State, Minnesota, and Louisville.
FIU (2005) FIU was introduced to DI-A with a schedule featuring Texas Tech and Kansas State. Totals: 2 AQ, 2 DI-AA
- Buffalo (1999) Only played three non-conference games, one against Virginia. Totals: 1 AQ, 2 DI-AA.
While the rest of the FBS has been busy for years planning out their future non-conference schedules, teams making the transition are suddenly thrown into the mix and left to scrape together what matchups they can in the span of one offseason, so it should come as no surprise that most teams end up taking the intra-subdivisional game. Texas-San Antonio seems determined to write their own story; not only are they facing two teams from the FCS and playing fellow newbie South Alabama, they also lined up matches against Division II Texas A&M-Commerce (yeah, I had to look it up too) and Northwestern Oklahoma State, pride of the NAIA. Yes, UTSA is playing a game entirely outside of the NCAA realm. To each his own.
Personally, I like to see a program aim high, and it looks like UMass is doing just that, and not slowing down anytime soon. They've inked a four-year series with Vanderbilt, plan to play at Florida in 2016, and are closing in on both a three-year series with BC and a one-off meeting with Notre Dame. It would probably be silly to expect the team to come out of any of these games with a W this year, but it's a promising sign to fans and an indication of how this team wants to play. The future looks bright for UMass, once they get the hang of playing with their big brothers in the MAC and other FBS conferences. They have a history of getting comfortable in their environment while also playing top-notch ball, and I don't expect that to change anytime soon. It's great that the Minutemen look to be aiming to represent their school and conference well, now and in the future.