Before anyone says anything, let me just get this out. The decision of the UMass Minutemen to move up to FBS football was not a bad one, and the announcement that the Commonwealth's flagship university will be leaving the MAC following the 2015-16 season in no way proves that. This is not a matter of competition, penance, or anything like that. This is about money, and it's the right thing to do.
UMass and the MAC was a match made hastily to facilitate a transition when the institution wanted it to happen. This was an arranged marriage to keep a green card - and we couldn't be more thankful for the MAC's compliance in this circumvention of immigration laws. The Minutemen will leave the MAC better than the conference found it, and while their stay was brief and fruitless, it laid the foundation for what could be a strong mid-major football program somewhere down the line.
Let's make one thing clear, however: UMass still has two years with new coach Mark Whipple to further its development under the banner of the MAC. So before we eulogize this relationship, let's talk about what this means for both the conference and UMass.
The MAC will, in two years, likely be back to having 12 teams. These teams will be centrally located (sorry, Buffalo), likeminded, and on a relatively even playing field with each other. The conference will regain its identity as a tight-knit group of schools, not one that houses owls and gun-toting revolutionaries. The MAC will not miss UMass, and we are OK with that.
What this means for the Minutemen is something altogether different. UMass now has to spend the next two seasons looking for a new conference to call home and that decision will likely have ramifications that will be felt not just throughout the athletic department, but the college sports landscape.
See, the natural landing spot for UMass would be the American Athletic Conference. You know, the one with two teams in the Sweet 16 right now? Geographically the Minutemen fit in about as well as they do in the Atlantic 10 with UConn and Temple within a reasonable radius of Amherst.
Such a move comes with significant upside - television rights, revenue sharing, brand recognition, a deep conference across multiple sports - but could be met with some pushback from UConn. The Huskies are the standard bearer for collegiate athletics in New England and compete for a lot of recruits with UMass. Having the Minutemen in the same conference would level that playing field and handcuff UConn's program.
Conference USA and the Sun Belt have been mentioned, but UMass fits into those conferences about as well as it fit into the MAC. Those moves would also be significant downgrades from a basketball perspective and while football is the driving force behind all realignment, basketball is the breadwinner at UMass. Any move has to benefit that program.
So where do the Minutemen go from here? Well, they should keep up their offseason programs, get their freshmen up to speed, pick a quarterback, and show up at Gillette Stadium in September ready to show the college football landscape that they are moving in the right direction for the 2016-17 season.
The two-year audition begins right now. Action.