UMass vs. Wisconsin Preview: Little victories will be important for Minutemen

Mike Wegzyn has played in a B1G environment before. - Rick Osentoski-US PRESSWIRE

Whether it is by 20, 30 or 40 points, the outcome of Saturday's season opener is not as important as how the Minutemen acquit themselves in their first and biggest test of the 2013 season.

Losing is a likelihood, but failure is not guaranteed. The UMass Minutemen will find their success against the Wisconsin Badgers not in the final score, but in the little things UMass can do to look like a better football team than last season. Much like NFL preseason games, the outcome is less important than the lessons learned on the field and the experience of playing full-speed, full-contact football against another -- albeit bigger -- group of men.

If it sounds like I am writing off UMass before the game even begins, it's because I am. The Badgers are a powerhouse and the last time the Minutemen faced one of those, they lost 63-13.

So since the outcome is no longer important, what is? Well, I'm glad you asked.

Here are a few places that I will be looking at to gauge just how far the Minutemen have come since last season and how far they still must go.

1) Offensive efficiency

UMass was one of the worst offensive teams in the country last season, ranking 124th -- dead last -- in yards per game (278.3), 103rd in passing yards per game (186.7), and 118th in rushing yards per game (91.6). While those numbers will take awhile to come around, one area UMass should look to improve in is efficiency, or yards per carry/passing attempt.

Solid per play numbers will yield higher percentage second- and third-down situations and take some needed pressure off of Mike Wegzyn's shoulders.

If UMass can achieve the numbers they put up in their near-win over Ohio last season -- 7.3 yards/attempt, 3.8 yards/carry -- against a stout Wisconsin team it will bode well for the offense over the course of the season.

2) Third down offense/defense

This will be a big part of the Minutemen's improvement over the next few seasons. UMass ranked 93rd in FBS last season in third-down conversion percentage (36.1 percent) and if it can improve that mark just six percent, that ranking should be enough to put them in the top 50.

Defensively the Minutemen struggled to get off the field, allowing their opponents to convert 46 percent of their third downs which was good for the 105th best mark in FBS. This is the more important number of the two as it will be incumbent on the defense to keep scores within striking distance for the offense and getting the opposing offense off the field is a good start.

Keep an eye on these situations.

3) Turnovers

UMass' turnover margin was minus-9 last season. That's no good. Now, the Minutemen actually won the turnover battle against Michigan, picking off Denard Robinson once while not turning the ball over, but taking care of the ball will be a huge part of this team's growth.

Improving that number will begin on Saturday and if UMass can have a repeat performance of the Michigan game you have to feel good about their ability to hold onto the ball well into MAC play.

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These are just three areas that fans should keep an eye on while taking in the game on Saturday afternoon to distract from whatever the score will be. Little victories in areas such as these will be telltale signs of the program's growth and shed some light on what UMass could do in the MAC this season.

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