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MAC Football Previews: Massachusetts Minutemen

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A farewell tour to the black sheep of the MAC family.

Matthew O'Haren-USA TODAY Sports

Rule #1 of MAC Football: Don't talk about UMass football.

Rule #2 of MAC Football: Don't talk about UMass football.

Rule #3 of MAC Football: Really really hope that UMass isn't hoisting a trophy in Detroit come December.

The MAC has done everything it can to forget about the football experiment that is Minuteman football. You can no longer find their logo on the MAC website's header. You can't find their logo on getsomemaction.com. But that doesn't stop the Maroon and White from taking the field every Saturday. And with both middle fingers in the air as they exit the room, the Minutemen, for the first time since joining the MAC, are ready to make some noise.

Schedule

Date Team Time (ET)

BYE
Sept. 12 @ Colorado 2 pm
Sept. 19 vs. Temple 3 pm
Sept. 26 @ Notre Dame 3:30 pm
Oct. 3 vs. Florida International TBA
Oct. 10 @ Bowling Green TBA
Oct. 17 vs. Kent State 3:30 pm
Oct. 24 vs. Toledo TBA
Oct. 31 @ Ball State TBA
Nov. 7 vs. Akron TBA
Nov. 14 @ Eastern Michigan TBA
Nov. 21 vs. Miami TBA
Nov. 27 (Fri.) @ Buffalo TBA

Good news first or bad news first? Bad news? Your funeral. The Minutemen have an absolutely (though quietly) brutal start to the season. Like last year, there's a game that they have no chance in hell of winning at Notre Dame (see Penn State last year). Temple's defense returns every starter, and might just be a Top 25-caliber unit in the nation, and is a pick for the AAC title. Those two games seem like sure losses. On the plus side of the ledger is Florida International, who the Minutemen can look to get their first non-conference win if things fall apart to start the season. That means, if we give UMass the win over FIU (not certain by any means, but we'll be generous), in order to start at 2-2, the Minutemen need to win their opening tilt.

Enter the Buffaloes. Colorado edged the Minutemen by a field goal last year in a shootout. On the plus side, that was Blake Frohnapfel's second game as a Minutemen. He, due to a shortened camp and not yet forming a connection with his receivers, threw for just 267 yards, well under his 335 yards a game average. On the downside, Sefo Liufau, tore apart the UMass defense to the tune of 317 yards, and there's no reason to believe that the defense has made enough of an improvement to stop Liufau in the rematch. This will be the telling game for UMass' bowl hopes, even though it's just the first one. ESPN gives the Maroon and White just a 25.4% chance of a victory, but last year, with a quarterback still learning the ropes, the Minutemen led by as much as 11 in the third quarter. Keep your hopes in check, but don't expect the Minutemen to roll over and play dead.

MAC Play is a tale of two halves. Of their first four games, the Minutemen are favored in only one. Everything that was said about the Buffaloes above could be said about the Bowling Green Falcons. The only difference between the shootout between the Falcons last year and this year is that Matt Johnson is back from injury, who, if back to form, will be an upgrade over James Knapke who replaced Johnson after an injury at the start of the 2014 season. If Matt Johnson can't get his stuff together, Knapke will be in at this point, and he joined the defense shredding party with 443 yards and 3 scores. Somehow expect worse if Johnson is involved.

In other games in the first half: Kent State is expected to be a win  (the Golden Flashes nabbed just one victory in MAC-play a year ago), but are much improved this year. Toledo is one of the best teams in MAC West and the Minutemen shouldn't stand a chance.  Finally, Ball State lost to the Minutemen last year, yet ESPN has them as 70% favorites.  I don't know why that is, but, it shouldn't be. Minutemen can go anywhere from 1-3 to 2-2 here (they can also go 0-4, 3-1, and 4-0. If, due to a mixture of natural disasters and both teams taking steroids at midfield, the MAC suspends the game and both teams go 0-0-4 is also possible. But, most likely, 1-3 or 2-2).

I promised you good news, didn't I? Well let's get right to it. The Minutemen are currently sitting anywhere from 0-8 (grab a bottle), or if things break right, 4-4. Most likely somewhere around 2-6 or 3-5. Bowl eligbility starts at six wins, Minutemen might need seven.  Well, don't sell your season tickets because of the sub-.500 record after eight games folks, cause the late push is going to be fun (also, you'll get nothing back from your tickets after fees).  In the second half of MAC play, the Minutemen run off four straight games that are not only winnable, but where they are favored! Let's quickly go through them one by one.

UMass lost to Akron badly last year, but that was sans Blake Frohnapfel. Akron is without its leading rusher from last year, and its quarterback, Kyle Pohl, is not good. They'll probably keep close early eventually falling to us not being able to keep up the shootout pace. Eastern Michigan is bad and they should feel bad. Should be an easy win. Miami beat the Minutemen by one point last year after being down by 27 with two minutes to go in the first half. Don't expect them to pull off the same miracle again. Finally Anthone Taylor and the Buffalo running game should give the Minutemen fits (another Blake-less loss last season), in a true coinflip game.

If the Minutemen can win three of the final four games, they may be sitting at bowl eligibility. If they can sweep, a seven-win season isn't out of the question.

Head Coach

Mark Whipple enters his second year of his second stint with the UMass Minutemen with another chance to make the Maroon and White a household name. In his first go with the Minutemen, he took home the FCS title in his first year coaching. While his first year coaching the FBS Minutemen wasn't as smooth, with only three wins under his belt, his second year is primed to be a big one.

Last year we found Whipple, and the players, all saying "we didn't know how to win" a bit too much early in the season. While the high powered high flying offense was becoming the Minutemen's signature, every game found an uncrossed T or undotted I that left Whipple wondering what went wrong. This season, if Whipple can clean up the sloppy endings, he's poised to show why the Minutemen are a force to be reckoned with.

Five key players

Blake Frohnapfel (QB)- The records Blake Frohnapfel is poised to break this year are his own. He already has thrown for more yards in a MAC game than any other quarterback. His yardage totals are obscene. He might be classified as a dangerous weapon in at least three states. The only stat you need to know is this; Last season, Frohnapfel averaged 335 yards through the air a game. In the two games he missed, the Minutemen averaged 168 yards through the air a game.

Tajae Sharpe (WR)- If the Minutemen's season rests on Blake Frohnapfel's arm, then the guy standing behind him making sure nothing falls is Tajae Sharpe, and the Minutemen couldn't ask for a better pair of hands to catch them if they do (that was a terrible analogy, if you're still reading after that mangling of the English language, god bless you).  Sharpe is the receiver that gives secondaries nightmares.

  • 13 catches and 179 yards against Bowling Green. 9 catches for 154 yards against Kent State.
  • 13 catches for 193 yards against Eastern Michigan.
  • 13 catches for a staggering 239 yards against Ball State.

It's like in Madden when you put Calvin Johnson in the slot and just run streaks with him on rookie difficulty, only more of a sure thing.

Rodney Mills (TE)- The third head of the three-headed UMass offense was Jean Sifrin last season. Sifrin opted to try his chances in the NFL, and that left a hole at tight end. Filling that hole is Rodney Mills. While Sifrin grabbed the headlines last season, Mills quietly put together the fourth best receiving line among tight ends last year while being the second tight end option on the team. Now starting, Mills can put together a season better than Sifrin if he can hold his per-catch stats up with a full slate of targets.

Randall Jette (DB)- While everyone is expecting the offense to put up fireworks, someone has to douse the opponents fuses, and that's where Jette comes in. Jette is a lockdown DB who actively forces opposing quarterbacks to game-plan around him (whether or not they can find success doing that is another question). UMass should expect quite a few shootouts. In order to come out on top they'll need the defense to step up and make a few plays. Jette is the guy you can expect to do that.

Michael Caggiano (K)- Part of me cringes putting a kicker as a key player. They aren't that important, my brain says. My heart says UMass lost to Miami by one, opting to go for a TD from inside the five rather than kicking a game-winning field goal (there was also a missed PAT during the game). UMass missed sending a game to overtime against Vanderbilt by a missed chip-shot field goal. So that's why my heart says incoming freshman Michael Caggiano is a key player because UMass needs to be able to trust its special teams. Meanwhile my foot says it fell asleep an hour ago.

The Minutemen's Strong Suit

The Minutemen, who once fielded a team of all freshman (source needed), are finally no longer a group of inexperienced unknowns. They are a team of battle tested (mother approved!) seniors ready to have one last showdown at the MAC corral.

And, while I mentioned it enough, the offense has a chance to reset the MAC record books with these seniors on their way out. While the running game leaves something to be desired (see below), the passing game, even with the losses, should at the very least be at the same level as the middle of last season, which is to say top tier. If anyone steps up at receiver besides Tajae Sharpe, or the running game gets moving, this offense can give opposing teams the night sweats.

Unknowns

We went through this entire article so far mentioning only one defensive player, and that's not a good thing. Lining up opposite of Randall Jette most likely is Jackson Porter, who might be better known by the name "they're throwing at Jackson Porter all day because they can." We just shortened it to Jackson Porter to save time. The defense still struggles to contain any mobile quarterback, has issues getting to non-mobile quarterbacks, and in general can't stop anything in the flats. While watching 45-41 games are fun, you shouldn't lose games where you put up 40+ points and 500+ yards passing. You shouldn't lose games where you lead by 27. If the defense can't get its act together, the offense might not be able to hold the load.

The defense isn't the biggest concern though, rather depth is. While UMass is starting an impressive number of seniors, behind them isn't much. If Rodney Mills goes down, there isn't another tight end to step up. The wide receiver depth chart last year was Tajae Sharpe and then question marks. If another receiver can't step up, Tajae can't go down. As I said above, there's about a 180 yard a game difference between Blake Frohnapfel and the next best thing on the roster (side note to anger the fan base: Whipple came in and had the high flying offense Charlie Molnar dreamed of...right until Frohnapfel went down. Then the offenses looked awfully similar and painful. Not saying Molnar could've done what Whipple did last season, but I'm just saying...).  If Jette or Trey Dudley-Giles gets injured, the secondary will be in shambles. This is a team built to win, if and only if the key players all find a remarkable fit of health. Maybe I should have made the training staff a key player.

Random Thoughts

I really can't stress enough how excited I am to see this UMass offense play. This is 100% offset by the worry of how bad the defense might be.

The running game is a bit of a head-scratcher. Shadrach Abrokwah might be able to put together a decent season if he takes all the carries and pushes his average up to 5 yards per carry (was at 4.7 last season). No one else last season was above 4.5 yards per carry, which means UMass should be passing, passing, and passing.

The Minutemen really need to hope this whole kicking thing sorts itself out early, or just start going for two after every touchdown and going for it on fourth anytime on the opposing side of the field. Actually, regardless of kicking game they should do this.

Anyone who enjoys awkward moments should be rooting for UMass this season. If they win the MAC Championship it will be an awkward moment hall of fame candidate as they hand the trophy over.

Rodney Mills, if given the targets, could put up a better season than Jean Sifrin last year, which is amazing and scary, but maybe not likely.

Some thing that Jarell Addo or Kelton Brackett will get the nod at corner, and I get that. My guess is that experience wins out to start the season unless Porter has a horrible camp. That's the issue with doing these a month before the first game.

This team is really one injury away from a one win season, and this something that will haunt me every night.

TL;DR: Season outlook

The UMass Minutemen have a chance to be one of the best teams in the MAC East. Yes, the Minutemen will be special on offense, and if they are anywhere close to average on defense they should have a shot at the title. Throw in that half the MAC East is terrible, and they have a real shot. 5-3 won the MAC East last year, after all. An upset of Bowling Green is probably a must, but don't count them out. Hell, seven wins is in play. But unfortunately for the Minutemen three wins are also in play again if their special teams don't step up. And if Frohnapfel goes down, so does the season. Gear up for a roller coaster season either way.