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Beyond the Empire: Non-Conference Preview with the UMass Minutemen and UMass Football Blog

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Frank Smith of UMass Football Blog stops by to answer our questions about UMass football’s matchups with Northwestern and Rutgers, about staying independent in FBS, and about his greatest memories in 43 years of Minutemen season tickets.

NCAA Football: Massachusetts at Connecticut David Butler II-USA TODAY Sports

There are a number of reasons I love college football—the emotion, the pageantry, the bowl games, the sense of belonging to a university that makes you curse your own ancestors, fight a bush, and spend way too much of your hard-earned money following them around. It’s a long, long register of why I love this game.

Independents are up there on that list.

To my mind, there are five true independent programs in FBS football: the New Mexico State Aggies, BYU Cougars, Army Black Knights, Liberty Flames, and Massachusetts Minutemen.

Big Ten teams play the last three on that list, and we thought we owed it to you to get their fans’ thoughts on the game. Check out our Army preview this afternoon, but in the meantime, join me in welcoming Frank Smith, the proprietor and linker extraordinaire of the aptly-named UMass Football Blog!

I want to thank Frank, up front, for even getting back to me in the first place—I’m sure it’s odd to have some random dude email you and say “I love watching UMass football on Eleven, want to answer some questions?” Frank not only got back to me, though, he chatted Northwestern football, responded right away, and even replied with my favorite caveat ever:

It’s in Microsoft .doc format. I usually use Linux, but Ubuntu is giving me a hard time for some reason...

Thank you for using Microsoft Word, Frank.

Part I: Life with UMass Football

OTE: Tell us about yourself: How long have you been following UMass football? What are some of the best memories you’ve got of football in the Northeast?

Frank: I graduated from UMass back in 1974 following four years in the Navy. When the UMass Marching Band starts up cadence on a Fall day, my scalp tingles.

This year will be my 43rd consecutive year with season tickets. Best memories include three trips to the FCS National Championships and running all over Michigan in a close loss at the Big House in 2010.

Downs include several near cancellations of the program.

Weirdest memory may be playing Rhode Island in the tail end of a hurricane. At one point the refs huddled and discussed what they would do if the goal posts blew over. One UMass punt went for -6 yards.

OTE: With UConn leaving the AAC for the Big East and UMass staying unaffiliated since declining full MAC membership in 2015, do you think there will be any change in the status of the Minutemen program? Football independence is a tough thing to keep up, especially in the Northeast, and the results your Minutemen have been hoping for haven’t quite shown up since their return to FBS competition. What do you see as the future—conference affiliation, competitive ability, and otherwise—of UMass football?

Frank: When Temple jumped from the MAC to the AAC, UMass was left as the odd man out.

UMass was not going to leave the A10 for a one-bid mid-major hoops conference. Being Independent has not been bad financially. Auburn is paying us $1.9 million for a game next year. That’s four years of income for a FCS program. We’re doing OK financially. The down side is no bowl affiliations.

With UConn going Independent, we will have a yearly game with our most hated rival. Also the two schools might be able to work a package deal if there are future conference realignments.

OTE: How big has the buzz been over UMass hockey and basketball the last few years? The Minutemen have had some really great and rootable players in Cale Makar and Rashaan Holloway. Is the school building a decent brand in the Northeast, or is there work to be done?

Frank: You’re asking the wrong man about hockey. What I know about hockey would fit in a teacup. The new coach took us to a National Championship in three years. The games are nearly sold out and it seems there is a bright future for UMass hockey.

Minuteman hoops has underperformed. We have Mullins Center and a $20 million basketball practice center. There has been a near 100% turnover in the roster in the last two years. We had some players quit playing last year, which was disappointing. UMass does have the A10‘s top rated recruiting class, so there’s hope.

Part II: UMass Football Preview

UMass Minutemen at Rutgers Scarlet Knights

Saturday, August 31 | 6:15pm CT | BTN
RU -14.5

UMass Minutemen at Northwestern Wildcats

Saturday, November 15 | TBD | BTN

OTE: College football junkies like me enjoyed the heck out of the Minutemen of the last couple years, with QB Andrew Ford and WR Andy Isabella combining to give us fun and weird games on Eleven Sports Network (booooo to UMass getting lured to Flosports).

But with both Ford and QB Ross Comis departing via transfer and Isabella getting taken in the second round of the NFL Draft, it looks like UMass is relying on a couple transfer QBs and new playmakers at skill positions. Will the transition from offensive guru Mark Whipple to...different offensive guru, Walt Bell, bring a noticeable difference in the Minuteman offense, or should we expect more of the same?

Frank: Under Coach Whipple UMass ran a “Pro Set Heavy” with a fullback. With Coach Bell we will run the spread offense. UM will need a more mobile QB.

In six years of FBS the Minutemen have not been able to run the ball. We’ve never finished higher than #100 in rushing offense. Building a running game will be a high priority.

Probably our most talented unit is our WR’s, so I expect UMass to come out throwing the ball in 2019.

OTE: Of course, that hasn’t exactly been the problem for the Minutemen — it’s been stopping...anyone, really. Should we expect a noticeable difference out of Walt Bell’s defenses? Tell us about playmakers might we look for when Northwestern or Rutgers has the ball, like ballhawking CB Isaiah Rodgers. (And feel free to tell us about All-Name Punting candidate George Georgopoulos — we’re big believers that #puntingiswinning.

Frank: The UMass defense was terrible in 2018, finishing in the bottom five in just about any defensive category you wish to name. The inability of Whipple to recruit for defense was probably the main reason he was let go.

Our defensive backfield is likely the best unit on defense. Isaiah Rogers will probably get a pro contract when he graduates. Penn State LB transfer Jarvis Miller will start. West Virginia transfer CB Jordan Williams will help. Rebuilding the defense will probably take more than one year. A number of true freshman will likely see playing time this year.

OTE: Give us your thoughts on Northwestern and Rutgers -- what are the aspects of the Wildcats and Scarlet Knights that scare you, and what matchups do you think the Minutemen can exploit? Feel free to give us your picks for the games.

Frank: Let’s do the easy one first. In the first year of a defensive rebuilding effort, Northwestern is a bad match-up for us. If I were the Wildcats OC, I’d run right at the Minutemen. When UMass puts nine men in the box to try to stop, or at least slow down the Northwestern run game, I’d play action and throw over the top. I think Northwestern scores on every possession except for the last when they take a knee. Wildcats 59—Minutemen 20.

Rutgers is another story. We did win three FBS games last year. We did that while also losing our starting QB for the last six games of the season. The Scarlet Knights should be better in 2019. The Minutemen have a lot of enthusiasm and new offensive and defensive systems. Vegas thinks Rutgers is a two TD+ favorite. Just for the heck of it I’ll mention the Minutemen are 7-1 AGS against the SEC. I’ll say UMass keeps it close. Rutgers 35—UMass 33.

OTE: With winnable home games against FCS Southern Illinois, Coastal Carolina, Akron, UConn, and Liberty (along with BYU to close the season), is there any chance the Minutemen hold serve at McGuirk Alumni Stadium, break or two on the road, and show up in a bowl game? What’s your prediction for the 2019 Minutemen season?

Frank: Before Bell was hired, I was thinking a 1-11 season was possible this year. With the recruiting and pep Bell and his staff have brought, I’m hoping for three or four wins plus maybe putting a scare into a good team. Six and six would be stunning. Hoping for that in 2020...

Good luck to the Wildcats and their fans in 2019!


Again, my sincerest thanks to Frank for taking the time! Check out his work at UMass Football Blog.

I just want to reiterate—Big Ten football led me to seek, and get, an interview with a UMass season ticket-holder of 43 years who apologizes for using Word, not Ubuntu. College football is an amazing place.

Poll

Northwestern vs. UMass:

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  • 82%
    Northwestern
    (235 votes)
  • 17%
    UMass
    (50 votes)
285 votes total Vote Now

Poll

Rutgers vs. UMass...

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  • 36%
    Rutgers
    (115 votes)
  • 63%
    UMass
    (204 votes)
319 votes total Vote Now