Playing in the SEC has afforded Vanderbilt the opportunity to play in some of America's finest stadiums. In 2013, they'll be able to add Gillette Stadium to that list.
The Commodores announced today that they'll help welcome the University of Massachusetts to the FBS with a four-game showdown between the two teams stretching from 2012 to 2015. The Minutemen will make the jump to college football's highest level with a transitional year next season before becoming a full member of the Mid-American Conference in 2013. Hosting duties will be split evenly over the course of the series, with Vanderbilt getting homefield advantage in 2012 and 2014.
UMass will make the jump to the MAC after a successful run in the Atlantic Ten and Colonial Athletic Association. The Minutemen have been a constant presence in the I-AA playoffs and played in the FCS title game as recently as 2006. Without the facilities to handle a true Division I crowd on campus in Amherst, the team will play their home games at Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots. Gillette Stadium is approximately a two-hour drive from UMass's campus, so the fan turnout for a showdown with Vandy will be interesting to watch.
The Commodores could be Massachusetts's highest-profile opponent on a schedule that currently includes Connecticut, Indiana, and a handful of MAC opponents. Rumblings about a 2012 matchup originally popped up back in August before Vanderbilt made the pact official in an announcement today.
This agreement gives us some insight into Coach James Franklin's philosophy when it comes to scheduling. A recurring argument in the comments has been over whether the 'Dores should schedule high-profile games against tough opponents in their off-conference slate, or bring in more teams like Elon and Eastern Michigan to make a run at bowl eligibility. This signing seems to balance out another high-profile agreement that this team made over the summer - a 2013 season opener at Ohio State.
Balance seems to be the key theme here. Vanderbilt's 2012 schedule, which includes games with Northwestern and Wake Forest, fits right in the middle of that. Franklin and the Vanderbilt staff are scheduling winnable games that can raise the program's profile without the burden of an embarrassing blowout loss. UMass will draw some media attention in their first transitional seasons at the FBS level, but don't pose much of a threat to the Commodores. While the wisdom of a four-game pact may be questionable, games in 2012 and 2013 seem like a solid addition to Vanderbilt's slate. A developing core of young recruits will be hungry for a bowl bid, and potential confidence-building victories over UMass could go a long way towards extending Vandy's season.
It won't be a marquee matchup, but it's a winnable one with the potential to expose a new region to Vanderbilt football. Previously, the Commodores' only connection to New England was baseball coach Tim Corbin's recruiting pipeline. Now, they'll be taking some of the best recruits the program has ever seen to Gillette Stadium for what could be a brick in the path towards bowl eligibility.