Vanderbilt looks to improve to 4-4 on their 2012 season this Saturday, but a struggling Massachusetts team will stand in their way. The Minutemen haven't had much success in their first season as a member of the FBS, and that's been reflected in their 0-7 record. However, they've shown flashes of improvement as the season has worn on. Four weeks ago, the fledgling team pushed 24th ranked Ohio to the limit, taking a seven-point lead into the fourth quarter before falling 34-37.
Can the Minutemen put up another valiant performance in Nashville? They'll be 32.5 point underdogs on the road, and they'll be playing against a team defense that is a full standard deviation better than what they've seen in their MAC opponents this year. The odds are certainly stacked against the Minutemen, but Vanderbilt is no stranger to surprising upsets at home.
To learn more about this week's opponent, I got in touch with Minuteman expert UMass74, who runs the UMass Football Blog. He gave me some excellent in-depth answers about a team that has slipped under the radar for many Commodore fans, and we're in his debt for the help. His answers are below, but if you want to know more about UMass football, be sure to check out his site.
1. UMass is having a rough transition to FBS football this season. Did Minutemen fans anticipate this level of struggle in 2012?
Yes and no. We had been a .500 team in FCS for four years. The Minutemen closed 2011 with three straight losses. We were not at the level of the UMass teams that under Mark Whipple and Don Brown played for the FCS National Championship. Everybody knew we would be out gunned by the four BCS teams this year, and the top level of the MAC was also going to be a challenge. Our schedule is really front-loaded. We have yet to play a MAC team with a losing record. Our best chances are against Buffalo, Akron and
Central Michigan and we have yet to play any of those teams. It's no fun as either a player or a fan to get hammered. [ED. NOTE: As a Vandy fan, sometimes getting hammered is the only way to have fun at a Commodore football game. See 2010.] Intellectually, everyone knew this year was going to be tough, but so far, UMass has not had a win to boost morale.
2. The Minutemen had to replace plenty of talent on their offense this season. How much has the challenge of replacing 2011's first string quarterback, tailback, and top wide receivers affected this team's play?
Yes, we moved to FBS in a year when the cupboard was bare on offense. Our best returning skill player on offense was TE Rob Blanchflower. He has missed the last two games due to injury. UMass best OL Nick Speller and WR Alan Williams will be back from a two-game academic suspension. Williams had three TD's against Ohio. Michigan transfer Mike Cox starts at RB and has played well when the OL has been settled. Notre Dame transfer Deion Walker has been very good when the QB has been able to get him the ball. Our #2 TE Derek Beck was injured against
BallState and will not make the trip.
3. Vanderbilt has had trouble against mobile quarterbacks this season, and freshman Mike Wegzyn has had some success creating plays with his legs this season. Should the 'Dores consider him a running threat from behind center? What can we expect out of your promising rookie QB on Saturday?
Mike Wegzyn is a RS Freshman who had not played a down prior to this year. He has been up and down. He looked overwhelmed in the UConn and Bowling Green games. Both those teams have excellent defenses. He looked very good against Ohio and Miami of Ohio. It may be no coincidence that he had a mostly full compliment of starters playing for the latter games. We'll have to see how he does this Saturday.
Wegzyn is a big kid at 6-5 220. He not a pull-it-down and run for forty yards kind of a QB. He is quick enough and strong enough so if Vanderbilt just does an all-out rush, he'll run 6 to 10 yards and hook slide for a first down.
4. Vandy's offensive line has been inconsistent this season, and a strong pass rush could be able to give Jordan Rodgers trouble behind the line of scrimmage. Who should Commodore fans be on the lookout for on defense?
UMass has played two excellent games on defense this year against UConn and
BallState. Again, some injuries have impacted the UMass defense as we are really thin. True freshmen LB Kassan Messiah and DB D'Metrius Williams look like future stars. Notre Dame transfer Hafis Williams has been solid at DT. Kevin Byrne has played well for us. Injured starter DT Galen Clemons returns from a concussion for Saturday's game.
5. At 0-7, is there anything that UMass can do in their last five games in order to consider this season a success?
Win a couple! We get another possible Bowl Team in
Northern Illinois right after Vanderbilt. Have you noticed the MAC may get five bowl teams this year? Thankfully, after that, we close with Akron, Buffalo and
Central Michigan. A win or two would be great to jump start the 2013 season.
6. How has turnout been at Gillette Stadium for UMass games this season? Has it been diminishing as the season wears on? What about student turnout when their home field is so far (94 miles) from campus?
New England is different from other parts of the nation. People here don't come to see you play football; they come to see you win. We had 16,000 for the Indiana game. UMass was not competitive in that game and we have had 9,000 and 10,000 for the next two games. The students have been no-shows, but if we were 0-7 in Amherst, they wouldn't go to the games either. When we start to win more people will attend. It's not going to be like the South, however.
BostonCollege, an established team with a long football history, only sells out when they play Notre Dame.
7. How long until UMass gets in on some of that sweet weekday night MACtion on ESPN?
This year we are officially a "transition" team. UMass is not eligible for the MAC title or for a bowl game. We should appear as visitors in at least one of the MAC televised games next year. We probably won't host a game until our attendance picks up.
8. Finally, what's your prediction for the game?
We're not ready yet for a bowl-level SEC team. UMass has had only one FBS recruiting class (abet a pretty good one by our standards). We are only dressing about 85 players for home games. UMass is a step up from Tennessee Tech, but the Minutemen should be a four-TD underdog. I'll say Commodores 48-UMass 14.