Vanderbilt and Massachusetts have absolutely none of the makings of a natural rivalry, but a four-game pact will make the two familiar foes by the time 2018 rolls around. Despite the differences in the two schools, their campuses, and their football programs, they are united by a common thread. Each team is in the midst of a rebirth, and both programs are facing challenges that will ultimately dictate their long term success.
For Vanderbilt, James Franklin's quest is to rise out of the SEC's basement and then stay there, erasing some of the years of futility that have chased this program since the early 20th century. For UMass, the quest is to capitalize on the momentum that made the Minutemen a I-AA playoff mainstay in the late-90s and mid-00s and successfully transition to the FBS as a competitive member of the MAC.
Vanderbilt has had more success, but Massachusetts has arguably had the tougher road. They made the jump to the big leagues despite a sub-.500 record in the FCS subdivision in their final three years. They struggled through a 1-11 season in 2012 as their talent tried to catch up to a tougher I-A schedule. This year, they've stumbled to an 0-3 start, though two of those losses came against BCS-conference foes (Wisconsin, Kansas State). Now, they'll get a Vandy team that has plenty to prove after falling behind South Carolina 28-0 in just 20 minutes of play.
To get a better idea of what the Minutemen will have in store for the Commodores, we enlisted the help of an expert. UMass74 runs the UMass Football Blog, and he knows this team as well as anyone outside of the Massachusetts Athletic Department. He took the time to run a Q&A exchange with me to preview this weekend's game. Here's what he had to say about UMass's football program.
1. UMass has gotten off to a rough start, falling to a pair of BCS teams and losing a contest to old CAA foe Maine. Has the 0-3 start lowered your expectations for this team's second year of I-A play?
Everyone at UMass is sick of losing. We went .500 in our last three years in FCS, closing with a three game losing streak. UMass fans knew our first year in FBS was going to be a struggle, but the reality was tough. Most sane Minutemen fans were hoping for for something like two or three wins this year and close to .500 in 2014. FCS has been having a banner year this year. Western Michigan lost to FCS bottom feeder Nichols State. Stony Brook took Buffalo to five overtimes. Two other MAC teams just barely got by New Hampshire and James Madison. We lost to Maine and looked bad doing it. The Minutemen have had some injury problems. Hopefully UMass can get healthy and win some MAC games. After losing to Maine, two or three wins would be great.
2. UMass has been especially bad against the run this season, giving up more than 300 yards per game on the ground. What can the Minutemen do to contain Vanderbilt's three-man rushing attack, led by senior Wesley Tate?
The Minuteman DL is small by FBS standards. Kevin Byrne is 6-3 270. Galen Clemons and Justin Anderson are 6-2 275 and 6-5 280 respectively. Our fourth down-lineman is Brandon Potvin 6-1 262. Compare that to Vandy's DL where two of the three defensive linemen are over 300 pounds. Wisconsin was huge and ran us over. K-State outclassed us on speed. Against Maine, we were flat out played. The Minutemen pass defense is not bad. We need to tackle better and stop missing assignments up front to handle Vanderbilt's rushing offense.
3. Quarterback Mike Wegzyn was ineffective this season before ceding time to A.J. Doyle, who will start on Saturday against Vanderbilt. Tell us a little about what Doyle brings to the table behind center that Wegzyn does not. Which man do you think is right for the starting quarterback position?
One of the disappointments this season has been the QB play. We were told Mike Wegzyn was much improved this Spring. He was ineffective in his first two starts. A. J Doyle has much better foot speed than Wegzyn. However, his passing accuracy has not been much better. If he can improve his decision making, he would be a clear leader at QB.
4. Give us one UMass player who could end up making a major impact on this game on offense. How about on defense?
Our best offensive player is Senior TE Rob Blanchflower. He has not played a down so far this year with a foot or leg injury. I think he will end up sitting this one out so as to be available for MAC play. Tajae Sharpe, our sophomore 6-2 185 pound WR is probably UMass' most explosive player right now.
5. UMass has a unique homefield situation where the football team plays in a NFL stadium that's about two hours away from campus. How has this affected the fanbase, and has it had any impact in the program's recruiting?
There's been a lot of complaining from the Western Mass contingent. Myself, I like it. Gillette is a great facility. New England fans don't come to see you play. They come to see you win. The Red Sox had 700+ consecutive sellouts. They had a bad year last year and this year there have been tons of empty seats at Fenway.I think Gillette has helped recruiting. If UMass starts winning, I think attendance will pick up.
6. Finally, what's your prediction for the game?
It's still way too early for us to challenge SEC teams. There are only three or so MAC teams that could hang with the Commodores. I hoping for some more "snap" to the Minutemen's play. More scoring would make another loss easier to bear. I'm an optimist. I'll say Vanderbilt wins 37-21, with UMass keeping it close until the third quarter.
After this week, good luck to Vandy for the rest of 2013!