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Previewing UMass at Vanderbilt with THREE DIFFERENT UMass Blogs

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A triumvirate of Massachusetts blogs emerged to make sure Anchor of Gold has the best Vandy/UMass preview in the world. Can Mark Whipple outwit Derek Mason in Nashville? Let's find out.

You've disappointed Mark Whipple, son.
You've disappointed Mark Whipple, son.
Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

Vanderbilt will face UMass on Saturday in a game where, barring some unforeseen catastrophe, one team will walk away with their first victory of the season. This will be the third time these two teams have played in as many years, but both teams will have plenty to learn on the fly thanks to new head coaches and starting quarterbacks on both sidelines. In order to get a better idea of what this year's version of the Minutemen will bring to Dudley Field, I got in touch with three experts who can shed some light on Mark Whipple's team. They are:

All three had plenty to say about the Minutemen, and since this article is already pushing 2,800 words, we'll just get right down to business:

1. UMass has a new (old) coach in Mark Whipple and just pushed a team from a BCS conference to the brink while scoring 38 points. Is there an air of optimism surrounding UMass football right now?

UMass74, the UMass Football Blog: Yes, very much. In 1998 Whipple took over a team that finished 2­-9 the previous year and went 12-­3 and won the National Championship. In his previous six years he also won three CAA Championships. He has a strong staff and he did well on recruiting in a short period of time. Most UMass fans feel he will lead us out of the wilderness.

Jesse Allen, HustleBelt.com: From what I've seen and what I've heard, we're moving in the right direction. Fans didn't evacuate the stadium until 5 minutes left in the 4th quarter, as opposed to halftime, so that was a definite improvement. One of the biggest issues the Minutemen face is getting fans to buy in, which won't happen until they string together a watchable product and win a few games. Pulling off an upset this weekend, or at the very least keeping it close, will go a long way in reassuring the fan base that this past Saturday wasn't a fluke.

Joe Roche, Sons of Massachusetts: Bringing back Whipple is the smartest thing the administration has done since deciding to move to FBS football. Whipple has the support of the alumni which is more than could be said for Charley Molnar. That being said the Colorado game drew 10,500 fans to Gillette Stadium and I'd be willing to bet that half of them we wearing Buffaloes colors, so you can draw your own conclusion on whether or not there is any energy around this program. Fortunately the next home game will be at Alumni Stadium on campus which should attract some of the student body. The only way this program will ever generate any optimism or energy is by winning, losing a winnable game to Colorado won't get butts in the seats, and entering homecoming 0-4 won't help either. Whipple is the right guy for the job, but if he doesn't get victories this season and show real improvement I'm not sure anyone will care.

2. With Rob Branchflower having moved on to the pros, who will provide the most stable offensive threat for the Minutemen?

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UMass74: WR Tajae Sharpe is Minutemen's top offensive threat. He's 6-4 200 Junior. Sharpe led UMass in receiving yards last year. So far this year Sharpe is 7-173 and has a 77-yard TD catch against BC. JUCO Jean Sifrin, a 6-7 TE had a big debut last week with 4 catches for 40 yards and 2 TD's. Check out his highlight catch here.

Allen: I was never the biggest Rob Blanchflower believer (blasphemy, I know), mostly because he couldn't stay on the field last year. That's neither here nor there though. Tajae Sharpe is the clear answer here. Against BC he was the only person on the offense that produced a positive stat line. Against Colorado he continued his impressive play with 100 total yards and some key catches. Another name to look out for, though, is Jean Sifrin. He was only known as the guy who hasn't cleared administration yet by the most diehard of UMass fans before Saturday, but now he's made himself known to the world. He's 6-feet 7-inches of pure red zone domination, and he showed in against Colorado producing a Sportscenter top 10 touchdown catch.

Roche: The most talented weapon on the offensive side of the ball is Tajae Sharpe. Through two games he has 7 catches for 177 yards and 1 touchdown. He's the most explosive playmaker on offense and has legitimate breakaway speed if he can get the ball in the open field. The Colorado game saw the debut of Jean Sifrin a 6'7 250 pound tight end that caught 4 passes and 2 touchdowns against the Buffaloes. Sifrin wasn't even on the depth chart for the Colorado game because he's a JUCO transfer who the media never even saw in practice leading up to the game. He was a game changer in the red zone and I anticipate after a week of practice he'll be a focal point of the offense on Saturday.

3. Blake Frohnapfel has been battered in his two starts this season and eaten five sacks. What can UMass do to keep Derek Mason's new 3-4 defense from getting to him in the pocket and driving the Minutemen in the wrong direction?

UMass74: Frohnapfel is a 6-7 GS transfer from Marshall. He looked a little rusty in his opener against BC. He just joined the team in June and is still learning the offense and working with his receivers. Frohnapfel did much better in his second game. Both UMass starting OT's came out of the Colorado with heat cramps. That didn't help the pass protection. They're both back. In addition, another JUCO Ryan Johnson a 6-5 320 pound offensive guard may see some time against the Commodores. A good run game is a QB's best friend. The Minutemen have only averaged 80.0 yards/game so far in 2014. We need to do better.

Allen: One of the most important things UMass can do to protect Blake Frohnapfel is keep the offensive line healthy. In the first half the line held strong, Blake had time, and the Minutemen moved the ball in bunches. Then, dehydration struck two offensive lineman, and all of a sudden it was open season on Frohnapfel. Fortunately, the Minutemen have some added depth in the form of Ryan Johnson, who, like Sifrin, was just cleared to play last week. With another week of practice he should be a good get for the Mintuemen.

Roche: Vanderbilt's defense had 3 sacks against Ole Miss, and the UMass offensive line ain't the Rebels. To keep Frohnapfel upright UMass is going to have to figure out how to run the ball. UMass over two games is averaging 3.1 yards per carry - that's just not enough. Without the threat of a running game, defensive lineman are pinning their ears back and charging the quarterback. Blake needs to make better decisions as well and having Jean Sifrin on the field as a safety valve will make that much easier. I don't think the offensive line has been "bad" in either game this season, i just think there needs to be better balance on offense to keep the defense honest.

4. UMass is giving up 34.5 points per game and seems like the perfect medicine for a Vanderbilt team that has sputtered (to put it kindly) on offense this fall. How can Whipple's team keep the 'Dores from finding an offensive rhythm? Are they equipped to stop the team's only offensive threat so far this season, tailback Ralph Webb?

UMass74: Whipple's first priority was to improve UMass' train wreck offense (11 points a game in 2013). So far, it looks like it's working. The UMass defense has not had anywhere near the number of JUCO's and transfers the offense received Our defensive line is small by FBS standards, averaging 267 pounds. Boston College used two and sometimes three TE's and a five-senior OL to ring up big rushing numbers. Still UMass held the Eagles to 6 first half points. The Minutemen did not tackle well against Colorado. We can't let Webb run wild. UMass LB's Jovan Santos-Knox, Stanley Andre, Kassan Messiah and safety Joe Colton have 82 total tackles in two games. We need to put some helmets on Webb.

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Allen: Are Vanderbilt and UMass really the same team? Both have been porous on defense, spouting a new look 3-4 defense. I've never seen the two schools in the same room either. Highly suspect. The Minutemen handled the run pretty well for two and a half quarters, then fell apart (much like the offensive line). After getting gashed by BC in the opener, Vanderbilt's biggest strength matches up well with UMass' biggest weakness. The key for Colorado was passing into the flats, which moved the linebackers out of the middle and opened up running lanes for the Buffaloes. If the Commodores can get a passing game going, it'll open up the running lanes. If not, the Minutemen might be able to capture the limited success they had last week for the entire game.

Roche: At this point I wouldn't say that UMass is equipped to stop anyone's best offensive weapon. Heading into the Colorado game I would've told you that our strength was the secondary and then Nelson Spruce, the only real threat on the field ran wide open for a 70 yard touchdown reception. Boston College ran the ball consistently for huge gains. If you're having offensive troubles, the Minutemen defense will help.  That being said UMass did get better in the second half against BC stopping the run and Colorado only averaged 3.3 YPC so they're getting better. UMass has had a real tackling problem over the first two games, I have to imagine wrapping up the ball carrier will be something they focus on in practice this week. The linebackers are pretty good, and Joe Colton is the best tackler on the field but if you're relying on a safety to bring down a running back you've already been gashed. Coach Whipple mentioned Webb in his press conference this week as a great talent and I am very nervous to see what he's able to do against this defense.

5. UMass played Vandy tough last fall, holding them to a low-octane 24-7 win in Foxboro. Can their familiarity with the Commodores give them a boost on Saturday? How are Massachusetts fans adjusting their expectations for this game?

UMass74: In only three years in FBS, Vandy already seems like an old rival. Both teams have new coaches, new defensive systems and lots of new starters. I think UMass fans hope the Minutemen are even more competitive than last year.

Allen: Any experience the Minutemen might have gleaned from last years snooze-fest has left with the personnel that used to be there. Charlie Molnar has been replace by Mark Whipple. A.J. Doyle has been replaced by Blake Frohnapfel. Rob Blanchflower has been replaced by Jean Sifrin. This might as well be a whole new team, which makes this a whole new ball game. Between Vanderbilts struggles and the improved play from game 1 to game 2 by a group of players who have all just started playing together, there's the belief that this game is ripe for the taking.

Roche: Coach Whipple made sure to point out that there's been turnover on both sidelines. The teams that played last year are not the teams that'll take the field at Vandy on Saturday afternoon so I'm not sure there is much that can be derived from the game last year. The one thing that has some UMass fans at least hopeful is that the Vandy team that we played close last year was better (in our opinion) than the Vandy team that'll take the field on Saturday. Meanwhile the UMass team that'll be in Nashville this weekend is better than the one that you played in Foxboro last season. Those things all come into play to make some people hopeful. That being said, we're 0-2, we have 2 wins in 2+ seasons of FBS football and I don't think we're certainly not confident that the program is in a place that we can expect to go on the road and beat an SEC team at home.

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6. What's the long term outlook for UMass football after leaving the MAC? Is the vibe on/around campus that this team could return to the FCS level, or is there a commitment to stick things out after all the work that was put in to making a run as a I-A program?

UMass74: UMass is not going back to FCS. We have signed contracts through 2019 with other FBS teams. UMass has added a new $34 million performance center. Upgrades at McGuirk include a new press box and new turf. Once Whipple gets us winning, UMass with its overall athletic footprint should be a good addition to a number of leagues. I've heard that UMass' reception by various leagues was not as negative as they appeared in the print media. We need to win to open some doors.

Allen: There's no chance that the Minutemen will return to the FCS level. This program is here to stay at the FBS. The biggest worry is that if it doesn't find a home, that going independent might kill the program. That's all two years away, though. With another year in the MAC, the Minutemen still have time to turn heads and find a home.

Roche: I haven't stepped foot on campus since last year so I couldn't tell you exactly what the mood is there but if the student turnout for the Colorado game is any indication the mood is "wait, do we still have a football program?"  There is very vocally a minority of people pushing for the school to return the football team to the FCS level. That just isn't going to happen. I think the program is in the FBS for the long haul. That being said there is absolutely some uncertainty around the program right now with the announcement that they'd be leaving the MAC. It's unfathomable that Coach Whipple would come back if he had a two year window *only* and that there was no plan in place to transition out of the MAC. I find it hard to believe that we'd go Independent because I just don't see where we can attract enough games to fill out a schedule, and we wouldn't have a TV deal like Notre Dame to make it work. All of that has led myself, and many like me to believe that there is another shoe to drop that we're just not privy to yet.

7. Finally, what's your prediction for Saturday's game?

UMass74: Vandy has lots of seniors and 85 scholarships. The Minutemen have neither. UMass won't hit the scholarship maximum until next year. Coach Whipple said he'd like to have the Vanderbilt roster. However, the Commodores are struggling right now and UMass is gaining confidence. I would rate the game as pretty even. Vanderbilt is a SEC team playing at home. So I'll say the Commodores win 31-30.

Allen: I really, really, really want to believe that the Minutemen can pull out a road win against a SEC team, no matter the quality of the team in question. I still don't see that happening, though. I say Minutemen 27, Commodores 31. Last week I said I wouldn't put more than 14 points on the board for the Mintuemen until I see the defense do something. This week I'm saying I'm not giving the opposition less than 30 points until the defense steps up.

Roche: UMass hasn't learned to win yet. I think a lot of the struggles comes down to depth, when the defense has to be on the field for a long time, they get tired, they don't have the talent to replace the starters and things break down. Vanderbilt is going to run the ball right at the defense for 60 minutes -- sooner or later our defense will wilt and break and that'll be the story. I think the offense can put up points against Vanderbilt's defense, and I expect it to be a close game, but I'd say Vandy pulls away later, call it 31-24. I anticipate a much more enjoyable game to watch than the one we saw in Foxboro last year though.