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Published: Wednesday, 7/25/2012

COMMENTARY

UMass must play big-time grid schedule

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS COLUMNIST

DETROIT -- Although this is called a "transitional" year and its team is ineligible to compete for a championship or bowl bid, the University of Massachusetts joins the Mid-American Conference for the 2012 football season.

Not much is expected of the Minutemen although, honestly, the difference between a decent FCS (formerly I-AA) team, which UMass was as recently as last season, and a lower-echelon MAC team impersonating an FBS program is minimal. So maybe there will be a surprise or two as the newcomers step up in class.

But the school's athletic director must think his lads are ready for a tussle because he jumped right onto the scheduling money train, lining up non-conference foes Connecticut, Indiana, Michigan, and Vanderbilt for this season.

Over the following four years, the Minutemen will step into the ring against the likes of Wisconsin, Kansas State, Boston College, Colorado, Penn State, Notre Dame, and Florida. Most will be on the road. Home games will be played at Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, the home of the NFL's Patriots, a mere 93 miles from the UMass campus in Amherst.

Even one of the better, established MAC programs would be ill-equipped to tackle such a schedule. Bowling Green coach Dave Clawson, who has issues of his own this season with non-league dates at both Florida and Virginia Tech, shook his head when he looked at the 2012 UMass schedule and said, "I doubt Charlie arranged that."

No, first-year head coach Charlie Molnar did not. But he said during Tuesday's MAC Media Day at Ford Field that he knew what was in store "when I signed the dotted line. And I embrace it. Does it help me in 2012? Probably not as much as in 2014 or '15. Then, it will be a 'been there, done that' attitude. Our guys will be much better prepared for those battles after these experiences."

And they'll be much better, period. Molnar admits that with the exception of his first recruiting class his team is made up of "players who were recruited to play I-AA football. That's their skill set. If they'd had offers from the Big East or Big Ten or MAC, I imagine they would have taken them and run. They're still the same guys they were.

"In past seasons, they've played maybe one I-A team and you bring your 'A' game and try to peak for one big moment. Now, it's 12 straight and, while we'll do our best to have them physically and mentally prepared for the challenge, truthfully, we're not on a truly level playing field.

"But playing great teams along the way is the only way you can measure yourself. And I want to recruit and coach players that want to be the very best in the country. To be the best you have to play the best."

Good luck to them. Plus, in a league where some schools struggle to get fans to drive across town or walk 300 yards from a nearby dorm let alone hop a bus for a couple hours, good luck filling even a chunk of those 68,756 seats in distant Foxborough.

Molnar counters that if you're going to play big-time football, you should do it in a big-time stadium.

"We want to recruit the best athletes on the east coast and I can't sell them an 18,000-seat campus stadium," he said. "Plus, I like to say we're taking the game to the people. We have 150,000 alumni living within an hour of Gillette Stadium. It's a unique arrangement, but I love it."

The 50-year-old career assistant, with four previous stops at MAC schools, will love it if he survives the early challenges to enjoy the fruits of his labor.

Contact Blade sports columnist Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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