UMass football: Back for 2020, schedule challenges await

UMass football: Back for 2020, schedule challenges await
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UMass football head coach Walt Bell spelled out on Monday the two very different battles coaches are fighting amid the COVID-19 pandemic.

“You’re fighting the battle of keeping your team as safe and clean as humanly possible and then you’re fighting the opponent at the end of the week,” Bell said.

For UMass, which reversed an earlier decision this week and now intends to play fall football, the Minutemen are fighting a third battle: finding opponents to play as an FBS independent.

Given the Minutemen’s 1–11 record in the 2019 season, combined with the uncertainties from resuming gameplay during the pandemic, attempting to restart the football season as an independent will prove to be more than a challenge. However, Bell’s optimism has greatly influenced the flexibility the UMass program must now embrace.

UMass coach Walt Bell

The Minutemen have taken more than a beating since moving up to the top division in 2013. In their first two seasons in FBS, they won only two total games. In their 1–11 2019 season, they gave up an average of 53 points per game and were statistically the worst defensive team in FBS history.

Since that debacle, UMass athletic director Ryan Bamford has turned his attention toward second-year coach Bell, who has been charged with turning the UMass program around. After finalizing the 2020 recruiting class, Bell was bold in his predictions about the impact the 25 three-star signees could have. This was the highest-ranked signing class in program history, according to 247Sports. It will indubitably take time to rebuild this program, but Bell has been patient and confident as he aims for the Minutemen to attain bowl eligibility within the next few years.

As Bamford detailed during a press conference the logistics of scheduling games, he matched Bell’s optimism. Bamford claimed that after the school announced the news at 10 a.m. Monday, his phone began continuously ringing with opponents looking to play the Minutemen. Additionally, he already contacted opponents from their original schedule: Akron, FIU, New Mexico State, Auburn, Army and Liberty.

The Big Ten recently announced its schedule with no room for nonconference games, the SEC also went conference-only, and both the ACC and the Big 12 are allowing only one nonconference game for each team, many of which have already been played. As a result, UMass will most likely look to schedule games against schools in the Group of Five. The American Athletic Conference, Sun Belt and Conference USA all have nonconference holes to fill and may need to find last-minute replacements in the event of positive COVID-19 tests among teams.

Bamford believes that the combination of being in a safer state in terms of COVID-19 health protocols and having a clean slate of dates to fill with games will make UMass an attractive opponent among the FBS.

“If we try to get up and going by Oct. 17, we could be a particular opponent,” Bamford said. “We don’t have any other dates … and we have been able to keep not only our campus and team healthy, but also this region is doing remarkably better.”

The state of Massachusetts has greatly flattened the curve in terms of positive case rates, while UMass football says it has also maintained a safe and healthy environment for its athletes. The team reported only two positive tests in the past five months.

Bamford likened the program’s process of crafting a schedule to a puzzle requiring patience and flexibility.

“We’re probably more, from a bigger picture, focused on if we do travel, where are we going and what does that mean,” Bamford said, noting the complications of Massachusetts’s 14-day quarantine protocol after traveling from certain states, a list that currently stands at 40. “If we go to a state that is on that list from a campus perspective, we can’t afford to come back and not do anything from a football standpoint for 14 days.”

While traveling safely and finding opponents to play will be a clear concern for the Minutemen, Bamford and Bell say they’re committed to seizing any possible opportunities for their football program. Bell knows his team will have a number of battles, but is emphasizing remaining united and fluid through the process to his players.

The fourth and final battle for Bell this fall, though, is one that he claims anyone with a “type A personality” would have: knowing that there isn’t much control in a situation like this. The Minutemen will have to be ready to adjust on the fly and are going to have to be O.K. with knowing things will be different, he says. Knowing this is the first step toward rebuilding their 2020 fall season.

“Just know that there isn’t much control,” says Bell. “Just know that every single day is an adventure, so when something goes good just enjoy the day you have.”