When I first saw the Colorado Buffaloes listed as 17-point favorites on the road, in their first trip to the Northeast in 37 years, I nearly spit coffee onto my phone. If I knew a bookie, I'd have called him right that second. Then, I remembered that the University of Massachusetts moved up to FBS play only three short years ago. If there's a team left on this schedule that CU should beat, it's UMass. Still, I'd take the points, just to be safe.
The Buffs and the Minutemen find themselves in similar predicaments, albeit at different levels. Both have recently moved to a stronger and deeper level of competition while trying to make up for a significant gap in talent. (Although really, the Buffs might be struggling all the same if they were still in the Big 12.) The Minutemen were in the FCS National Championship game as recently as 2006 but since joining the MAC in 2012 they've discovered that the leap from the FCS to the FBS is a rather large one.
Earlier this year UMass brought back one of the most successful coaches in school history to try and achieve respectability in their new division. Mark Whipple helped guide the program to an FCS national title in 1998 at the beginning of his first stint in Amherst. He left with 49 wins and 3 playoff appearances after 6 years at the helm. If any coach is able to raise the Minutemen's ship, it's likely him.
UMass ranked down near the bottom of the national barrel in every significant offensive statistical category last season. Most tellingly, they came in 122nd out of 125 teams in total offensive yardage per game. They won't improve on those figures all that much this year but they do have at least one dangerous target on offense. Making his quarterbacking debut for UMass, Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel connected with perhaps the Minutemen's best player, junior receiver Tajae Sharpe, on a 77-yard pass for UMass' only score in a 30-7 defeat at the hands of Boston College.
The Minutemen managed to claw out only 55 yards of rushing against the Eagles, so they'll likely try to move the ball through the air against the Buffs. Sharpe himself accounted for just under half of the team's total yardage on only two catches. If Greg Henderson can shut him off, Frohnapfel will be forced to get the ball to his less threatening receivers. Furthermore, if the defensive front can actually fill in gaps and get their hands on someone, the exact opposite of what they did against Colorado State in the 2nd half, the Buffs can make the UMass offense one-dimensional in a hurry.
Defensively, the Minutemen bent but did not break until the 3rd quarter last Saturday. BC wound up with 338 rushing yards, representing the majority of their production on a 511-yard day. Any issues the Buffaloes had running the ball against CSU should not be a concern in this one. If Sefo Liufau has another solid game through the air CU should find themselves comfortably ahead going into the 4th quarter.
But, nothing comes easy with these Buffs. The defensive line is going to have to take the first steps towards redeeming itself after last Friday night's second half debacle. Derek McCartney showed flashes but it was far from enough. It's an obvious point but this defense, as a whole, must do better containing the run.
The offense is going to have to show that they can put together a consistently potent effort through the second half, and that starts by effectively running the ball. Failing to smash it in with 1st and goal to go from the 2-yard line is pretty damning evidence that the running game isn't where it needs to be. The offensive line will need to prove that they can generate a consistent push and provide their tailbacks with some room to work. If Christian Powell can find his 2012 line-bashing form and if Michael Adkins II can find his way to the second level more often, the Buffs' ground game should be OK going forward.
This is the longest mainland road trip the program has undertaken in its history and we all know how well the Buffs have fared away from home. However, UMass does not have nearly enough of the FBS horses that it needs just yet to be competitive. I think Colorado begins to recover from last weekend's loss and comes away with their first win of the season in Foxborough but I wouldn't bet on the margin of victory being too much larger than 17 points.
Date and Time: Saturday, September 6th, 3:00 EST
Location: Gillette Stadium. Foxborough, Massachusetts
TV: Streaming on ESPN3