After getting off to a slow start in 2017, UMass found a way to find its groove and end the year with some momentum by winning four of the final six games. Now, with the 2018 season on the horizon, Mark Whipple hopes to be able to get the new season started off on the right foot.
UMass will open the new season this weekend, Week 0, with a home game against FCS opponent Duquesne in the first meeting between the two schools. The UMass offense has some players rewriting the record books, like quarterback Andrew Ford, but the defense will have to show up early if UMass is going to flirt with a bowl game this season.
Duquesne at UMass
Kickoff: Saturday, Aug. 25, 5:30 p.m. ET
TV Channel: NESNplus
Three Things to Watch
1. Setting the tone with defense
There are few bright spots when it comes to how UMass has played on defense, but it did improve as the 2017 season played out. The hope is that trend carries over to the start of the new season with six returning starters, the bulk of which will play in the middle of the field or in the backend. Finding pressure up front will be a focus early on.
2. Seven-year senior Bryton Barr will rack up tackles
Barr anchors the UMass defense from his middle linebacker spot with authority. Last season, Barr recorded 105 tackles, and he’ll look to get an early jump on his 2018 season total this weekend. Expect a double-digit tackle count as Duquesne tries running the football with junior running back A.J. Hines, one of the top running backs at the FCS level. Barr has had quite the journey, with this marking his seventh year of college football.
3. Can Duquesne pull off the upset?
Duquesne is coming into the 2018 season looking to shrug off a rough end to last season. Going to Amherst and picking up a win against a UMass program may not be impossible for the right FCS program, but Duquesne may not be quite up to the task at this point in time. The Dukes start the years just outside the FCS top 25 and will have to play smart to hang around long enough to be a threat.
This game may not be on most people’s radars on the opening weekend of college football, but UMass has a chance to reach a bowl game this season with an offense continuing to grow together with eight returning starters and a defense that may be able to slow enough opponents, like Duquesne, to be a team to keep on the bowl radar. Look for the Minutemen to open the year with a win with a more experienced and deeper roster than their FCS visitors.
Prediction: UMass 31, Duquesne 17
-- Written by Kevin McGuire, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. McGuire also contributes to College Football Talk and The Comeback as well as hosts the No 2-Minute Warning Podcast. Follow him on Twitter @KevinOnCFB and Like him on Facebook.