In what could be their only game of the 2020 college football season, UMass is set to face Georgia Southern on Saturday in Allen E. Paulson Stadium in Statesboro.
After initially announcing it that it would not play any games in the fall due to the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, UMass changed course on Sept. 21 and said it would play a limited schedule. But as an independent, the program has only this game currently on its calendar, setting it up just last week in lieu of what was supposed to be the annual rivalry game between Georgia Southern and coronavirus-riddled Appalachian State.
"Our team and staff have worked diligently to follow every protocol required of us and to create one of the safest environments to train within, in order to earn the opportunity to play games this fall," said second-year UMass head coach Walt Bell.
But earning a victory might be an even bigger challenge for the Minutemen, especially given the circumstances heading into their game against the Eagles from the Sun Belt.
UMass is coming off a terrible 1-11 campaign during which it ranked dead last in the country in total defense, rushing defense and passing efficiency defense while giving up 44 points or more in all but one game.
The Minutemen are 19-77 since joining the FBS ranks and has yet to record more than four wins in any of its eight seasons of participation in the NCAA's highest level of football. And they haven't seen any live action since Nov. 23 of last year.
"We've got to start winning games — there's no doubt about it," athletic director Ryan Bamford told the Boston Globe. "Everybody feels that."
As a massive favorite Saturday, Georgia Southern isn't likely to allow it. The Eagles enter Week 7 with a 2-1 record, including a 27-26 victory over FCS member Campbell in their only home game thus far.
Georgia Southern's other games have been on the road against Sun Belt teams, losing last week to then-No. 19 Louisiana 20-18 on a 53-yard field goal on the final play of the game. The Eagles' other win didn't come easily either, as they needed a late goal-line stand to beat ULM 35-30.
This will be the fifth meeting between these two teams with the series split. The shared history between UMass and Georgia Southern goes back to their days as Division I-AA (now FCS) members when they first met in the 1998 national championship game. The Minutemen won 55-43 to claim their only national title for a program whose history goes all the way back to 1879.
UMass at Georgia Southern
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 17 at 4 p.m. ET
Spread: Georgia Southern -29
When UMass Has the Ball
With the late start to the season and a lot of roster turnover, it's hard to get a good gauge on what to expect from UMass. But offensively, anything would be better than the production generated by last season's unit, which averaged less than 20 points and 300 yards per game. One of the most glaring stats from 2019 is a 15:16 touchdown-to-interception ratio from the quarterbacks. Ouch.
So the hope is that is where the improvement can start after using four different signal-callers this year. Once again there appear to be four different options for the position, but it's not clear who will be the starter.
Junior Andrew Brito is the quarterback with the most experience (six starts last season), but he isn't even listed on the first depth chart distributed by the team. So whoever gets the call — senior Mike Fallon, redshirt sophomore Josiah Johnson and freshman Will Koch are listed in that order — will be making their first collegiate start on Saturday.
Unfortunately, whoever is in at quarterback won't be handing the ball off to running back Bilal Ally. After leading the Minutemen with 853 rushing yards and seven touchdowns, Ally entered the transfer portal, one of several players to depart the program.
Instead, UMass could turn to wide receiver Cam Roberson, who finished second on the team with 355 yards on the ground, to lead the running game. Junior college transfer Ellis Merriweather is another option and offers more size (6-2, 227) as a ball carrier.
The Minutemen return a little more experience at receiver with three of the top four targets from 2019 returning. Jermaine "OC" Johnson Jr. (37 rec., 272 yds., 2 TDs) and Zak Simon (32, 355, 2) figure to be the top options, although it comes down to quarterback play.
Georgia Southern's defense has done a decent job in the early going, faring better against the run (124 ypg allowed, first in Sun Belt) compared to the pass (287 ypg, 8th). The Eagles have limited teams on third down (38.5 percent) but have generated just one turnover in three games. If UMass can protect the ball (finished with a +1 turnover margin last season), the Minutemen could have some success on offense, although rust is to be expected given the long layoff and unsettled depth chart.
When Georgia Southern Has the Ball
Run all day seems to be the mantra of the Eagles. Take for instance last week when they put up 340 rushing yards against 29 through the air. That's ultra-conservative football.
But that attack should play well against a UMass defense that finished dead last (out of 130 teams) in the nation last season in total, scoring and rushing defense. On the ground alone, the Minutemen yielded nearly 3,600 rushing yards in 2019. That was 479 yards more than the next team on the list (New Mexico State). UMass also surrendered 50 rushing touchdowns.
That's not a good sign entering a game against a team that's currently fourth in the country at 272 rushing yards per game. J.D. King seems to be the No. 1 ground-gainer these days as the senior running back popped off a career-high 196 yards last week and is 11th nationally with 370 rushing on 63 carries (5.9 ypc). As a team, Georgia Southern is averaging 5.4 yards per rushing attempt.
Not surprisingly, quarterback Shai Werts can make things happen with his legs too. The senior is second on the team with 221 yards on 31 carries (7.1 ypc). When Werts is asked to go to the air — 21-of-39 for 337 yards, 2 TDs, INT — he's connected with 11 different receivers, but sophomore Khaleb Hood (5 rec., 59 yds. TD) is the only one who has caught more than three passes thus far.
Fellow wideout NaJee Thompson has yet to record a reception this season, but he's making his mark on special teams. With two blocked punts — one that was recovered for a TD — in the win over ULM, Thompson tied James Williams (1993) for the most in a game in program history.
UMass should be but a speed bump for a Georgia Southern whose lone loss so far came against a ranked team on a last-second, long-range field goal. Next up for the Eagles is a home game against a Minutemen team looking to shake off a lot of rust and that was the worst in the nation last year against the run, which plays right into Georgia Southern's hands.
Maybe, though, UMass will show plenty of fight and desire and maybe even have a few tricks up its sleeve, given it could be the Minutemen's one and only game of the year.
"We understand we could be hit with a whole bunch of random things — that being trick plays to going for it on fourth-and-long," Georgia Southern defensive end Raymond Johnson III, who sports a team-high two sacks on the season, told the Augusta Chronicle. "With games like this, you got to expect anything."
That may be true but the Eagles should be able to take care of business at home fairly easily against a team that went 1-11 last year.
Prediction: Georgia Southern 44, UMass 7
(Jermaine Johnson Jr. photo by Chris Evans/UMass Athletics)