UMass forecast: Overcast, gradual clearing


Previewing the 2014 season for new (old) coach Mark Whipple and the Minutemen:

Massachusetts Minutemen

Coach: Mark Whipple (first FBS season at UMass; 121-59 overall, 49-26 at UMass)

2013 record: 1-11 (1-7 in Mid-American Conference)

Key losses: TE Rob Blanchflower, OL Anthony Dima

Key returnees: QB A.J. Doyle, RB Jamal Wilson, C Matt Sparks, WR Tajae Sharpe, LB Stanley Andre, DB Trey Dudley-Giles

Newcomer to watch: Mark Whipple. In his first season in Amherst, Whipple led the Minutemen to the mountaintop and won a national title. In his first season back in Amherst, after more than a decade away from the program -- which has since been elevated to the FBS from the FCS -- that included stops in the NFL (as an assistant with Pittsburgh, Philadelphia and Cleveland) and a stint at Miami, expectations aren’t quite that high.

But with the institutional memories Whipple and his staff -- he hired former star Minutemen Liam Coen and Marcel Shipp as assistants -- evoke, they’re high, nonetheless.

Can Whipple whip a team that went 1-11 in each of the previous two seasons into shape and start to turn that record around?

Biggest games in 2014: vs. Boston College, Aug. 30; at Penn State, Sept. 20; vs. Bowling Green, Sept. 27

Biggest question mark heading into 2014: Can the Minutemen get a little home cooking?

After two years of playing all its home games at cavernous Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, UMass will bring football back to Amherst this fall with three home dates in newly renovated McGuirk Stadium.

The Minutemen will still call the Patriots’ home their own for three games -- the season opener against Boston College and matchups with Colorado and Eastern Michigan -- but the hope is fans who never warmed to the long drive to Foxborough to sit in a half- or one-third-filled stadium will return to McGuirk and give UMass something it hasn’t had in years: a real home-field advantage.

Whether or not that translates to more wins -- the Minutemen won just once at home in the past two seasons -- remains to be seen, but it certainly couldn’t hurt.

Forecast: Overcast, with clouds gradually clearing.

Though the record is what it is, the Minutemen were a few plays away -- losing by one twice, to Western Michigan and Akron -- from two more wins in 2013. And UMass will return its leading receiver (Tajae Sharpe) and leading rusher (Jamal Wilson) from last season.

(A.J. Doyle led the Minutemen in passing last season, but Whipple named Marshall transfer Blake Frohnapfel the starter for the opener.)

So it doesn’t take an overactive imagination to see Whipple’s squad winning more than a single game in 2014.

But the schedule, especially early, is daunting. UMass opens with games against Boston College and Colorado (not exactly powerhouses, but big-conference competitors) at Gillette, then hits the road for games against Vanderbilt and Penn State.

The Minutemen could easily be 0-4 when they open MAC play, and the first game of conference competition won’t be a cakewalk, either, as Bowling Green (10-4 in 2013) comes to Amherst.

It is unrealistic to expect Whipple to have turned the program completely around since he was hired in January, and the long-term future of UMass as an FBS program is up in the air -- the school rejected full membership in the MAC in March, and so must leave the conference after 2015 for parts as yet unknown.

The best-case scenario for UMass in Year 1 of Term 2 under Whipple is probably a third straight losing season, but one that demonstrates the program has a clearly defined, and positive, direction.

Jack McCluskey is an editor for ESPN.com and a frequent contributor to ESPNBoston.com. Follow him on Twitter @jack_mccluskey.